Beyond the Buzz Words: Highlights from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Conference

Buzzwords …Game-changing …..Paradigm shifts….Disruption…Innovation….Technology in the Classroom….MOOCs….Massive Open Online Courses…..Student-centered….

I attended the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario [HEQCO] two-day conference “Re-thinking higher ed Beyond the Buzzwords” last week on November 7 and 8th. The conference made the journey north to Toronto worthwhile; the keynote presentations were outstanding, each provided a unique perspective on the future and potential of higher education, as did the concurrent sessions.

The conference was introspective, forward-thinking, and uncluttered. Acknowledging the buzzwords upfront, putting them on the table had the effect of clearing the air. It felt similar to peeling back the top layers of an onion—allowing participants to get to the core discussions on the issues facing higher ed.

BtheB_Banner_ENGKeynotes of the Conference
The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, a graduate of Harvard University, long-time educator and supporter of higher education, opened the conference. Another, Dr. David Helfand, physicist and professor of Columbia University described Quest University—an unconventional model for a new liberal arts university based in British Columbia during Thursday’s lunchtime keynote. And Da Hsuan Feng, Senior Vice President, Tsing Hua University delivered a presentation The Ascension of Asia-Pacific Higher Education on the rise and rapid expansion of universities in Asia [which will likely affect Western education institutions in the very near future].

Highlights of Keynotes:
Opening Keynote
Governor Johnston has a deep passion for education; he started as a professor of law, become a dean, then vice-chancellor of McGill University, and finally a president of the University of Waterloo in Canada. Highlights his advice to educators and administrators:
1. Reach out to other educators within and outside the institution
2. To department heads: encourage work and collaboration with outside institutions
3. Reach out to other countries—make connections outside of one’s institution
4. Leverage technologies
5. Create chaos in classroom stimulate students to think beyond the credential

Day One: Lunch Keynote
David Helfand is former president of the American Astronomical Society, an astronomy professor of  Columbia University [currently on leave], and is now the president and vice-chancellor of Quest University—Canada’s first independent, not-for-profit university founded in 2002.

Quest University’s foundation academic program built around a block system.

Helfand described how Quest University began, which was with a blank piece of paper. A new model for a 21st century university, created for today’s multi-tasking, connected student.
1. Goal of QuestU: create most engaging undergraduate education
2. Structure: Quest in stark contrast to traditional university—it has no departments, professors are called  tutors—every class sits around a table with a maximum of 21 students. There are no majors.
3. Curriculum: Liberal arts education, all students complete the same 16 courses. Each student picks a question to solve and takes two years to research, analyze  and present the problem as a capstone project that is delivered to a panel in his or her fourth year.  Based on Colorado college, block system. Take courses in a series. Students have one month to explore one subject—are able to delve deep into each topic.

Day Two: Lunch Keynote
Dr. Da Hsuan Feng of National Tsing Hua University gave a compelling talk on the emergence and future of Asian Universities. This talk was quite incredible, requiring a post all its own, though in summary intellectual courage and academic agility were its core themes.

Session Themes
Technology in the classroom
The skills gap—perception or reality?
New graduates in workplace
New models for higher education

Concurrent sessions were run as panel discussions on topics specific to higher education with selection of individuals to provide a breadth of perspective that included faculty, employers, students and administrators, addressing pressing topics in higher education.

Though the conference presenters and participants were primarily represented by Canadian institutions and organizations, there were a numerous faculty, administrators and journalists from the United States. Though there are cultural differences between Canada and USA’s higher ed systems, viewing challenges from another’s perspective proved to be instructive. Over the next couple of posts I’ll delve into at least two of the themes that may be of interest to readers, though I’ve highlighted key takeaways.

1. Institutions and its educators will need to be academically agile and intellectually courageous to thrive in the current climate of change and digital chaos.
2. New and innovative models of higher education will emerge in response to the pent-up demand for life-long education.
3. More pathways to alternative forms of higher education will develop, offering accessible and viable options of education for post-secondary students.
4. Education institutions in North America will change in ways yet to be determined as universities in Asia and other parts of the world grow, expand and educate millions of students.

Further Reading:

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Buzz Words: Highlights from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Conference

  1. I just noticed a little error RE: Quest University, we do receive grades. It has definitely been talked about, but I think there are two reasons why they still grade:

    1.) Quest is already doing so many things differently and are often met with confusion and misunderstanding that they thought it would be better to keep the grades.

