Changing Minds, Changing Institutions

Advancing a doctrine for adaptability at McGill

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the necessity to build systems here at McGill that can respond to constantly changing risks and circumstances. Although this period has been extremely difficult for students, staff, and faculty, it also provides an opportunity to radically reassess and reimagine the future of the institution. Charting a course forward (or perhaps more aptly, drawing a fresh map) is an important and necessary task as we enter a new era which will be defined by the unfolding pandemic.

Using this unique time to advance an agenda of adaptability is imperative. True strategies of adaptability prepare for future risks by creating flexible, equitably-informed structures of decision making, placing trust and faith in the decision-making capacities of people, instead of codifying the modalities of a single tradition or generation. 

The rapid changes of the past two years have exposed structural issues, particularly in terms of accessibility, within institutions such as McGill. But even before the pandemic, students had outgrown the old systems of governance. Prioritizing adaptability and accessibility is the way forward for learning in the digital age. The university must recognize that pre-Internet pedagogical philosophies are completely incompatible with current and incoming generations of students, many of whom have been exposed, through the internet, to such a quantity of data from such a young age that a complete redefinition of “higher learning” is required. A developing field of research is focused on the study of how the Internet affects cognitive development. There is ongoing discourse as to whether these effects on cognition are net-positive or negative; the accepted constant is that change in cognitive functioning and brain structure is most definitely occurring. Not only are brains changing, but learning pathways have altered. In the digital soup of the 21st century, students may be exposed to complex, multi-disciplinary realms of thought and expression before they even step foot on campus. Information hierarchies are in the process of collapse, which the University must recognize. 

In particular:

1. segmentation of subjects into introductory and higher-level courses with strict prerequisites;

2. faculty, program, major and minor structure;

3.   emphasis on specialization;

4. focus on exam performance and grades;

5. reliance on rote digestion of materials; and

6. course-specific methods of inquiry;

are old, fragmentary methods which are incompatible with new generations of learners, who are entering the university with different background knowledge and information processing skills than pre-Internet cohorts. Flexibility in course delivery and program pathways is paramount to include modes of inquiry which are disempowered by the current system. Removing the emphasis on grading and high pressure test and exam scores, and providing more flexibility in course delivery, are two important steps to remove barriers for all students, including neuro-divergent and disabled students. Only through changing these systems can the university hope to move forward as a more equitable institution.

COVID-19 has demonstrated how problems within the old system tend to assert themselves during crisis management. For example: dialogue between students within different areas of interest, between teachers and students, and between students and Montreal’s broader public, was decimated with the shift to online learning. In McGill’s Spring 2021 “Checking in Today, Planning for Tomorrow” survey, only 14% of undergraduate students reported that they “Agreed/Strongly Agreed” that the “Social Engagement” aspect of their experience at the university was “progressing well.”

This problem of broken dialogue is not inherent to online learning; it is systemic. Class delivery in large lecture halls, with minimal room for questions and student-led discussion, physical separation of on-campus resources into subject-based libraries and spaces, and the oft-discussed McGill “bubble” that isolates students from the city represent institutional barriers to meaningful communication. Students should feel supported and like a valued part of the community, and this cannot be achieved without improving communication and support. Without working to break down systemic barriers, simply moving material delivery to an online learning environment is an incomplete strategy of adaptability. If the university is committed to resilience in the contemporary space, we must consider all avenues to serious change, now. Otherwise, McGill risks further losing touch with future generations, who are already deciding they may best be left to their own devices, further engendering a split between intelligent inquiry and academia, a separation which tuition fees, OSD accommodation pathways, and the current, violent exclusion of immunocompromised students from campus already contribute to. A deeply problematic schism between the new knowledge paradigm and modern research is widening as crisis management continues beneath the current institutional structure.

Having grown up in the information age, youth are used to seeking and internalizing holistic comprehensions of the world, given their complete exposure to data and their submersion within machines of intelligence. This context carries minds down paths unknown to previous generations of scholars, and is creating radical alterations to laws of division, segmentation and separation which have been deemed necessary to rigorous application of the scientific method in times past. 

Ultimately, I’m not worried about the resilience and mutability of the youth – spaces for new thought will be made by us, and are made by us, especially as the environment of learning becomes increasingly irrelevant, as two years of online school have driven home. The question is rather whether institutions of higher learning, such as McGill, will continue to uphold the status quo – a decision which will eventually have to be made by the highest levels of policy makers here at the university. 

At the very least, the structure of board governance should be immediately questioned. Not only should old structures be dismantled, but the individuals in power should be replaced. McGill and other post secondary institutions need diverse voices from the community and from students on how to move forward. As brains and learning capacities shift, the marking system should fall under scrutiny, as should the operations of academic advising and program selection. The teacher-student relationship should be reimagined, and the separation of learners into different classes based on age, experience, and distinction should cease. Communal materials, spaces, and platforms should be encouraged. It is important to keep in mind that McGill is a colonial institution built on and complicit in the oppression of groups of people and systems of thought which threaten those in power. Removing the barricades to influence built into this institution will create a safer and more welcoming learning environment for all students. I urge McGill to remember that none of us can hope to escape this calculus.