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How the COVID-19 crisis can help transform higher education: RBC

  • More than 2 million college and university students moved to on-line learning since March
  • While ‘Education Technology’ investment has grown 14x since 2010, only 16% of university and 12% of college students in Canada learned primarily online in 2019

A new world of possibilities has opened up for Canada’s post-secondary educational institutions since their campuses closed down due to COVID-19, according to a new discussion paper from RBC.

With more than two million college and university students learning on-line, and as many as 540,000 students completing their programs at a distance, the report’s author Andrew Schrumm urges post-secondary institutions to develop new learning models to provide students with greater flexibility in where, when and how they learn.

In the not too distant future, for instance, students may be able to choose from a menu of micro-credentials, online, on-campus and blended, college and university level courses from various institutions. These so-called “self-directed” programs are an effective way to develop job-ready skills for a fast-changing labour market.

“The swift shift to online learning demonstrates the amazing capacity of our post-secondary institutions to transform,” said Schrumm. “Students, faculty and administrators have gained new experiences and preferences that are unlikely to subside, even as the health crisis does. This space is ripe for innovation.”

Two steps are critical in making the shift to digital-based learning:

  • Colleges and universities must cultivate the scale needed to make online learning profitable. Collaborations across schools and levels of learning are needed to give students more choices and specializations.
  • An inclusive approach to alternative learning must be adopted. This can be achieved either through experiential learning or micro-credentials that provides students flexibility in how and where they obtain academic credits. At the same time, educators will need to integrate the tools of augmented reality and machine learning to personalize education to student’s unique learning pathways.

Big test still to come for colleges and universities

RBC anticipates there will be a much more competitive environment to attract students to campus post-pandemic. (This could represent a significant challenge for Canada as its post-secondary international student population contributes about $22 billion in GDP and about 11,000 new permanent residents annually.) As students around the world have demonstrated, their ability to learn from anywhere, institutions will need to show why their learning experience is different. 

Online education will be a key differentiator for schools, as it is borderless, scalable and untethered to the traditional academic calendar. However, prior to the crisis, half of Canadian post-secondary educational institutions said they lacked the resources and expertise to develop online learning. This challenge is more pronounced among smaller institutions.

Moreover, even as institutions of higher learning make the shift online, the report cites various other challenges that must be addressed. For instance, the online environment can struggle to develop socio-emotional skills such as active listening, speaking and critical thinking skills. RBC’s 2018 report, Humans Wanted, concluded that these skills will be in the highest demand by Canadian employers. Online instruction requires a different pedagogy than in-person learning to achieve the same learning outcomes, and to develop these human skills it needs to support various forms of social interaction.

Access to online learning is another concern. About one in four Canadian households in lower income categories use smartphones as their primary internet access. At the same time, roughly 10% of households -- mostly in rural areas -- lack reliable broadband internet. Indigenous students are over-represented in these categories. For students with accessibility concerns -- from auditory to vision to mobility – institutions may need to provide custom digital tools to ensure continuity in their learning.

“Our colleges and universities have taken the first steps to transform the student experience for the better,” said Schrumm. “There is every reason to believe they can build on their momentum to ensure our country thrives and prospers well into the future.”

About RBC
Royal Bank of Canada is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance. Our success comes from the 84,000+ employees who bring our vision, values and strategy to life so we can help our clients thrive and communities prosper. As Canada’s biggest bank, and one of the largest in the world based on market capitalization, we have a diversified business model with a focus on innovation and providing exceptional experiences to our 17 million clients in Canada, the U.S. and 34 other countries. Learn more at‎

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