Across Canada, governments are focused on ensuring the economy rebounds strongly, with job growth already showing encouraging signs of recovery. Although fiscal challenges remain, Canada’s colleges and universities responded with resilience and agility to the challenges of the pandemic.
What bold and creative steps could Canada take to leverage this pivotal moment? What opportunities could be seized? In asking these questions, we seek to build on Canada’s current success.
Canada is among the global leaders in reading and math in schools, according to the most recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) assessment. With more than 230 colleges, universities and polytechnics serving 2.15 million students and 40,000+ training providers, it is also an OECD leader in the percentage of young people aged 25-34 who hold a post-secondary qualification (73%). This is mainly due to the strength of Canada’s college system.
Here are five bold steps that would help position Canada as a learning superpower.
- CREATE OPEN LEARNING CANADA
Canadian learners take a global perspective when making their learning choices, with more than 660,000 choosing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) from Coursera, FutureLearn or edX in 2020.
In the 1990s, Australia created Open Learning Australia, which became Open Universities Australia in 2004. This non-profit is now the hub for 469 degrees and thousands of college and university courses. Canada has attempted several versions of this in the past — The Canadian Virtual University (2000-2019) being one example — but 2022 may be the year to do it right with real investment and focus.
Imagine a single search engine offering access to every online course anywhere in Canada with fast online registration and systematic pathways for credentials and transfer credit.
Imagine Canada’s fragmented system becoming much more integrated through an online portal capturing the estimated 80,000 – 100,000 online courses available for credit.
Imagine this portal becoming the vehicle to focus on the skills-based courses people need for employment, separating out those supported by industry and employers as enabling the development of skills they are seeking.
Imagine this portal being used to access learning opportunities by learners around the world.
With a strong focus on learning, reskilling and upskilling across all levels of government, this may be a good time for investment and development in a Canada-wide infrastructure for online learning.
- FUND A NATIONAL CENTRE FOR COMPETENCY AND KNOWLEDGE ASSESSMENT: ASSESSMENT-ONLY CREDENTIALS ON DEMAND
To receive a diploma or a degree, a student doesn’t always need to spend time in a classroom or attend a course online. What they need is to have their knowledge, skills and capabilities assessed on demand when they are ready to do so. How they came to know what they know or do what they can do matters less than the fact that they are able to demonstrate knowledge and skills.
Assessment-only credentials are growing as a feature of higher education systems around the world. Western Governors University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Southern New Hampshire and several other US institutions have embraced this approach, and the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand is working toward this option. In the UK, education assistants can now qualify as fully qualified teachers through an assessment-only route to teacher certification.
This is also a much more effective approach to the recognition of prior learning (RPL). Rather than chasing down transcripts, undertaking syllabus comparisons and comparing one course with another, simply ask for proof of capabilities.
Powerful platforms are emerging that facilitate this approach, and assessors can be found around the world, with their assessments validated by accredited validators.
Imagine a national centre for skills and capability assessment offering assessment on demand for all apprenticeships, skills-based learning and job-related skills.
Imagine this centre also offering assessments to those holding recognized foreign credentials requiring fast-track skills recognition.
- DEVELOP A NEW SKILLS AGENDA FOR CANADA
In any given quarter, Canada has about 470,000 job vacancies, and about 50,000 in any given month. The nature of work, the competencies required and the speed at which jobs shift all changed over the past decade — and Canada is falling behind. The nation’s productivity is low and competitiveness is declining. It’s time to fix the skills gap.
Several jurisdictions across Canada are working to reimagine and reinvent apprenticeship, with Ontario and Alberta leading the way. They need to because outcomes of the “old” approach are not good. Completion rates for the Canadian Red Seal trades range, for example, from a low of 35% (cook) to a high of 68% (boilermaker) with an average across all trades of 43%. Overall, the number of people seeking to become qualified in the trades is falling, although some trades are attracting growing numbers. In a typical year, Canada will certify about 52,300 people as having completed their apprenticeship. A growing proportion of these are female.
In addition to expanding the range of apprenticeships into fields like aerospace and logistics, fintech, cultural industries, tourism and hospitality and information technology, other ideas are emerging. One is to automatically link advanced apprenticeships with degrees so the time spent completing the requirements of an apprenticeship transfers automatically to a degree. The degreed apprentice exists in the UK, with the government paying two-thirds of the cost of the degree and the employer paying a third, enabling the student to study debt-free. With degreed apprenticeships in aerospace engineering, business, construction, IT and health services, many universities now offer this route to a degree.
Focus on Competencies
Another option is to end the requirements related to time and focus instead on competencies. The youngest person to qualify for the Microsoft Professional Certification was four years old; she demonstrated all the knowledge, skills and capabilities required for certification. Shifting from time to demonstrable mastery would accelerate completion. It would also mean that the college components of apprenticeship could be completed online through modules and could be taken at any time.
A third innovation would be to reduce the number of competencies required to complete an apprenticeship. The Canadian Red Seal Plumber specification involves more than 2,987 competency statements, for example. Few of these are formally assessed, and different assessment processes are used in different jurisdictions. The UK equivalent apprenticeship involves 990 competencies, all of which are assessed.
Strengthen Work-Based Learning
A fourth innovation would involve reshaping the approach to work-based learning, placement and internships. The Government of Canada intends to spend more than $960 million over three years to enable employers to hire students through the Canada Work Placement Program. Students spend between 12 and 16 weeks in a work placement to develop work-ready skills through mentoring, training, coaching and experiential learning. By refocusing this program on the development of measurable competencies, both job-specific and necessary soft skills, this program could be a game changer for Canada.
