The 21st century learning environment has shifted away from old educational structures; rather than following the model of traditional classrooms and curricula, the contemporary learning environment utilizes a number of new pedagogical approaches such as online learning, inquiry-based learning, and problem-based learning. These evolutions can be found across numerous educational structures, and they improve two key aspects of a student’s post-secondary experience: accessibility and quality.
On Accessibility –
The current employment climate is indubitably beneficial for those who have had the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education; many employment – or even internship – opportunities are offered exclusively to post-secondary students or recent graduates. However, there are a number of inhibiting factors that limit the accessibility of post-secondary education to prospective students. First, the costs of post-secondary programming are quite extensive: in addition to the base tuition fee, students are often expected to purchase textbooks and supplementary educational resources for their coursework. The question of affordability has been widely discussed, with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives declaring Ontario one of the “least affordable provinces in which to study for low- and middle-income families.” Accessibility is further diminished by scheduling constraints and geographical restrictions. For many students in Ontario, the high cost of a university education necessitates a steady job during the school year, hence the time constraints. To a degree, it can also be argued that geographical restrictions exist for post-secondary students if their workplace or home is a notable distance away from the post-secondary program of their choice, particularly if they have strong family ties or considerable moving expenses.
Recent developments in online learning have alleviated post-secondary accessibility issues. For example, the past few years have seen exponential growth in the availability of MOOCs, also known as Massive Open Online Courses. Offered by services such as edX and Coursera, MOOCs are a fantastic resource, whether one is taking the course out of interest or with the purpose of academic advancement. While it is possible to take MOOC courses cost-free from a range of educational institutions, issued certificates of completion are also available for purchase. Moreover, post-secondary institutions are now offering an increased number of online courses to their students, granting flexibility to those with scheduling and geographic concerns. Further attempts have also been made to tackle the growing financial toll of post-secondary education with the establishment of ‘open educational resources.’ British Columbia is one province that has led the way on the OER initiative, founding BCcampus as a platform for “developing and sharing educational resources and expertise” on the provincial stage through endeavours such as Canada’s first government-funded open textbook project.
Digital resources and even digital classrooms are innovations that can be leveraged to enhance accessibility to higher education in the 21st century.
On Quality –
Beginning in the 20th century, philosophers of education generated a series of critiques of traditional education. John Dewey, one of the foremost educational progressivists of his time, writes in Experience and Education that the curriculum in a traditional education is removed from the students’ lived experience; as such, it fails to create students that are engaged and motivated. This occurs due to two key aspects of traditional pedagogy. First, traditional education often emphasizes memorization in learning rather than understanding, and rewards those who are capable of reproducing information. Second, the traditional curriculum is structured in such a way that both the problem and solution are presented to the student without actively engaging them in the process. Other educational theorists share Dewey’s concerns.
Two pedagogies have been posited as potential solutions to these concerns: problem-based and inquiry-based learning. Both pedagogies encourage the development of students as active participants in their learning; by implementing an inquiry-based approach, students tend to become more independent learners and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the problem that they are attempting to solve. Problem-based learning is also beneficial to the student because unlike the traditional lecture setting, student have the opportunity to engage in self-directed learning and develop problem-solving skills and tools.
Moving forward, the 21st century classroom is better positioned to overcome the shortcomings in traditional teaching styles. By making use of new kinds of learning, a student of the modern classroom can be more engaged, self-directed, and more experienced. If combined with the potential access advantages of digital learning, the university sector can produce more students who are more meaningfully educated than ever before.
External Advocacy Coordinator, Alma Mater Society of Queen’s University (AMS)