Reimagining education for a digital world

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much uncertainty into our lives, the sudden shift to working and learning online has made one thing clear: Canadians must get comfortable with rapidly advancing digital technologies — or risk being left behind.

Digital transformation that might have taken years to achieve is now, out of necessity, being undertaken in months, weeks or even days. Virtual platforms like Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Zoom have instantly become the new boardroom, classroom and community gathering space, and everyone needs to pivot and adjust at lightning speed.

At Toronto’s George Brown College, for example, the rapid change brought on by the pandemic accelerated our plans to enhance the digitization of programs and services. It’s turned a spotlight on next-generation methods of teaching and learning, like the virtual gaming simulations we use to help nursing students practise making clinical decisions in a safe, online environment. And it’s made us think creatively about how we deliver work-integrated learning opportunities.

But this is just the beginning in reimagining education.

As George Brown’s vice-president of strategy and innovation, I’m faced with many urgent questions: How can Canada’s polytechnic institutions continue to deliver industry-aligned, hands-on learning in the digital space? How can we not only survive this crisis, but actively grow and improve our services as a result? And how can we do so without leaving anyone behind?

This is a game-changing moment in the evolution of skills development in Canada. In order to ensure that Canadians develop the job skills our economy needs — including digital fluency and the ability to adapt to rapid change — we need a multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder approach that includes support from industry, government and the tech sector.

Working together is the only way to reimagine and redefine the future of post-secondary education.

This partnership mindset must also apply to the students we serve. In a world of on-demand services, post-secondary institutions need to engage learners in the way that works best for them — offering convenient, personalized learning experiences that are available anytime, anywhere.

We must adopt teaching methods and technology platforms that truly meet the needs of our learners — not just the newest, shiniest thing, but also the best thing. And as we make these changes, we need to listen to what our students are telling us about their experience — the good, the bad, the reaction GIFs — and use that feedback to continually improve.

But not all issues can be addressed at the post-secondary level. As many aspects of life have shifted online, we’ve seen a digital divide, with students and workers in rural areas limited by a lack of access to high-speed, broadband internet.

I was heartened to see the federal government commit in its throne speech to accelerating the Universal Broadband Fund and ensuring that all Canadians have access to high-speed internet. We’ll need this national level of support to ensure that everyone is able to participate in this digital world.

When I think about the long-term impacts of the pandemic, my biggest fear is not that it will shake up post-secondary education too much. What really keeps me up at night is worrying that, once the worst is behind us, we may be tempted to return to old ways of doing things.

But the way we did things yesterday is not right for tomorrow.

Previous generations of students couldn’t have imagined taking college courses via video conferencing or engaging in virtual simulations, just as they couldn’t have wrapped their heads around recently launched George Brown programs such as Service Robotics or Blockchain Development.

Education can, and must, evolve, just as the labour market has evolved. To do so, we require broad-based support that brings together multiple levels of government, industry partners and educators.

Together, we can help build a more innovative tomorrow — and put measures in place to ensure that nobody is left behind.

About the Author

Dr. Rick Huijbregts

At the time of publication, Rick Huijbregts was the Vice-President, Strategy & Innovation at George Brown College.