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The New Learner
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The New Learner

How universities are reimagining the learner, redefining the student experience and learning as they go.

By Katie Chalmers-Brooks

Students expect more from their university education than ever before and their demands are as diverse as they are: from the senior citizens who want to keep learning over their lifetime to the high school grads who want to learn anytime, anywhere. Reading Week? It’s for changing the world, not partying on its beaches. Robotic professors are so out. Holograms are way in. Century-old institutions can’t help but feel the pressure to keep up, keep it fresh, keep it real—and keep their older and younger audiences engaged, energized and excited about education.

Lorraine Dale [BN/90, BSc(TS)/15] admits she didn’t expect to steal the spotlight during her University of Manitoba graduation ceremony that morning in May. The 75-year-old received a roar of applause while crossing the stage to accept her undergrad degree in textile sciences during spring convocation. Those packed into the Investors Group Athletic Centre saw Dale’s gray hair and cane and put their hands together for someone who dared go back to school with students one quarter her age. Their support brought Dale to tears.

“Honest to goodness I couldn’t believe that was for me,” she says, sitting in her den surrounded by books, including one from Reader’s Digest: How To Do Just About @nything On The Computer.

Dale is one of a growing number of seniors age 70-plus to earn a degree from the U of M; there have been 31 in the last decade. With no smart phone or laptop, her needs, skills and experience differ from those of her much younger classmates. A no-nonsense retired nurse with an easy smile and a love of sewing, Dale inched her way to her degree while soaking up electives like anthropology and nutrition. She got a great kick out of learning how to write a resumé.

The mysteries of the modern age—PowerPoint, USB technology and online research—didn’t stop Dale although she did require a lot of help from her grandkids. “There is so much that I don’t know and so much that I would like to know,” she says.

The student experience has transformed since 1961 when Dale first went to school to earn her nursing diploma. The Internet, globalization, Instagram, reality TV, texting, TedTalks…are reshaping the way students connect and learn (some even speculate their physical brains are changing). First up for universities to figure out? How will technology morph what has been the cornerstone of education for hundreds of years: the classroom.


Mid-conversation Pourang Irani lets it slip: he doesn’t carry a cell phone. Or any other mobile device for that matter.

Yet he’s the guy tasked with developing the cutting-edge interactive technology of the future, which, no doubt, will inform how tomorrow’s university students will use technology to learn.

“I’m not sure if I should tell you that,” admits the father of two, who juggles his time between being a Winnipeg family man and one of Canada’s top computer scientists. “It’s just too much distraction.”

Plus, being disconnected allows him to think bigger. “I want to be able to imagine what we can do when we don’t have these things,” he says.

“It keeps you young. Tomorrow you’re going to learn something else that’s new.” Lorraine Dale

A Canada Research Chair in Ubiquitous Analytics, Irani founded the U of M’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab where researchers time travel to map novel interactive systems.

From his campus office, he transports us into what might be the classroom of tomorrow. Imagine you walk into a lecture hall, put on a headset and—voila—you’re in Rome’s Coliseum and can not only see the battle carnage but also smell it. Or you extend your hand and—presto—a pumping human heart appears in the form of a hologram so you can study its anatomy in action.

It’s the type of futuristic fare that appeals to young students like Harley Bray, a 17-year-old recipient of a prestigious Schulich Leader Scholarship and an aspiring pediatrician. She’s headed to the U of M this fall.

“That would be very cool,” Bray says of the possibility of holograms in the classroom one day.

Irani defines cool technology as something that does magic.

“Magic,” he says, poetically, “is beautiful.”

How soon could virtual or augmented reality be commonplace in the classroom? “I don’t think we’re very far to be honest with you,” says the 40-year-old.

In his lifetime?

“It better be.”

These technologies have been brewing for the last two decades but only now are coming out of the lab. There is the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset for immersive games and movies soon to be marketed to consumers, the less sophisticated Google Cardboard which makes virtual reality as easy as putting your smart phone inside the cardboard headset and using its customized apps, and Microsoft’s HoloLens, touted as the first untethered, see-through holographic computer.