    2.) Also, we have lots of alumni going on to grad schools, from med school to engineering etc., so it makes it MUCH easier to apply for further education

    BUT, students have the option of taking x number of classes pass fail, or getting narrative feedback and never seeing their grade until the end of the class so they can focus on the comments and feedback rather than just the grade.

    The efficacy of grades is a great discussion question to explore though!


    1. Hi Caitlin,
      Thanks so much for posting a note about this and highlighting the error. I was going on the talk given by the head of Quest University delivered at the conference as mentioned in the post. I can see why Quest chose to stick with the grades; other universities would struggle with this approach, given it’s so new. However things are changing in the higher education world as some schools are moving towards a competency approach which does not always align with traditional grading methods.

      How would you describe your education experience at Quest?

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. Debbie


      1. Haha, what a great question. I could answer forever though, seriously. There are so many different aspects to comment on, and the success of each student is also dependent on their personal attitudes and ability to rise up in the face of challenge or embarrassing moments in front of our intimate community (like when I totally messed up a speech for a residence assistant election in front of all of my colleagues at Quest when I was at the end of my 1st year—I ran for elections at the end of my 3rd year for redemption and am currently an RA! But some people would sulk and retreat in that situation, and I did for a while, but different reasons—not sure if they’re Quest related— led me to rise up to the challenge later on).

        There are so many different things to talk about, the academics, the social/community aspect, the risk of standing behind a new way of doing things etc.

        For academics:
        – When I first arrived, I was very nervous public speaking, and so were many of my peers, but in my fourth year, it is a breeze!! I’ve got a routine down, I know what works and doesn’t work for me and again, I have practiced enough to get myself to rise up rather than retreat in such uncomfortable situations. This is a similar experience for many of my peers in the same academic year. Thinking clearly while on the spot is very important to me in a world where you often only get a short chance to prove yourself to a potential employer or investor etc.

        – Critical thinking: I think this is another change that is fairly uniform with my peers. Most of us take everything we read or hear with a grain of salt—which is surprisingly rare in the general populace. We learn to question motives or claims people make—to the point that many often go mad for a little bit because they finally realized that you can never know whether something actually is true. Another thing I was really thankful for learning, but only happened in my 4th year in a development class taught by a St. John’s graduate, and in a Social Innovation class, was to dig deeper for “the root cause”. Be careful of your bias towards certain “solutions”, because they may just be putting a bandaid symptoms of a deeper problem, and you will always have to spend time and resources on applying that bandaid if you never focus on the “real issue at heart”. That development was a fun and extremely challenging course!

        -Level of academic rigour: That’s the other thing about Quest that I like. I like challenge, and I like to feel like I am learning, and that I can be expected to perform at a high quality. Most classes here are like that, but sometimes there are other students or new tutors who don’t understand how to do that yet. But every student that I have talked to who has gone to one of our partner schools—most of them are not on the block plan— have all said that they felt like they were on vacation and that they realized that Quest was definitely for them because if they went to a traditional university they would probably skip classes more often than not because, one, they could and two, they didn’t find that class/lecture time was useful. The only other sister school that may be similar in academic standards is Colorado College, which is also on the Block Plan.

        My fingers are tired and I have to get to work, but if you have more questions I’d be happy to answer them over the phone, or if you are really curious—you should come up here and talk to all the students! We have a “Preview Day” for prospective students and their family on Saturday March 15th. You can sample a class, talk to students, go on a tour etc.

        Sorry I have to dash!



        1. Hi Caitlin,
          I am impressed! First that you were so perseverant in your seeking the position of resident assistant. This shows character, though my guess is you had this before you began your studies at Quest, but from what you describe, the school has developed your communication skills [quite well considering your responses on this blog] and allowed you to grow academically and personally.

          Thank you for the invitation to come visit your school; if I didn’t have the plans that I do, I would come for sure. But I would love to talk to you phone or Skype about your school experience at some point – I would like to do a feature post on alternative higher education experiences. Let me know a convenient day and time [perhaps provide a few options]. I will fit into your schedule.

          Thank you for your response Caitlin; I know that readers will benefit greatly by reading about your experience.

          Warm regards, Debbie


  2. Reblogged this on researcheire and commented:
    Quest University and ‘A new model for a 21st century university’ is a very interesting read, particularly from a Humanities perspective…..wondering about the organizational implications here….


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