In the field of higher education, Canada has two genuine claims to having been (at least at one-time) at the forefront of innovation: co-op education, which primarily stems from Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering, and Problem-based Learning as practiced at McMaster’s School of Medicine. This is a big deal: most universities never pioneer innovative pedagogical techniques, and here Canada has two of them. Yet only one of these universities really gets credit for it. Waterloo is known nationally (and to some degree internationally) for its’ pedagogy, and McMaster…isn’t. Not really. And understanding why is key to understanding how innovation spreads (or doesn’t) in higher education.
So, let’s start with McMaster. Shortly after the School of Medicine was founded in the mid-1960s, the staff there decide to adopt a pedagogy that had been experimented with at Case Western in the 1950s. Namely, switching from a system of more or less rote system of learning information to a system with a much greater emphasis on problem-solving skills. What McMaster added to the Case Western system was a focus on tutorials and small-group learning. Within the world of medical education this method was a smash success, spreading over the space of three decades to fifty-odd medical schools in North America, Europe and Australia. In a couple of instances, it even jumped the disciplinary boundary into fields like business education and architecture. Significantly, it never made the jump to any other part of the institution at McMaster itself. And though PBL still exists, McMaster is no longer really thought of as the leader.
Now, compare that to Waterloo, an institution that began life as a satellite campus of the (then) University of Western Ontario, teaching engineering to serve tire-making factories in the region. The professors at Waterloo were intrigued by the model of co-op education that had been developed at the University of Cincinnati in the United States and wanted to introduce it at Waterloo College. Western’s Engineering faculty thought this was simply too déclassé an idea for a real university and said no. Since the Government of Ontario was in the business of setting up new universities at that time, Waterloo College essentially flipped Western off and started their own university, with co-op as a kind of founding mission. Within Waterloo co-op spread to all its faculties, including Arts and last I heard was placing over 17,000 student per year in co-op programs. Co-op is now the norm in Canadian Engineering schools, and people all over the world recognize Waterloo as the pre-eminent institution in co-op education.
So what’s the difference? Why did co-op at Waterloo turn out one way and PBL at McMaster another?
I think the simplest take on it is this: Waterloo had co-op embedded in its DNA. The school’s trimester schedule, which was a necessary complement to co-op, was adopted across the institution. Professors are hired based on their willingness to work in the trimester system and their willingness to update classes frequently based on feedback from students on how in-touch curricula really are with industry practices. It’s not isolated to one faculty, or to the senior administration: the whole institution really is invested in it. Compare that to McMaster, where no other faculty (so far as I can tell) ever really took the idea of PBL seriously. Even the School of Medicine itself wasn’t founded on PBL principles. It was a success, for a time. But it wasn’t in the DNA.
There is an important lesson here. Universities, even when presented with fabulous ideas for reform, are very reluctant to change on a systematic basis. It’s not that individual professors never do anything new; it’s that systemic change requires everyone going in a more or less similar direction at the same time, that that is very difficult for institutions to achieve. It’s why real university reform often happens not by getting universities to change but by setting up new institutions. Napoleon knew this: it was why he shut down universities and created the Grandes Écoles. It’s why in the United States it took a new institution like Johns Hopkins to pioneer the PhD, or why it took the arrival of ANU in Australia to really make universities take research and graduate work seriously.
Left to themselves, universities will always tend to be conservative, fearful and change-averse. History shows that new institutions pursuing new missions with all their might and leading by example can, eventually, drive real change.