How can Universities Ensure We’re Providing Social Support?

In a recent Vancouver Sun Op-Ed, SFU President, Andrew Petter makes the compelling argument that universities are vital contributors to their communities, writing, “Canada’s public universities, colleges and institutes have an obligation, as well as an opportunity, to harness the instruments at our disposal to the greatest extent possible to benefit the communities we serve”. I, and many of my colleagues at institutions of higher education across Canada, could not agree more with this sentiment. The university of the future will absolutely have a strong role to play in creating the kind of communities that we all want to live in, and also in fostering the kinds of citizens who want to actively contribute to those communities for the good of all. I agree with Petter, and as an Ashoka U change leader and the program head of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads, I have seen this work firsthand. As a result of my work at a university that, like SFU, is pushing the boundaries of education, I can see that providing social support within community means changing the ways we deliver education, so that our raison d’etre in higher education is centered around the good of the communities we serve.

Ashoka logo
Ashoka’s mission is to create an “Everyone a Changemaker world” Universities can be part of this

Working at Royal Roads, I have seen the ways a university can contribute to our community: I’ve been consistently encouraged to put community service front and centre in our course activities, and I know my colleagues do the same. Through this approach, we are not simply showing students they can make change in their communities, but actually actively encouraging them to do so. For example, in my interdisciplinary theory class, I have students create an open online resource in which they use plain language to teach the material to the online community. This means our learning is no longer confined to the ivory tower, but shared widely with our community. As a changemaker at Royal Roads, I also have played an active role in embedding changemaking and social innovation into our Learning, Teaching and Research Model, the document that guides all scholarly activities at Royal Roads. This means that community service doesn’t just happen in one program or a single class in each program, but is built into the learning outcomes of all of our programs.

Students gather in groups on the front lawn of Royal Roads University
Students gather on the lawn at Royal Roads University. Photo from the RRU website:

As a program head at Royal Roads, I think I’m most struck by the leveling potential of initiatives that increase accessibility to education. For example, I’m very proud to work for an institution that offers a flexible admissions policy. This policy makes education accessible to people who may lack formal schooling but do possess exceptional work experience. Similarly, I’ve noticed the way blended or online academic programs allow universities to reach students who may not have the time or resources to attend school full time away from work, family or community.  I think that a side benefit of allowing students to stay with their work communities is that you can encourage them to apply their coursework to make change immediately and in the real world. To do this right takes a great deal of work, for both the student and the instructor, and is probably not compatible with a massive or depersonalized style of education that most people think of when they think about online learning. However, personal and attentive online learning really can create meaningful change that students can implement right away in their careers, volunteer work, or communities as a whole.

Institutions like Royal Roads were established to be different. We offer interdisciplinary programming, and relevant, practical degree, diploma and certificate programs. We were also recognized as a Changemaker campus this year by AshokaU: An initiative of the Ashoka network, which is the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs. For many other universities to benefit the communities they serve, as Petter suggests, they will need to begin to rethink the ways they engage with their students, from admission through to delivery methods and even learning outcomes. Traditional lecture and test styles of university instruction are not equipped to deliver the skills nor the support to students needed in order to grow systems thinking, social innovation, or community orientation. Instead, we need to move instruction from the lecture halls into the wider world, meet students where they are, and create opportunities for students to see themselves as part of a system of change.

It’s not easy, but the AshokaU network already contains over 40 campuses in North America and around the world, showing that institutions are stepping up to do things differently. It’s time to make these practices the norm, rather than the exception.



How can Universities Ensure We’re Providing Social Support?

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