Sheridan illustration students creating a visual representation of the insights of the day

Exploring New Ways of Thinking about Undergraduate Education

May 6, 2014

Approximately 150 delegates converged in downtown Toronto on May 1 and 2 to participate in “Creating the Future”. The interactive, two-day conference sparked dialogue about how to structure post-secondary education (PSE) to best serve Canada’s students while tackling the challenges of our times and responding to a shifting educational landscape.  The event was co-hosted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)/University of Toronto and Sheridan, with the findings visualized in real-time by students in Sheridan’s Bachelor of Illustration program. 

The event began with some reflections by the event’s co-hosts to help frame the discussion.  Dr. Jeff Zabudsky, President and CEO of Sheridan spoke about the evolution of PSE in Ontario. He highlighted the growth of universities in the post-war era, the creation of the college system, and the resulting increase in engagement and access.   Zabudsky challenged delegates to examine whether a model for education that is built on the historic solitudes of ‘college’ vs. ‘university’ still applies. He pointed to new breeds of institutions such as special purpose teaching universities and polytechnics. 

Dr. Tony Chambers, Chair, Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at OISE introduced the theme of innovation.  Chambers observed that today’s problems are complex and share three attributes: they are systemic, dynamic and non-linear. “The old won’t get us the new”, he said. “If you’re striving for innovation, you can’t do the same thing and expect different outcomes.” Chambers urged leaders to respond by thinking in ways that mirror the issues -- being systemic, dynamic and non-linear.

The morning session on May 1 featured a Presidents’ Panel of PSE leaders who shared lessons gleaned from the transformational changes they have witnessed ranging from the grand (weight-point score of degrees and ‘vocational liberalism’) down to the granular (scholarships and articulated values).

Dr. Ralph Nilson, President and Vice Chancellor, Vancouver Island University spoke of his institution’s transition to a university after serving the community as a college for 75 years.  Overcoming tension required a definition of and commitment to values, maintaining the focus on access and student success and embracing a concept he coined ‘vocational liberalism’.  VIU aggressively recruited the best crop of grade 12 students by offering scholarships and the chance to explore areas of interest outside their core topic so that students had flexibility and choice.  “There are 25 publicly-funded post-secondary institutions in BC.  We had to be innovative and find a space that could be ours, a space that we could define” he said.  “The concept of a linear approach is a complete fallacy in today’s world,” he added.

Dr. Mark Evered, President and Vice Chancellor, University of the Fraser Valley noted that community involvement was critical to his institution’s successful transformation to a university.   “Canada struggles with the notion that there is one model of what a university should look like,” said Evered. “Yet we all recognize that we face incredible challenges.  The whole business model is under threat just like the publishing, film and music industry before us. How do we respond when the facts are freely available?” For Evered, the answer lies in having scholars work closely with students and creating new vehicles to make education relevant and engaging – such as flipped classrooms, education that is on-demand/mobile-friendly, or opportunities to travel around the world to complete one’s education. He also urged delegates to be mindful that Canada needs institutions that can serve regional needs. “An important measure of our success should be the success of the communities we serve,” he said.  Evered applauded a recent, positive step at the systemic level, namely an ad hoc joint committee on which he serves, formed by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC) “to address common issues and find ways to bridge gaps”.

Dr. David Marshall, Past President of Mount Royal University and President Emeritus of Nipissing University suggested that institutions should be evaluated for the extent to which their credentials achieve their promised outcomes.  Marshall envisions a ‘weight-point score’ that measures the ability of a degree to take its holder to a job, further study or “contented enlightenment”.  Specific measures could include rates of employment or admission to graduate school, loan repayment levels, student satisfaction and retention, fourth year publications, and alumni and donor participation. Choosing the outcomes forces institutions to think about the framework they need to build.  He offered a checklist of 18 inputs for an undergraduate university that balance research, teaching and experiential learning.  Upholding traditions such as senates and academic freedom leads to engagement and richer learning, while tiered credentials (such as four-year, three-year, or applied degrees) create a system in which a person’s path can be limited by their income or social upbringing. He demonstrated that differentiation is possible by showing a graph that plotted institutions that have achieved both high scores for student satisfaction on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) while maintaining high research intensity, such as Guelph, Western, Waterloo and Victoria.

