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Yukonomist: The future of education in the North

The pandemic has unleashed a wave of involuntary innovation in education. And this has big implications for learners in the North.

The pandemic has unleashed a wave of involuntary innovation in education. And this has big implications for learners in the North.

University students in the Yukon take courses in Halifax. University students in India take courses at Yukon University. Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) students do their book learning remotely in Whitehorse, and travel to Edmonton with their masks for intense bursts of in-person practical training. High school students attend school alternate days and get work experience in between. Parents lean over the home-study table and rack their brains to remember French and algebra tips they last studied two decades ago.

Change was accelerating even before the pandemic. Khan Academy, which offers excellent online lessons for everything from elementary math and English to university chemistry, has over 75 million users. Almost a quarter million teachers use it in their classrooms. With the support of Bill Gates and other donors, it expanded its free courses into 43 languages and a mobile app. There are many English-as-a-second-language platforms that connect English speakers in Canada with students in China and elsewhere. Or think of the more than 100 million people worldwide in 2019 enrolled in MOOCs, the ugly term for Massive Open Online Courses. Big players such as Coursera and Udacity kicked off more than 40 new degree programs in the two years before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, corporate training was rapidly going online. Employees were taking short courses for “micro-credentials” in key skills. And Youtube had emerged as an unlikely hub of learning, offering video tutorials in everything from growth mindset life skills to fixing your chainsaw. Ditto for Zoom, where one friend took an online baking course (and now plans to offer one of her own in watercolour painting).

Some of this activity will fade away once vaccines enable in-person learning. But much of it will endure because it offers students real benefits.

Students in the Yukon and around the world are trying to prepare themselves to thrive in a world that is rapidly changing. Consider just three of the megatrends sweeping the planet.

First, we are only part way through the digital revolution. While we are still figuring out smartphones and social media, artificial intelligence and the internet of things are coming fast. It will be easier to be successful in life, whether in London or Watson Lake, if you have digital skills. A majority of the boys in my mother’s Whitehorse high school graduating class dropped out of high school to get jobs driving trucks or working in mines. Visit a mine with automated mining trucks and you’ll see that won’t be much of an option in the future.

Second, our population is aging. This means opportunities in all the caring professions, from nursing to physiotherapy.

Third, the battle against climate change is going to ramp up in the coming decade. There will be massive investments in building retrofits, new heating systems, electric vehicles, renewable power generation and more.

Meanwhile, many traditional skills will still be enormously valuable. Yukon companies, First Nations and government agencies will still need accountants, biologists and governance-savvy board members.

A mix of the old and the new helps Yukon learners in a bunch of ways. You can study Aviation Management, Education or First Nations Governance at Yukon University. But a regional university will never be able to match the breadth of big Outside schools, so the Yukon Grant helps Yukoners take Cyber Security at NAIT or Stochastic Processes at McGill.

The Yukon Grant is a real asset for Yukoners. I once interviewed legendary Yukon Commissioner Jim Smith, who convinced Ottawa to fund the Yukon Grant for Canada’s 100th birthday. The vision he sold to Prime Minister Pearson was of supporting Yukon students so they could study anywhere in Canada, and either come home or contribute as Canadians anywhere in the country. Since 1967, this has been foundational for many Yukon kids.

It is also a major financial enabler for lower-income Yukoners to continue their education.

Digital learning also opens up new opportunities for adult learners in specific fields. Mid-career professionals can do micro-credential courses on Project Management. Aspiring board members can take courses with the Institute of Corporate Directors.

If you redesigned the Yukon Grant for the modern era, you would keep its support for Yukon students to study anything anywhere in Canada. But you would also add some money to support mid-career and late-career Yukoners in retraining and reskilling in courses shorter and more focused than two- or four-year degree programs.

Singapore does this with its SkillsFuture Credit program, where every citizen gets a personal account pre-funded with S$500 to pay for courses drawn from an expansive menu across multiple institutions. The accounts are permanent, and periodically topped up, so workers can either take courses now or wait until they need to make a career transition or upgrade their skills.

In Singapore’s vision, every citizen is responsible for planning their own learning throughout their career, with financial support from the government. There are many Canadian programs that move in this direction, but none as visionary as Singapore’s.

It’s also worth noting that providing classes like this can be a job opportunity. Many Yukoners have unique skills they are well positioned to share, either locally or with the world digitally.

The opportunities mentioned above are fantastic for those able to take advantage of them. However, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the newspapers, the Yukon continues to suffer worrisome high-school drop-out rates, especially for rural and First Nations students. With one student in five not graduating high-school, upgrading and continued reforms to secondary and elementary education will be critical to prevent young people from being left behind

In the meantime, I have to decide whether I’m going to watch a university physics class or the less cosmic but more immediately useful Oil Pump Replacement on a Husqvarna Chainsaw.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.