Irani’s team develops the tools that allow for this type of interaction. Already they’ve made it possible to navigate your mobile device without having to touch it and instead use a virtual finger. Keyboards, mice, even touch screens may go the way of the dot matrix printer.

But all this tech is about more than creating the next bell and whistle. These systems, Irani says, “facilitate decision-making anytime and anywhere.” Using Irani’s technology, students could simultaneously work individually and together as they project information from their screens into a shared space.

All of these technologies come together to form a different type of student experience, its appeal best summed up as the difference between a 3D movie and its two-dimensional counterpart.

“With [3D’s] sounds and winds and water splashing at me—I want to go back again. It’s a big experience,” Irani says.




Even if students will one day step foot into a classroom and walk into a virtual world, they’ll still want—and need—to explore the real world. “I think sometimes there is this perception of university as an ivory tower, as totally cut off from the real world, and in some respects that stereotype is based on some truth,” says David Mandzuk [BEd/79, MEd/87, PhD/94], dean of the Faculty of Education.

The notion that students float in a learning bubble has prompted a call for them to grab a pin—and their passport—and pop it. To not only engage with the wider world but travel to the other side of it, explore it, change it. Instead of spending Reading Week partying in Mexico, today’s learner wants to go there and build a school.

Students report returning from these international service-learning trips with fresh perspective.

“Many of them have talked to me about never looking at the world in the same way and being much more aware of their privilege than they ever were before,” says Mandzuk. “I think that’s huge.”

But can well-intending outsiders actually create positive change in just a few days? Mandzuk says universities grapple with this.

“There is a constant wave of groups of students from various places coming in and out,” he says. “Relationships are built and then they’re dissolved just as quickly as they were built and one has to wonder what the long-term effects are on a community.”

Mandzuk has joined forces with education deans Canada-wide to write an Accord on Internationalization in Education. The document is designed to help universities navigate this new and complicated territory. “We thought we could play a leading role in helping to shape international initiatives across the country,” he says.

When students land on the tarmac, are they emotionally ready to see, hear, smell, feel life in an Ethiopian slum? Students are chosen carefully for these missions and any trip needs to include debriefing and follow-up, says Mandzuk. “It can become very difficult if students aren’t prepared for what they’re about to experience.”

Students also want a taste of the real world when it comes to jobs. The University of Manitoba offers co-op programs so they can learn from mentors in their field. But when universities invite students to learn beyond campus borders, they can lose some control over the quality of the education. It can be a vulnerable place. Universities must take extra care. To be successful, instructors must connect on-the-job training with in-class theory so the latter doesn’t get lost.

“Theory and practice need to be seen as being mutually beneficial rather than mutually exclusive,” Mandzuk says.


When environment and geography instructor Lisa Ford explains wind pressure systems to her students, she shows them an example that bears a striking resemblance to Star Wars villain Jabba the Hutt.

“They’ll remember that,” she says.

At 36, Ford has won two Excellence in Teaching Awards at the U of M and insists the secret to engaging students circa 2015 comes down to a simple premise: keep it interesting. She remembers what it’s like to be a bored student.

“I had a few professors who spoke in monotone for hours and I struggled to stay awake and I told my parents, ‘I want to stab a pencil in my eye,’” Ford says.

The pencils may be less abundant nowadays but limitless are the options students have to keep themselves entertained when lectures lag. Ford competes for their attention, going up against diversions like Twitter and Snapchat. She admits she doesn’t know what her students are actually looking at on their laptops during class yet is hopeful this generation is better equipped to juggle distractions.

But the pull of social media also has its perks. It’ll be handy for Ford to have digital office hours through Facebook. And no matter how you connect with students, when it happens, it means a lot. “I had a student [about to graduate] who hugged me, crying, and told me I’m the best prof she ever had,” Ford says before adding, “We’re still Facebook friends.”


The U of M’s Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning is investigating whether the design of the physical classroom could be revamped to up the engagement factor. Would students actually retain more if teachers stood at the back of the class instead of the front? Could the placement of furniture really transform learning outcomes?