Dr. Glen Jones, Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement at OISE suggested that differentiation comes down to programming rather than structural diversity, which he said does not really exist in Ontario.  He stressed that the emphasis for any post-secondary institution must be on maintaining quality and access, which he noted was related to choices and options or “laddered credentials”. Jones noted that “colleges are needed because they tend to attract people of lower economic status. If you offer degrees, you give people the opportunity to access a higher credential than what they otherwise might have thought was possible.”

President's panel 

From left to right: Dr. Dave Marshall, Educator and Speaker, Past President of Mount Royal University;  Dr. Glen A. Jones, Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement, OISE / University of Toronto; Ralph Benmergui, Sheridan’s Executive Advisor to the President; Dr. Mark Evered, President and Vice Chancellor, University of the Fraser Valley; and Dr. Ralph Nilson, President and Vice-Chancellor, Vancouver Island University.


The remainder of Day One focused on the need for creativity, which was presented as a 21st century life skill and a pre-cursor to innovation whether applied to higher education or any field.  The delegates received a primer on creativity and spent the afternoon engaging in the issues outlined by the Presidents’ Panel and imagining new possibilities for PSE.

Dr. Gerard Puccio, Chair and Professor, International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State took the audience through some quick cognitive tests that proved how quickly the human mind establishes patterns and how hard it is to break them.  “If we’re working with traditions that our institutions have developed over hundreds of years, just imagine what that might do to limit our thinking.” Puccio pointed to a long list of published studies that recognize society’s constant pace of change as well as the need to unleash people’s creative potential and questioned how well post-secondary institutions prepare students for this reality.  He outlined the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) model used in the Master of Science degree offered at Buffalo State, which views creativity as an iterative, four-step, thought process that covers the stages of clarifying the problem, generating ideas, developing a workable solution, and implementation.  CPS separates our natural tendency to toggle rapidly between divergent and convergent thinking and jump to solutions.  “You get mental whiplash if you try to do both forms of thinking simultaneously – it’s like driving a car and pressing on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time” said Puccio. 

Two Creative Problem Solving sessions ensued to have delegates answer the question “In what ways might postsecondary education be transformed to meet the needs of the future?”  Session one clarified the problem by having delegates identify the major trends affecting PSE, the stakeholders with a vested interest, stumbling blocks faced by the sector, and metaphors from history, sports and entertainment that fit this period of transition.  Session two challenged participants to diverge and generate 100+ ideas at each table, through techniques such as forced connections and brain-writing. Ideas were clustered into categories and voted on for their potential to be immediately implemented or for their value as novel, longer-term ideas.  Delegates went ‘idea-shopping’ to learn what other groups proposed so they could complete an action plan to bring back to their home institutions.  Several ideas discussed were the elimination of grades, having students help set curriculum, being graded for how well one helps others to succeed, the requirement to work prior to beginning post-secondary studies, paying tuition after graduating and finding employment, allowing people to freely transfer between institutions and redesigning education around the scale of impact whether that be community, country or planet.

Sheridan illustration students creating a visual representation of the insights of the day 

A Bachelor of Illustration student from Sheridan captures ideas from Day 1 of the conference. 


Dr. Leesa Wheelahan, William G. Davis Chair in Community College Leadership at OISE reflected on the day noting parallels in Australia where her research focused on the relationship between universities and colleges (called Technology and Further Education Institutes or TAFEs).  “Sometimes we perpetuate the myth that those outside our institutions don’t understand our struggles,” said Wheelahan, who noted that people unfamiliar with our politics and issues like students or community members understand and care more than we think and can be mobilized. “For me the discussion really comes down to social justice – making sure that undergraduate students have the same access to opportunities regardless of the institution.” She noted that colleges will always be under scrutiny because their faculty have fewer PhDs and have tighter ties to industry which prompts concerns about academic freedom.  She suggested that “we need to challenge the ideas that people take for granted” noting that the discussions that took place at this conference will contribute to that outcome.

