Vivek GoelVivek Goel is the University of Waterloo's seventh President and Vice-Chancellor. He is a distinguished scholar with extensive achievements in research, teaching and leadership across both public and private sectors.

As universities across Canada begin to make plans to return to on-campus and in-person learning, we have to consider whether a return to “normal” after the pandemic is our best option. Indeed, complacency now might be a missed opportunity to seize a digital future.

Now is the time to use the very best of what we learned during the pandemic to create a broader vision for our digital future that is inclusive, international and interdisciplinary. 

The pandemic accelerated the digital transition that was already underway.  Our experience makes clear that there are many ways in which we can be innovative and flexible in our teaching and learning.

As we mark the United Nations International Day of Education today, we must recognize there is no substitute for what happens in a lab or a classroom where hands-on learning is enriched through peers and professors. Outside the classroom, the social experiences that shape our students through clubs, athletics and societies equips them with skills and experiences that will prepare them to contribute to a more just society.

Even prior to the pandemic, we knew that we had to develop talent for a disruptive future.  Our recent experiences magnify those many forces shaping society such as changing geopolitical landscapes and the breakdown of multilateral institutions, the rise of populism, increasing inequities, the significant consequences of centuries of colonization, and in particular, the need to confront our legacy of how Indigenous peoples have been treated. Most significantly, the climate crisis is upon us. 

There is great potential with social and technological advances to address these increasingly complex global challenges.  Our graduates have to be equipped to apply knowledge to address these challenges in ways that we can neither predict nor imagine.

The COVID-19 pandemic tested our resolve and vision in ways that were unthinkable before its onset.  While tools for online learning had been available for years, adoption was limited.  However, we quickly moved to emergency remote online learning. At the peak of the pandemic, 1.6 billion learners around the world were affected by school closures.

Learning online became a daily reality for our students and professors who have, despite great obstacles, continued to teach and learn. We know the experience was nowhere near perfect.  There was increased burden for many, inequities in access, and mental health challenges due to isolation. But the experiences also give us a window into the transformative potential of a digital future for universities.

A recent KPMG poll found that 78 per cent of 1,203 university students polled agreed the pandemic "fundamentally changed" their expectations of the higher education experience. The majority, 76 per cent, agreed that the "university of the future will bear little resemblance to today's educational institutions."

The potential goes far beyond technological advances in the classroom. Yes, we must develop talent that embraces technology and leads innovation, but we must use connectivity to help our students navigate diverse identities and leverage new knowledge. Technology can enable universities to further expand access to marginalized groups while deepening opportunities for lifelong learning across geographies and careers.

We can create opportunities for students to learn from people who are not like themselves so they can be engaged citizens creating sustainable, inclusive and prosperous communities here and around the world. We can create opportunities for global engagement, while reducing the requirement for travel, and the carbon footprint that creates. 

Our digital future can enable people from different disciplines to have more opportunities to work on common problems together. We can ensure our students have a breadth of experience and learning — arts students exposed to technology and engineering students engaged in philosophy and ethics.

As we have seen in our past, a too-narrow focus on technology will slow progress. It can be easy to forget that the perceived barriers to online learning, virtual health care and remote working were rapidly overcome in March 2020. For decades, society had focused on the perceived technological barriers when the obstacles were mostly ones of policy and governance.

The pandemic has caused great suffering and loss, but it has also revealed how barriers can be overcome with collective action. It’s time for an urgent response to the great challenges we face in society and to acknowledge that the digital future of universities is a transformative one that goes far beyond technology.