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No longer are we limited by the size and availability of a classroom; students who might not have been able to take a course can now access it, and if the subject lends itself to intensive focus, four months can now be concentrated into four weeks.
Digital tools also provide new possibilities for collaboration among professors who can pool their complementary forms of expertise. Cooperation across disciplinary boundaries is enabling universities to teach “wicked problem” courses on topics such as Human Rights and Human Wrongs, Environmental Change and our Future Planet, or Health Communication in a COVID-19 World.
And this attracts partners in the government, for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, who want to work with bright and creative young people to solve real-world problems. What they need are apprentice-researchers who are internet-savvy, socially connected and passionate about the future – the students of today.
Over the past few months, we have witnessed profound and important social change; the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement are creating a societal reset. Whether we are correcting long-standing structural inequities (informed by the social sciences, arts and law); creating new business models for a changing economy (in business); developing new platforms to connect with one another (in computer science engineering); or searching for treatments and cures for disease (in the sciences); universities and their students will be key to setting the new course for our society.
This will happen in class, and in the social and cultural life that is created when we gather young people together in a physical or online space. My kids, and my niece and nephew, will be part of it, on their campuses this fall.
The next few months are going to be challenging, of course. But students can draw on their unique perspectives, and the resilience they have cultivated since March. How the future unfolds is exactly why society needs recent graduates to be a part of what happens next.
Kevin Kee is Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa.