This op-ed was published in the National Post on April 14, 2020
By Steven Murphy, president of Ontario Tech University
The problems and challenges emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic have driven unprecedented levels of collaboration amongst government and Canada’s businesses, academic institutions, associations and entrepreneurs. Together, we’re pushing harder than ever to support research that betters people’s lives. In addition, we’re creating new manufacturing processes (rapid design and prototyping) to help in the production of much-needed ventilators and face shields (to name an obvious few).
In times like this, universities are well-positioned to make immediate and impactful contributions. Gone is the disconnected ivory tower. It’s time for tech-enabled modern universities operating in partnership with industry and government to play a major role in helping our communities grapple with a complex social issue. Research that builds upon scientific understanding can be rapidly deployed in times of need. What it means to be a university in 2020 is becoming increasingly different from only a generation ago. For an institution (the academy) so steeped in tradition, this is radical change.
Ontario Tech University is a prime example. We’re a community comprised of diverse and world-class researchers, committed faculty members utilizing technology to enhance the learning experience, and students who are driven and brimming with fresh ideas and solutions. Day after day we break down the stereotypes of stuffy post-secondary lecture halls, dusty textbooks and layers of theory. We work in high-tech labs, utilize technology in the classroom and online, and solve real-world problems. This powerful combination of innovation, knowledge and “can-do” attitude is now more critical than ever. On any given day we have more individuals from industry working on our campus than the hundreds of students we have in co-op and capstone projects with industry. Industry giants from Microsoft and General Motors to OPG and Google work in lock-step with our faculty and students. We’re all committed to answering daunting social challenges.
We’re also guided by a set of four essential, forward-thinking priorities that have proven more relevant today than perhaps even one month ago.
Tech with a conscience
At Ontario Tech we prioritize improving the lives of humans and the planet through the ethical application of innovation and technology, what we call “tech with a conscience.” This is reflected in our research, how we equip students for their future careers, and how we help others struggling to cope with changes caused by the pandemic. This approach, and our researchers’ responsiveness, has already led to a new study by Dr. Lindsay Malloy, developmental psychologist, who is examining how parents are talking to their children about the pandemic, and how they and their kids are thinking, feeling and behaving during this public-health crisis, in collaboration with other university partners.
Our Faculty of Education is a leader in tech-enabled learning and has been offering teachers support during this time of transition. Dr. Janette Hughes, Canada Research Chair in Technology and Pedagogy, and her research team in the STEAM3D Maker Lab, have jumped at the chance to help teachers prepare for what might be coming. They have launched a variety of teaching and learning sessions using the Google Meet video-conferencing platform. Teachers are already applying their learning as they introduce new online teaching to their students. To think of our institution as only Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) would be myopic compared with the myriad of talent we possess of international stature.
Partnerships and collaboration
Universities have an extensive network of research partners, and we have been cultivating and operationalizing ours just days into this pandemic to maximize societal impact. In under a week, Ontario Tech developed personal protective equipment (PPE) prototypes, utilized Health Canada-approved designs, and continues to work closely with such organizations as the Ontario Power Generation and the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association and its members to produce face masks and shields for Ontario health-care workers. Our work doesn’t end there: extensive work on ventilator solutions is in development, and we’re donating critical health-care supplies to the community. The partnerships and expertise help us to move quickly from ideas to action.
Our long-standing commitment to adapt to the ever-changing educational landscape has proven mission-critical in the last few weeks. We’ve transformed the learning experience and made sure no one is left behind. When all in-person classes were cancelled, Ontario Tech paused only for a day to pivot and transfer all course-work online, enabling students to continue the semester and keep plans for graduation and beyond in place. There isn’t one standard way to educate and we continue to evolve, reflected in adapting our grading in light of the pandemic, as well as in launching a new ‘first’ in Ontario later this spring: digital degrees for all our graduates, in addition to their standard parchments. Even if an in-person convocation is not possible this spring, our graduates will be ready to get started with their careers and begin making a difference.
A ‘sticky campus’
We’re finding new ways to connect, stay connected and take care of our campus community from a distance. Physical distancing has forced people to stay indoors, but our student services for academic, mental health and many others continue online in record numbers. Similarly, physical distancing didn’t stop Ontario Tech University’s March 28 Open House. Looking to give future students and applicants as much access and information as possible about our campus, the event was transformed into a digital, interactive Virtual Open House featuring video tours, live Google Meet presentations and chats with faculty, admissions officers, athletic teams and student ambassadors. We received record registration for our virtual event — exceeding what we normally see at a traditional in-person Open House —underscoring the essential need to engage with our future students. Being there to answer students’ questions at a time like this reassures them and demonstrates that the Ontario Tech community cares about their well-being and success. We must be nimble and technologically savvy to survive.
As we collectively continue to fight COVID-19, relevant and engaged universities like Ontario Tech will not only address immediate needs to ensure student success, they’ll also help the greater community adapt and cope with the new realities society faces. Like so many things in life, we may take things for granted until we really need them. Universities are an essential fabric in a dynamic and competitive Canada.
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