At the same time, it’s vital to boost literacy in this country. Literacy levels for 42% of Canadian workers are below what’s needed to build productivity and performance in the job they already have, never mind the next job for which they will apply.
The final innovation is to see apprenticeships and skills programs as national rather than provincial. Given our labour shortages and the dependency on immigration, mobility is key. More Red Seal apprenticeships and faster recognition of competencies earned in other jurisdictions around the world are key if Canada is to improve its productivity and competitiveness.
Imagine a focused use of the various government skills and resources to reimagine and accelerate a skills agenda that had a real impact and closed the skills gap.
Imagine anyone 15 or older being able to access skills assessments and identify the gap between the skills they have and those they need for the job they want — and then being able to close that gap through rapid access to on-demand micro-credentials.
Imagine a national portal for skills-based micro-credentials, all preapproved by employers.
Canada has an opportunity to use the present moment to be truly bold in this area.
- INITIATE A NEW APPROACH TO CREDENTIALS: THE END OF TIME RESTRAINTS
In 1893, when then-Harvard president Charles W. Eliot introduced the idea of the “credit hour,” time-based learning became the basis for funding and for managing teaching activities at colleges and universities. The Carnegie Foundation then reinforced this idea by offering faculty pensions only to those who adopted the “Carnegie Unit” — 120 hours per course — as part of its drive to industrialize the outputs of schools, colleges, and universities.
The underlying notions of “industrial efficiency” have changed dramatically since the Carnegie unit became the widespread model for faculty workload allocations and structuring of degrees in 1910. Although the Carnegie Foundation accepts the model is flawed, it continues to suggest that the benefits of standardization outweigh the alternatives.
Some provincial governments in Canada — Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick — are moving to outcome-based funding despite concerns about efficacy and the fact that the portion of the budget subject to these funding rules is small.
Now that access to content can be anytime and anywhere, there is a need to shift from time-based models to competency- and outcome-based models of what a certificate, diploma or degree look like. In 2012, many were pointing to competency- and outcome-based assessment, not time, as the key shift that needed to be made. But the Association of American Colleges and Universities said we need to take the time to review the growing body of evidence that may lead to the shift.
If this is to be the era of personalized learning, the shift must begin now.
Imagine a credential designed entirely around learning outcomes and capabilities rather than time spent in class.
Imagine courses of varying lengths, reflecting what needs to be known, understanding and the skills developed, with modular learning that can be stacked to form a block.
Imagine programs being designed around learning blocks that constitute a diploma or degree, some of which can be earned faster than others since not all degrees are equal.
It is time for our colleges and universities to be freed from the industrial model of the 1900s and allowed to use the knowledge economy models of the 21st century as the basis for program design.
- STRENGTHEN COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY INSTRUCTION: CERTIFY TEACHING
The idea that a university or college instructor can teach is based on her or his assumed expertise in an academic discipline, trade, or skill domain. This has persisted for many decades. Yet such unaccredited practice would not be tolerated in our elementary or secondary school systems nor in any of the certified professions. Teachers in these systems are required to demonstrate their competency to teach and to commit to a set of practice standards. Although many university and college instructors are gifted teachers, not all are, and some found adapting to the challenge of remote instruction difficult or impossible.
Instructional design and practices are in part intuitive (there is a lot of improvisation in both face-to-face instruction and online) and in part based on an expert body of knowledge and understanding of adult learning psychology, instructional analysis and the principles of design. In-depth knowledge of these principles and practices would have enabled a faster, smarter, and more effective response to the challenges of online and flexible teaching, new forms of assessment and new approaches to ensuring students were engaged in learning.
Demand for short courses focused on teaching online, such as Coursera’s Learning to Teach Online, FutureLearn’s Blended and Online Learning Design and the Commonwealth of Learning’s introduction to OER in online learning were all in high demand during the pandemic. So too were webinars on teaching, learning and assessment, and short videos and materials produced by many of the centres for teaching and learning at universities and colleges around the world.
But why, in 2022, must we depend on the curiosity of instructors? Is it time to require all new instructors to undertake certification in teaching, learning design and assessment? Is it time to suggest to all staff that certification to teach is a requirement of their work? Should it not be a requirement for all doctoral students intending to teach or seek a university appointment to complete such certification?
There are many examples of what this could look like. Harvard’s eight-week Higher Education Teaching Certificate (available online) presents one prototype as does the OntarioTech Certificate in University Teaching, UBC’s online teaching program, the University of Toronto’s Certificate in Effective University Instruction or that of the University of Calgary. There are also excellent programs focused on teaching online.
Imagine every instructor in a college or university skilled in a range of different assessment designs and practices.
Imagine every college and university instructor being fully aware of the opportunities in adopting open education resources and practices and leveraging them in their course design.
Imagine teams of instructors working collaboratively to share effective practices in their disciplines across the country.
Imagine new collaborations using their learning design experience to create simulations, AR/VR experiences and games for students in a variety of disciplines: health sciences, mathematics, history, environmental studies, education.
How different our learning systems would be!
2022: A YEAR OF OPPORTUNITY
With 2022 just a few weeks away, we can choose to make it a year of opportunity and change or to make it no different from any other year. We can choose optimism over pessimism, innovation over sameness. Given what 2020 and 2021 were like, it is time for optimism, innovation and bold thinking. A new year could mean new thinking and new ways of working.