Creative problem-solving in action 

A facilitator leads a creative problem-solving session.


Day one ended with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Sheridan College and the Buffalo State International Center for Studies in Creativity which will lead to joint curriculum development and the appointment of Dr. Gerard Puccio as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Sheridan.

Day Two was structured as a symposium on undergraduate research and creative activities.  It began with a keynote address by Todd Hirsch, noted Canadian economist and co-author of “The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline”. Hirsch named land, labour and capital as three main, albeit fixed factors driving the economy, adding that the fourth – creativity – is unlimited. To be creative, Hirsch suggested that one must be able to view the world through different lenses, suggesting that post-secondary students gain experience by living or working in a foreign country. He also suggested that to be competitive, Canadian firms must embrace risk taking and failure as well as embed added value in their offerings.  Hirsch drew the distinction between invention, innovation and design suggesting they relate to the creation, application and improvement of existing technologies and noted that Canada needs all three.  He also stressed the need for collaboration, suggesting that “a person can have the greatest idea in the world, but if he can’t convince enough other people of its value, it will go nowhere.”

Todd Hirsch speaking 

Economist Todd Hirsch delivers the keynote address.


Three World Café Round Table Discussions followed, facilitated by Janice Francisco, Principal Consultant at BridgePoint Effect.  These generated dialogue on enhancing the benefit of undergraduate research for students, optimizing its value for industry and community partners and ensuring all students have access to real-world, problem-solving activities.  Ideas included ensuring that projects are inter-disciplinary, more clearly defining outcomes from the outset, better managing expectations of students, faculty and industry, making better use of advisory committees, engaging more non-profits as research clients, extending project timelines beyond the traditional 14-week period imposed by the credit system, and developing an online database where PSEs can view the research needs of companies and communities. The delegates agreed that in order for such recommendations to be useful, the voices of students and industry partners must be added.

World Cafe workshop  

Delegates discuss undergraduate research in roundtable discussions.


For the duration of the conference, a dozen undergraduate applied research and creative activities were on display including: an immersive video game created at George Brown College that teaches freelance journalists lifesaving techniques while working in combat zones;  research on pre-visualization, virtual production and post-production processes for the screen industries including 3D stereoscopic filmmaking by the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre (SIRT); and the expansion and testing of the LifeTimesTALK app- a product which runs on an iPad to facilitate reminiscence and conversation for older adults with dementia by the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research.

Applied research projects on display 

A delegate tests out an applied research project on display at the conference.


Speaker bios and the conference agenda may still be viewed on the conference website: The site will become a repository for video footage of the conference proceedings.  Twitter conversations about the conference can be viewed by searching #futurePSE.

About Sheridan
Sheridan is one of Canada’s leading postsecondary institutions, offering over 100 diploma, certificate, and bachelor degree programs in an environment that fosters innovation and creativity. Its aim is to become Ontario’s first university exclusively dedicated to undergraduate professional education – one that will be based on applied learning. The model also focuses on meeting university accreditation requirements so that Sheridan graduates have more pathways to the continued learning that will underscore their personal, career, and industry success.

About OISE

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE) is recognized as a global leader in initial and continuing teacher education, graduate programs in education and education research. OISE is the largest and most research-intensive faculty of education in Canada, and one of the largest in North America, ranking among the top 10 Faculties of Education in the world. Its faculty are committed to partnering with schools, communities, the non-profit sector and governments to understand what works in education and human development across the lifespan.

For more information, please contact:

Dayo Kefentse, Sheridan Communications and Government Relations Officer

T: 905 815-4182 or E:


Steve Robinson, OISE Director of Strategic Communications

T: 416-978-0008 or E:  

Cookies help us improve your website experience.
By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies.