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Mapping out education’s challenging road ahead

Experts discuss the future of education prior to B.C.’s return to classrooms in September

Last week, BIV Today presented a special podcast series on education on the eve of a return to studies.

Guests included, in alphabetical order: Sherri Bell, president of Camosun College and board chair of BC Colleges; Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation; Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia; Joe Freeburn, the first-year department head in the business and media school at the British Columbia School of Technology (BCIT); and Jeremy Shaki, co-founder and CEO of Lighthouse Labs.

The full series of podcasts can be found at and They were in conversation with reporters Hayley Woodin and Tyler Orton, and publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe.

The interviews here have been edited and condensed.

How surprised have you been at what has come to pass?

SANTA ONO: Well, the first thing I need to say is that it’s really illustrated how unprepared western civilization is for pandemics. But I think it’s really illustrated the importance of research, the importance of a public health school and all universities in getting it right and doing better next time around. And I think that’s really an opportunity.

Just imagine, you have this lifelong ambition to get yourself into a post-secondary institute, and now you have to deal with this. So what’s it going to be like?

JOE FREEBURN: Well, I think it’s going to be a little bit different for the first-year students coming in and second-year students that have already been with us. Those students that already had half a year with us and then had to convert to online, they’ve already got some relationships established with faculty and staff. They’ve got friends already. And so I think they’re better equipped to handle the kind of boot-camp approach that BCIT has. One of the things about BCIT is it’s quite intense and it is helped along with the contact that you have in teams and working with other students. And I think one of the issues for the first-year students is going to be just navigating our online systems and getting set up, and then forming relationships and friendships with people in their class. We’ve established working parameters to have students on campus with social distancing. There’s going to be some programs in broadcast that have to be on campus, so they will be on campus as little as possible. For those courses that we can deliver completely online, we’ll be delivering them online. I think for any post-secondary, we’ve all been moving towards an online delivery, because it allows us to teach seven days a week, wherever.

What is the college experience going to be like come September?

SHERRI BELL: If you think back to when COVID first impacted education, it was like flicking a switch, and we had to change overnight to a different model – a model that our faculty, staff, students were not used to. Then we came into the summer months and that allowed us the opportunity to really deeply look at what we’re going to be doing in the fall. There’s a lot of hands on applied learning that happens at colleges, and because of that, we can’t do everything online. If you’re training to be a carpenter, you can’t do it all online, but you can do pieces of it. And so we knew we would in the fall be looking more like a hybrid model. Some aspects of some courses would be online and some would have to be on campus.

What challenges are educators facing when trying to implement something such as a hybrid model? 

TERI MOORING: There are a number of challenges with that. The first is making sure all students have access to technology and the Internet. We ran into that issue as well [in the spring]. The other thing is that not all students learn well in that way. So what we saw in the spring was a variety of methods used in order to teach students and not just rely on online learning. 

Of course, when you’re in a pandemic, it’s not a normal situation with online learning. We saw families finding it difficult sometimes to manage this. In other words, we had families that were also working from home, perhaps with one computer. Being able to dedicate that time and find that time to have access to technology was challenging.

Is there room, then, for more of those hybrid models to emerge in education? 

JEREMY SHAKI: I think what you’ll see in the next year to two years is a lot of schools really tout hybrid as a differentiator, and I think what you’ll see in five to 10 years is hybrid won’t be a differentiator because I think that there’s going to be a lot of schools that are hybrid. People are just going to have to find that medium that is happy on both fronts. So there’s going to be online components, there’s going to be in-person components and schools will really differentiate by how they blend those two things.

Have you any sense yet about what the impact is going to be on university finances this year?

ONO: Well, we’ve modelled what might happen. We won’t really know exactly what’s going to happen until mid- to late-September. In terms of the numbers of applications and the numbers of students that have accepted offers, we’re at a normal level (and) actually outperforming previous years. Where we might take a hit is some of our first-year students won’t want to come on campus, so there’ll be lost revenue in terms of students paying for housing, and for meal plans, and that so the total amount of the financial hit, which will be in the order of let’s say, $125 to $220 million on a $3 billion budget. The exact number won’t be clear until later in September.

What would you say are some of the big challenges that remain just weeks away from the start of the fall semester?

BELL: Some of the financial challenges [are] a worry for me as president and also our board: financially, where are we going to end up? Because we’re doing a lot of work right now putting up Plexiglas and making sure that, for the students that are going to be on campus, that they’re protected, that there’s a safe environment, and a lot of work has gone into that. Within trades, we’ve been working like that all summer. But in the fall, we’re going to have more. Now, we don’t have we have two large campuses, so I’m not worried about the number of students on campus at a time. It’s just rolling it out as we move forward. The pandemic is changing, the numbers are going up, and so we may be back to flicking that switch again and saying, ‘OK, there’s no one on campus.’

What are your concerns now with this return to large numbers of students going to the classroom? 

MOORING: I was happy to hear that there was going to be some orientation time in the first week. We’re in a pandemic. No one has ever returned to school in a pandemic, and so we have to make sure that we get it right. 

So what’s going to happen in the first few days is there will be time for health and safety orientation and training that is really necessary for the educators, and it also gives school staff – administrators, support staff and teachers – the time to come to get together, get that training, look at the logistics of each school because that will be very different. With the full return of students, it will be very different from what it was in June. 

And then the Thursday and Friday [September 10-11], when students do come back, it will be important for those school teams to all be training students together so everyone all understands what is to be expected. 

They’re going to see that there are a lot of safety protocols in place that they haven’t experienced before. 

What do you think will be the qualities that are different about the students who graduate having come through this period?

FREEBURN: We’ve had some conversations about that because a lot of these soft skills are hard to teach, like resilience and time management, being able to adapt quickly. We saw this in our students last year, that the ones who did the best … jumped into it, [and said] this is the reality of it, this is what we have to do. And that resilience or ability to change and pivot and adapt is something that is really important in the students that we’re graduating right now. The jobs that we had six months ago are not the same jobs as exist now. So students have to have a bit of a fearlessness and an adaptability to be successful.

What are your observations about the types of students that have been drawn into coding over the past five months?

SHAKI: There’s a lot of people out there who have something that they wish they could buy and really want to buy. And sometimes it’s getting a big windfall of money that makes them decide to want to buy something. And sometimes it’s actually that things aren’t going well and they say, ‘You know what? I’m just getting that one thing I want to get.’ 

What’s happening with COVID is there are a lot people out there who are kind of unhappy in their careers. So two things happened that really changed everything: there’s a lot of people who got let go and said, ‘OK, this has happened to me, and now I’m going in that direction.’ 

Then there’s people sitting in their jobs making less money, maybe more worried about their future. And I think what’s happening in the world around us is people are contemplating what they want in their life a little bit more. 

Does all this last until there’s a vaccine?

ONO: There’s guarded optimism that perhaps the end of this year or early in Q1, that there’ll be a vaccine. But the one thing that people have to realize is that it’s very unlikely that that will be made available to everyone broadly, and there will have to be a prioritization as to who gets vaccinated first. And even with a vaccine that has gone through Phase 3 clinical trials, it’s not yet clear how robust that will be and how long the immunity will last in vaccinated individuals. There’s a lot of question marks, and so I don’t think we will be out of the woods in a year. It’ll be probably a couple of years.

Do you think remote learning could one day be permanent, or is there something about being in a classroom that you can’t quite replicate remotely? 

SHAKI: I think the best way that we’re going to build education in the future, whether that’s right after COVID or not, is that the options are there on any front and it’s easy enough for people to decide what makes sense to them. I think that there’s a lot of people who are stronger learners online – and have the right workspace to do it – than they are in person. Some people really want to collaborate [and] socialize, some people are interactive learners, some people are visual learners. So I think having education be able to be broken down more for the customer and the student, as opposed to how a school works with a timeline and a medium that they want to deliver it in.

Is there a silver lining?

MOORING: We’ve had a lack of priority on education for decades, and so I appreciate that this government has put an investment – especially in this year coming up – into cleaning. There needs to be more of an investment into additional teachers because we’re anticipating classroom density will need to be reduced. That means hiring new teachers. 

Another big difference that’s going to happen this year and into the future is that right now teachers regularly go to school when they’re not feeling great. Going into next year we’re going to have a zero tolerance for teachers going into work ill. That means we’re going to be reliant on teachers teaching on call a lot more than we were.

To watch and listen to the special BIV today series on education, visit or