Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Dr. Daniel R. Woolf

Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Dr. Daniel R. Woolf

Principal and Vice-Chancellor

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University Presidents' Panel: The Future of Education

Principal Woolf talks about the future of education as a panel participant at The Empire Club of Canada, April 13, 2018. 


For many of you when you think back to your university or college days, a familiar scene probably pops into mind: a professor at the front of a class giving a lecture, maybe using the whiteboard or a chalkboard, perhaps a few slides or transparencies, and students furiously handwriting notes. There’s some question and answer, but mainly it was one person talking and others listening (for the most part).

Today, that picture is different and while lectures are still a part of the learning experience, they are fewer in number. Learning now happens by students accessing course material through an online learning management system, interacting with professors and fellow students in online discussions, and managing increasing amounts of group work to gain teamwork and collaboration skills as well as the knowledge gained through the course material.

Digital is turning the learning environment upside down—as it has for almost every other aspect of society. Not only how we teach has changed, but students’ expectations have changed as well as their learning styles. They are digital natives, much more information-literate and are accustomed to “learning by doing,” or experiential learning, as this is happening in education at all levels beginning in Kindergarten. Professors still transfer knowledge, but more and more that’s done through facilitation as opposed to strictly lecturing. Students are no longer passive learners—absorbing information, but are active learners. This is an important distinction because we need to create graduates that embrace lifelong learning as their education does not end once they earn their degree. To be successful in a career that will include many different jobs and disciplines, today’s students must accept that their training and education will continue throughout their lifetime.

We are seeing more and more adult learners at our institutions and are changing our curriculum and course delivery to meet the demands and needs of these kinds of students. Digital delivery and flexible classroom time over the weekend, or week-long residential programs to accommodate full-time work and busy schedules are becoming the norm for many different programs we offer. Also, program content is changing itself to reflect the needs of the new workplace. Data analytics, machine-learning and working with big data are all common themes we are seeing being woven into our curriculum across all disciplines. For instance, in September, Queen’s will welcome its first students in a new Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence, North America’s first graduate business degree in AI.

There is also an increasing emphasis on teaching ‘human skills’ sometimes called the ‘soft skills’ that will help graduates succeed. These are things like critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, teamwork, problem solving, organization and the like. More and more employers want to hire people not only for their technical skills but for how well they can demonstrate the soft skills. There is an emphasis on teaching these skills through experiential learning opportunities like co-op terms, internships and also participation in student government and clubs and societies. This is also happening within the course curriculum itself as students are often graded on how well they participated in group work and collaboration. Where universities need to improve is on measuring how these skills are being transferred and in ensuring these experiences are accessible to all students.

I’ll leave my opening comments there for now, and look forward to discussing this further when we get to questions.