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21st-century learning

Preparing students for success in a rapidly changing world

special feature: Future NL

Part of a special feature focusing on how the Memorial community is contributing to the direction of Newfoundland and Labrador.


By Courtenay Alcock

Around the globe, universities are grappling with a common challenge.

The world in which students learn is changing at a rapid pace: the nature of the challenges we face as a society are becoming more complex; revolutions in areas such as artificial intelligence and global climate change are in full swing; and the speed of innovation is continually increasing.

From left are Dr. Gavan Watson, Jennifer Browne and Dr. Isabelle Dostaler.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Adapting to change

While these shifts are occurring around the world, there is an undercurrent rippling throughout academia to understand how we can better prepare students for learning in this 21st century.

Dr. Gavan Watson, associate vice-president, teaching and learning, and director, Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, says the needs of learners are changing because the nature of the workplace is changing.

“It’s a challenging task to ask a student, over the duration of a university program, to anticipate the kinds of changes they will need to adapt to over the next 20 years,” he said.

“We have to think about how we’re building skills so that learners know how to learn. They’re going to have to iterate a lot faster throughout their lifetimes, and we need to be thinking about how this institution can help that iterative process.”

Jennifer Browne, associate director, Student Life, is honing in on these shifts to gain a better understanding of how Memorial will need to respond to meet student needs.

“More than likely our graduates are going to need to reinvent themselves at times over their working lives.” – Jennifer Browne

Earlier this month she was invited to attend the Global Career Services Summit in Toronto, which gathers together thought leaders from universities and colleges around the globe to focus on the ever-changing world of career services.

“Sixteen countries were represented at the summit this year, and what’s interesting is that a lot of what we’re talking about at Memorial is what’s being talked about around the world,” Ms. Browne said. “It’s not unique to us. We are all having similar conversations.”

Ms. Browne agrees that learners will need skills to adapt to the future of work, which is anticipated to evolve and change more quickly than the past.

“More than likely our graduates are going to need to reinvent themselves at times over their working lives – as technology changes, as opportunities evolve. We need to prepare students as best we can so they can take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves.”

Real world experiences

One way that Memorial is addressing the changing needs of learners is the call for greater integration of collaborative, interdisciplinary and experiential learning initiatives in the renewed Teaching and Learning Framework.

“The university is a focal point for a very diverse community where we can have rich exchanges between people who have totally different points of view,” said Dr. Isabelle Dostaler, dean, Faculty of Business Administration.

“We need to provide opportunities to our students to get them as close as possible to the real world, and use our expertise and resources to help students understand the meaning of these real world experiences.”

While the university community is starting to come together to explore these ideas collectively, there are already initiatives underway that are answering the calls to action in the framework.

The Faculty of Business Administration, for example, is collaborating with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences on the joint master of employment relations program and with the School of Music on a new interdisciplinary program in music and business administration that will start in fall 2019.

“The Centre for Social Enterprise is a partnership . . . where we come together in innovative ways to help drive social innovation.” — Dr. Isabelle Dostaler

Beyond academic programming, they are partners in collaborative entities that have a focus on experiential learning.

“Memorial’s Centre for Entrepreneurship is a joint venture between us and the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and provides awesome experiential learning opportunities for students,” Dr. Dostaler said.

“Also, the Centre for Social Enterprise is a partnership we have with the schools of Music and Social Work, where we come together in innovative ways to help drive social innovation.”

Learning through reflection

Support units, such as Student Life, are also working to open doors for students to learning experiences outside the classroom.

For instance, since 2016 a collaborative, community-based project has brought together a variety of disciplines and support units on the development of a mobile application for hiking the East Coast Trail.

“There is a greater awareness that a student’s experience is not just in the classroom, and this is where I think we can address the changing needs of learners,” Ms. Browne said.

“We can work together so students are aware of the skills and competencies they’re gaining from their academic experience, but also from the rich experiences they’re having outside the classroom.”

A group of students gather around a table full of maps.
From left, students Matthew Blundon, Kyleigh Mercer, Justin Fitzgerald, Abby Ledwell, and Jenna Robertson translate maps of the East Coast Trail from English to German.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Student employment is one way that Memorial has historically provided co-curricular learning opportunities. In addition to developing transferable skills, these experiences allow students to explore career options or apply what they are learning in class to real work experience.

A reflection component was added to Memorial’s Undergraduate Career Experience Program (MUCEP) positions in 2005, which means students and employers are required to identify and discuss the skills students will receive in a position. At the end, they reflect back on whether they achieved those skills, or even gained others.

“This is the type of work that – if done intentionally and truly experiential with a reflection component – can be very valuable in creating awareness within the students of the skills and competencies they are gaining, and to be able to articulate that to employers or on a resumé.”

Dr. Watson believes that students are ultimately craving authentic learning experiences. One place we can start thinking about that is to focus on assessments.

“I can’t tell you outside of an educational experience where I’ve had to write a multiple-choice exam,” he said. “One clear way we can strengthen the educational experience for students is by thinking about our assessment methods and how we can adapt them so they allow students to demonstrate the kinds of competencies they’ll need to be successful as students, and as community members, employees and citizens.”

Future vision

As students progress through their academic career at Memorial, Dr. Watson believes we need to consider new opportunities to engage with students after they graduate.

“Typically, we have two primary touch points with students – as undergraduate and graduate students,” he said. But once they leave and begin their careers, many don’t want to come back for a full degree program that might take two or four years.

“We need to consider how we can invite learners back,” he continued. “There might be some focused, but deeply meaningful, learning that somebody wants to engage in, and that’s going to require some imagination on the institution’s part – to think about how we can support those kinds of learners.”

“There is responsibility on everyone’s part to engage in that partnership. Learning is social.” — Dr. Gavan Watson

In thinking about a future vision for teaching and learning at Memorial, Dr. Dostaler envisions students having a more broad, integrated connection to the university.

“If we focus on this idea of lifelong learning, of providing experiential learning opportunities for students and faculties coming together to offer joint programming, we will be offering our students the opportunity to connect not just with their faculty, but with the university as a whole.”

Ms. Browne agrees.

“I think the future teaching and learning model will be a blended one, with fewer silos, and students having a variety of experiences in and outside the classroom,” she said. “The opportunities we design for students will be integrated and will strengthen the outcomes for them as graduates.

“We never stop learning, we all continue to “upskill” and learn new technologies or techniques to do our jobs better,” she continued. “How do we, as an institution, meet the needs of a changing workforce so that our graduates continue to be competitive? We need to think about our role in that.”

Dr. Watson encourages the university community to consider the role we all play in helping to shape an engaged teaching and learning culture at Memorial.

“I want students to be seen more as partners in their learning experiences, not just consumers,” Dr. Watson said. “And there is responsibility on everyone’s part to engage in that partnership. Learning is social. If we can help make those social learning experiences rich and rewarding, then in some regards I think the rest will take care of itself.”


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