They partnered with alumna Johanna Hurme [BEnvD/99, MArch/02] of 5468796 Architecture to dream up a concept for an experimental classroom on campus where researchers will explore new ideas and redefine best practices. Hurme says she approached the challenge, dubbed the Sandbox Demonstration Project, with no preconceived notions. “You try to forget everything you know,” says Hurme. “It’s really us and them playing in the sandbox.”

And the toys to build the castle are inspired by another childhood favourite—Lego. Modules measuring up to 10 feet by 20 feet bend to shape the space and give researchers the flexibility to create different classroom configurations on the fly, housing technology and adapting to accommodate group discussions, student presentations or individual work. The room can morph from a wide-open environment to a smaller one-on-one space in which a student actually sits inside a module.

The concept is set to come to life by the end of the year. But the paint will never dry. “We’ll learn something new on a continual basis and adapt and shape it,” Hurme says.

“I had a few professors who spoke in monotone for hours. I told my parents, ‘I want to stab a pencil in my eye.’” Lisa Ford


With the world moving online, will there come a day when the physical classroom becomes obsolete?

Research shows that learning outcomes are similar whether a course is online or in-class, yet greater when you combine the two in a single, blended course, says Robert Lawson, who develops online courses campus-wide at the U of M.

He completed his own diploma in instructional design without stepping foot in a physical classroom. When teaching goes online, the professor becomes less of a teacher and more of a facilitator with students leading their own learning. The virtual workhorses—student blogs, peer reviews, discussion forums—support the movement known as “student-centred learning” and encourages curious minds to watch the accompanying YouTube video, post their comments on the class forum or do an online quiz.

Lawson suggests Canadian universities take their cue from South Korea, widely considered a leader in online learning and home to a national strategy, unlike Canada. In the Asian country, paper textbooks are now being phased out in their middle and high schools.

From 2013 to 2014, online enrolment at the U of M jumped 10 per cent. A third of students take at least one online course and many of them take up to three. “So, students are becoming blended or hybrid themselves,” says Gary Hepburn, dean of Extended Education. “They want to engage with the university differently at this point.”

The ease of online has opened doors. One U of M Indigenous literature course ran in real time with its counterpart at the University of St. Carlos in Brazil. “We had this international classroom,” says Lawson. “That was really exciting.”

But this ease has brought talk of new competition for the traditional university. Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) have made education accessible to people around the world, thousands at a time, for free. In fact, the U of M helped pioneer the world’s first MOOC. But they still have significant roadblocks to tackle, including: how do they become eligible for credit at top universities, and how do you do mass grading in the non-mathematical world of the humanities? “If there are over 10,000 people in the class, you really need an army of tutors to grade all of the essays,” says Lawson.


Increasingly, students are coming back to get more education to advance their career. They’re often juggling kids and work and want the flexibility of taking classes at midnight from home in their pajamas.

The number of degrees or certificates per student is also on the rise.

“There are people who have PhDs who are still taking courses,” Hepburn notes.

Here in Manitoba many of our older alumni are looking for robust lifelong learning opportunities and the U of M is set to launch a new series for graduates age 60-plus. Called the Seniors’ Alumni Learning for Life Program, the series will allow them to take part in sessions about pressing topics like climate change. (See sidebar for details.)

“The whole stereotype of a retiree who has gotten the gold watch and is in the rocking chair—I think that’s been burst wide open,” Hepburn says. “The seniors of today are go-getters.”

Education in the future will be increasingly customized, Hepburn predicts. “I think universities are going to have to sort out how to be responsive to students [of all ages].”

Dale is already pondering what her next course will be. (Maybe she’ll find herself in class with one of her six grandkids.)

“It keeps you young. It keeps you interested in the world around you,” she says. “It keeps you interested in life because you have a reason for being: tomorrow you’re going to learn something else that’s new.”

The desire to learn is a powerful force.

Some things never change.


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One comment on “The New Learner

  1. Trina

    I would love to see and U of M students spend time in Canada as well, spend quality time on a First Nation volunteering building youth centres, hockey rinks, baseball fields and help fundraise to purchase equipment. Imagine how inspired the youth in those communities would be?
    Many people continue to live in third world conditions here in Canada as well.

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