15 September 2011

The imperative to improve undergraduate education

An article in today's Globe and Mail offers some insight into undergraduate education at Canada's universities. For undergrads at Canada’s universities, a new way of learning presents a reported uncustomary "high degree of consensus among Canada’s universities about the need to focus on best practices in undergraduate experience,” according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada's Paul Davidson.

It is good that the universities are focusing on undergraduate education, as this is a core strength we need to shore up; the future of Canadian social and economic productivity demands a renewed commitment to supporting talent across the entire spectrum of education. It is interesting to note that the the AUCC is acknowledging that "15 years spent focusing on high-level research has left them unable to give many undergraduates the experience they expect." This includes, according to Patrick Deane, McMaster University president, meaningful contact with accessible professors, and varied types of learning such as co-operative and field opportunities, problem-based assignments, and chances to do undergraduate research or self-assigned study." It is noteworthy to point out that these are the hallmarks of college and polytechnics education. George Brown College in particular is focused on offering our students field education opportunities - working with our industry partners on applied research is one avenue we achieve this.

A concerted effort across the post secondary education spectrum to improve undergraduate education with a focus on developing the highly qualified and skilled talent we need across the entire work force is imperative. Articulating college and university programs, enabling the mobility of learners across institutions and provincial boundaries, and providing life long and life-wide opportunities to learn new skills are all positive steps toward modernizing Canada's approach to talent generation, retention, and application to society's needs. A key feature of the college system is a focus on outcomes based learning. To decry this as a form of corporatizing education is to abrogate our responsibility as educators to ensure that students can apply what they learn to their future work. Universities and colleges alike would do well to ensure students emerge from educational programs with a clear sense of what they can do to add value to our society. As I've noted here before, quoting John Godfrey: "The goal of education is to make people privately happy and publicly useful."

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