Almost overnight, more than one billion students and nearly every school on the planet had to go online. In Canada, post-secondary institutions moved more than 2 million students online.

Many schools were caught off-guard and are struggling through this transition. A new RBC Thought Leadership report, The Future of Post-Secondary Education: On Campus Online and On Demand, found that Canadian institutions historically lacked the resources or expertise to fully develop online learning. In 2019, only about 16% of university and 12% of college students learned primarily online.

Other institutions have offered online education for years and are ready to seize this moment using the right tools, mindsets, and technologies.

John Baker is the founder of Waterloo-based D2L, a global software company that develops cloud-based learning management systems. He joined the RBC Disruptors podcast to talk about the mass disruption to education, what schools and institutions need to adapt, and how Canada can take advantage of this opportunity to lead the charge.

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Baker noted that the schools now thriving in the pandemic are those that were ready for fully online learning, that invested in their faculty and online tools and concepts.

“It’s not just simply putting up videos or lectures or running a meeting. It’s really thinking about how to use that medium differently,” he said.

Crucially, it’s not about transplanting classroom methods onto a screen, but designing ways to engage students digitally. This has been a focus for Athabasca University, Canada’s largest online university, said its president Neil Fassina, who also joined the podcast.

“When online learning is designed specifically for the engagement, the interaction of an online learner, we can actually create a space that is incredibly personalized, incredibly engaging and doesn’t duplicate, but actually replaces what one might come to see in a place-based classroom,” Fassina said.

The next few months will be critical for institutions and classrooms – from kindergarten to post-grad – as they prepare for the return of school in the fall. The future of learning promises to be a hybrid, if not completely online, experience.

So, how should educators prepare for that future? Here are five takeaways.

1. Support teachers.Many are not yet equipped or supported for this brave new world. They need time to develop a whole new skill set, and have the tools to turn online teaching into something magical.

2. Personalize the student experience.

UX or user experience is key to all digital innovation. Online education isn’t about video lectures. It’s not Zoom. It’s about creating a unique interaction between teacher and student — and between students — and using feedback loops, including data, to constantly improve.

3. Go global.

There is a huge opportunity for Canada to leverage our strength in education and scale our digital platforms on a global basis. We need to think global campuses and global partnerships.

4. Think skills.

We’re shifting from a credential based to a skills based economy — and human skills are at their core. Coming out of the pandemic, one of those human skills — resilience — will be more valuable than ever. And students are developing resilience through online learning, along with collaboration, communication and complex problem solving.

5. Always on.

The future of education will be online, on campus and on demand. There are social aspects of a traditional educational environment that are still valued, and in demand. The institutions that will thrive will figure out how to blend technology and socialization – and involve students in the process.

Read our latest report on the future of higher education and Canada’s opportunity to become a global player in online education.

The Future of Post-Secondary Education

Read Report


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada's leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization's research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don't live here but exert their influence from afar.

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