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Era Of The Sage On The Stage Is Over: Meric Gertler, President of University of Toronto

Yatish Rajawat speaks with Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, an expert on Urbanization who has been working on reinventing how education is delivered at the University. Some of the issues discussed: how is higher education changing and what should Universities or institution of learning do to prepare for this change, why the design of classroom and teaching needs to change. How has the University of Toronto changed its approach to teaching, learning and skills.

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The academic world is the slowest in reinventing itself. Almost every Indian University and many foreign universities are stuck in a world that has changed. Academics with their deep reservoir of accumulated knowledge are slow at changing their framework of thinking. This affects not just their institutions but also the whole student community.

Yatish Rajawat, a senior journalist of BW Businessworld, speaks with Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, an expert on Urbanization who has been working on reinventing how education is delivered at the University. Some of the issues discussed: how is higher education changing and what should Universities or institution of learning do to prepare for this change, why the design of classroom and teaching needs to change. How has the University of Toronto changed its approach to teaching, learning and skills. Excerpts:

Yatish: As President of one of the larger or largest universities in the west. How do you see the three mega-trends shaping universities affecting higher education? The three trends are: one the ubiquitous availability of content and learning courses online, Second gap between skills and employability rising and third people are questioning the value of knowledge versus the value of the skill. In a Google world- knowledge is ubiquitous and easily available while skills need to be learnt. An electrical engineering graduate does not have the skills to wire a house. How do you see these three trends shaping universities and higher education per-se?

Meric: Well, these are great questions and they are questions that I think every day. Every educator today is preoccupied with them so let’s see where we can go with this. A lot has been said about how knowledge is becoming widely available so readily available it is already changing the way that education is taking place. And I think it is true, but maybe not quite in the way that most people imagine. If we were having this conversation two or three years ago we would be making predictions that online learning would replace all other forms of learning. And it is only a matter of time. Not if but when.

Now that we have had a few years of experience with online learning with MOOCs ( Massive Open Online Courses). And similar kinds of experiences we’ve come to realize two things: First of all that MOOCs are great substitutes for traditional forms of learning in certain circumstances. But more often they are great compliments to more traditional forms of learning. So, for example, we have come to realize how we can integrate online learning tools into our traditional teaching and learning methods. So that we can make classroom time more valuable by making it more interactive, more focused on problem-solving and small group learning experiences.

“We have come to realize how we can integrate online learning tools into our traditional teaching and learning methods. So that we can make classroom time more valuable by making it more interactive, more focused on problem-solving and small group learning experiences.”

It means that interactivity and active learning is extremely important. So you use your own time as a student to perhaps consume the basic content of the course through online modules that you might view on your own time. But when you come to class, not in college/ university time, but in my own time, I would be looking at it in the hostel or at home. Some people like to work late at night. Some people like to work early in the morning. The idea is that you can customize your learning experience using these online tools in a way that work with your personal habits best. But then that face-to-face experience becomes more valuable.

Yatish: The face to face experience becomes more valuable to do what exactly then?

Meric: Working with your professor or your graduate teaching assistant on using the knowledge of the course to solve actual problems and to address actual problems and doing it either individually or even better doing it in teams. 

Yatish: Two questions follow from that. Does that mean that the classroom is slowly steadily turning into a problem-solving area? Is teaching now more collaborative and team interactions, than in the past?

Meric: True.

Yatish: Therefore, the physical location of the classroom becomes increasingly important in terms of is it embedded in the problem or is it too far away from the problem?

Meric: Well it’s a great question and there are two ways of answering that; one is by looking at the actual physical structure of the classroom itself because of it actually 'the era of the sage-on-the-stage' as it has been called is over. A model around which most traditional classrooms have been physically designed. And that is, of course, being supplemented with this more interactive form of learning. It has forced us to ask ourselves how do we redesign a classroom so that you can switch from one format to-- a small group learning format to-- a much more interactive learning format. We’ve just recently built a fantastic new classroom in our new Myhal Center for Engineering and Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UFT.

Yatish: Tell us more about the redesign of this classroom that has been done?

Meric: It is our new Myhal Center for Engineering and Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UFT. Next door to the administration building at UFT. Just finished a couple of months ago. It looks like a traditional auditorium that accommodates 500 people with a stage and the audience seated facing the stage. But It can be switched to small round tables in the auditorium as they are on tiered levels they can kind of serve as a team-based interactive problem-solving mode.  It’s proven to be very successful. And people are coming from all over the world to look at this room. It’s also very nicely wired so that we can integrate the online material into the in-person teaching format seamlessly. So, that’s one of the method that teaching is evolving.

"It looks like a traditional auditorium that accommodates 500 people with a stage and the audience seated facing the stage. But It can be switched to small round tables in the auditorium as they are on tiered levels they can kind of serve as a team-based interactive problem-solving mode."

Yatish: Therefore, University of Toronto has fundamentally changed the design of a classroom?

Meric: Yeah, but the other thing that is changing where does learning occur? The advent of digital tools has helped us appreciate that learning needs to take place outside the classroom. Learning will work best when it is situated in a rich environment where there are real problems at hand, on your doorstop. Hence in an urban university like the University of Toronto which has got three campuses situated in the middle of the greater Toronto area. All of a sudden it’s realizing that it has these tremendous assets on its doorstep that is to say interesting problems of the city in neighbourhoods all around us. We have this great opportunity for our students and faculty to engage in active learning by addressing real problems in real locations in real time right next door. But also globally as well. And this is where we leverage our global networks.

"Learning will work best when it is situated in a rich environment where there are real problems at hand, on your doorstep. We have this great opportunity for our students and faculty to engage in active learning by addressing real problems in real locations in real time right next door."

Yatish: This is what we discussed almost a decade back in your office in Toronto when you talked about the Urbanization problem and the need for the university to tackle it? How do you consciously open up academicians to explore the problems in their nearby vicinity, instead of esoteric stuff halfway across the world?

Meric: Exactly. So the good news is that digital tools have forced us to look anew at things we used to take for granted. Where we are actually is tremendously important and tremendously valuable in providing a richer learning experience for students and also richer research opportunities for our faculty. We are now recognizing these really interesting topics that they can tackle in their own research. 

Well, I would say the academician needs to look at both the near and far problems it is not either or. But the first part is really important and the great opportunities nearby that we are fostering greater awareness of.

Yatish: Please share an example?

Meric: In Toronto, there is this very pressing need to expand the supply of affordable housing. To tackle this increasing affordability challenge. That a lot of people, not just the lower income class but even the middle- income families are facing. This is a problem that can be tackled by a professor of suburban planning and architecture who can approach this from a design perspective.

Yatish: Or just as a Civil engineering problem?

Meric: Yes, civil engineering perspective. It’s a problem of economist and management faculty. 

Yatish: Where do these facilities come do they come up where these families go to work to reduce the commute –

Meric: Exactly and then how you price these kinds of facilities.

Yatish: It can also be seen as a social problem how do you create the community which is complete and integrated and crime free…

Meric: Exactly right. So not only are these interesting and important problems to solve but here’s the other thing we’ve realized that if we can encourage more of our faculty and our students to work on these projects we do two things simultaneously; first, we make Toronto a more livable city. Second; we help ourselves as a university because the more livable we make Toronto the easier it is to attract and retain talented faculty, staff and students. So it’s a case of enlightened self-interest. And you know I’ve talked about this a lot around the university and pointed out to people why this is very much in our own interest and people have really responded.



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