Destination 2020: Preparing for the future of university education
A Dal-wide conversation on where the classroom goes next
Ryan McNutt - October 3, 2012
Call it disruption, call it change, call it whatever you want — it’s coming.
Change is something of a constant in an academic setting: new students every year, new generations of faculty, new courses, new teaching techniques, new technologies.
But these days it’s larger change that’s often the topic of conversation. It’s rare for a week to go by without some media discussion about how the evolving wants and needs of students, faculty, industry and society at large in the digital age threatens the way universities deliver courses and programs. (Case in point: CBC’s Sunday Edition documentary “The Big Disruption,” which aired last month.)
Carolyn Watters, Dalhousie’s vice-president academic and provost, says that these concerns are being felt across the university sector.
“The model of the programs we offer is largely still from the ‘50s, from individual courses to how degrees are built,” she says. “A professor who taught at a university in 1960 might not be all that surprised if he or she walked into a classroom today — maybe by the projector and the computers, sure, but perhaps not necessarily by the character of the lectures.”
Of course, innovation in courses and programs is hardly absent at Dal. (The unique Environment, Sustainability and Society program is a great case in point.) But Dr. Watters and her team are hoping to spark a much larger, more coordinated discussion about academic innovation, with an eye to preparing for the university education of 2020 and beyond.
Defining what matters most
The Academic Innovation initiative is one of Dal’s top strategic priorities for the months and years ahead. It will involve an extensive outreach across the Dal community and beyond, connecting with students, faculty, staff, alumni, industry and more. Its website, which launched this week, highlights just some of the efforts in academic innovation taking place across Dal, and offers resources and collaborative opportunities for faculties, departments and individual professors interested in exploring new ideas in delivering programs and courses.
Learn more: Academic Innovation
The project’s major kickoff event will be the Senate Forum on Undergraduate Education, titled "DALVision 2020," which takes place on November 13. Featuring World Café discussions, guest speakers and more, the forum has been scheduled on this year’s November Study Day (Halifax campuses) for a reason: so more students and faculty alike can play an active role, whether in person or following the discussion online. (The entire proceedings will be webcast.)
Learn more: DALVision 2020 Senate Forum website
“That will be the first opportunity for people to really get excited about this, and we’re hoping that as many as possible will follow along and take some time that day to think about some of the questions we’re asking,” says Dr. Watters. “We want people to let their imaginations take the lead.”
She explains that the first year of the Academic Innovation initiative is more about questions than answers: an exploration to identify the essential elements of a university education and the potential disruptions it faces in the immediate and long-term future: from technology, to changing student needs, to evolving pedagogy.
“We’re all excited about something, and we’re all anxious or frightened about something, but it’s time to actually try and address the questions. I’m not foolish enough to believe that we’ll ever fully know what it will look like in 2020, but we need to be focused out there, not just on next term or next year.”
Putting Dal in the driver’s seat
The initiative, to be led by Fiona Black in the Office of the Vice-President Academic, will include further events and sessions through the academic year: town halls, forums, sessions specifically for students, funding to support trial projects and more.
“Dalhousie is no stranger to carefully developing excellent academic programs,” says Dr. Black. “This is about a supportive structure for new conversations, reflections, stakeholder engagement and experimentation, one that encourages all our colleagues interested in academic evolution to take part. The enthusiasm of our faculty, staff and students bodes well for some lively debates.”
Dr. Watters is hesitant to speculate on what the initiative’s outcomes may look like: she wants them to come forth from the process. So while it’s easy to jump ahead to discussing ideas like differing classroom spaces, or more choose-your-own-path degrees, or better methods for distance learning, Dr. Watters says that the only way Dal can get to assessing those ideas is through a community-wide effort to identify the right questions to answer.
“We want people to be saying, ‘This is where we want to go,’ not just that ‘This is where we have to go,’” she says. “If we don’t take some ownership over the direction, we will be driven, and we may be driven to a spot where we struggle with the resources to make it happen. We need to be the ones in the driver’s seat, and there’s a place there for each and every member of the Dalhousie community.”
For more on Academic Innovation, visit the initiative’s new website.