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Though it might feel odd to see the word “positive” in a 2020 headline, our word choice is not a mistake – not in the context of international education. As in any crisis, some people distinguish themselves as leaders and some businesses innovate in ways they never would have otherwise, preparing the way for a promising path forward.

Canadian educators have learned important lessons this year – including how crucial it is to invest in student support services and to consider programmes and programme delivery from the student perspective. And faculty and students across the country have pitched in where they can to help out in the crisis.

We thought we’d share a few of the better things that happened in 2020 in our industry.

Rapid response was the only way to thrive this year

“COVID catapulted us into the future.” That’s how Virginia Macchiavello, AVP of International Programs at Centennial College, described the year that was for her college. She was speaking as a panelist on the IDP Connect “Tech for Good: Managing Institutional Risk” webinar, a session that illustrated how much COVID has changed the recruitment landscape.

Ms. Macchiavello explained that the crisis necessitated a closer look at the college’s programs and how they were being delivered. Quickly, her team at Centennial developed 50 online courses for students who could not come to Canada and/or did not have visas. The new courses expanded not only what the college could deliver, but also its potential audience: students anywhere in the world, with or without visas.

Ms. Macchiavello emphasized that to roll out that kind of expansion required an intense focus on student support and what students needed for a rich online experience of learning. Centennial is now able to deliver what she calls “first-class learning” characterized by instruction across time zones, asynchronous as well as synchronous learning, and robust support services. Faculty received comprehensive training and now have a deeper understanding of who is in their online class – and this is essential to delivering excellent online education.

For example, students have different levels of access to learning tools and platforms, and thanks to the data spreadsheets developed this year for them, faculty know the answers to such questions as “What is a student’s bandwidth like? Can they access YouTube or is it banned? If students can’t access it how can we work around the challenge?”

In short, Centennial College upped its digital performance significantly this year and the result is that they can provide far more compelling, student-centric programs to students around the world.

Canada was one of the strongest education brands in 2020

The webinar included IDP Connect charts showing student search demand through the year, and Canada performed very well on this measure relative to other major English-language destinations. Panelists attributed the strong showing to a perception that the Canadian government has handled the crisis well and that geo-politics are also driving student interest (e.g., US-China tensions).

The solid image of Canada sets the country’s educators up for a strong year in 2021, particularly given that many students are now willing to switch destinations. Experts believe that global share of international students will shift considerably as a result of COVID, and so far, it looks as though Canada is poised to gain in this regard. A competitive destination brand will serve as an important recruiting foundation for Canadian educators.

When the crisis hit, Canadian universities got busy

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked for help from the Canadian post-secondary sector back in March, the outpouring of support was incredible.

Tens of thousands of PPE, sanitizer, ventilators, and testing kits have been donated by universities through faculty and students – sometimes in partnership with residents and community organizations. For a list of some of the efforts, you can visit University Affairs’ post here.

Students helped to deliver essential services

It hasn’t just been PPE that’s been needed in the fight against COVID. Think of the frontline medical workers – and now imagine what their day-to-day is like ­… the hours, the stress, the sheer exhaustion. When the pandemic struck in March, University of Toronto medical student Daniel Lee helped to organize more than 200 fellow students to provide babysitting services for these workers, along with delivering groceries and going to the pharmacy for them. Mr. Lee explained to CBC News how he came up with the idea for the initiative:

“We know that we’re still learners and we’re not as qualified as we need to be to serve patients on the frontline. But we also have experience as babysitters and as camp counsellors, and we’ve had roles like this in the past. In a time of crisis, you really need to provide all the help that you can.”

A chance to focus on what really matters

Reflecting on her experience of studying in Canada as an international student at Western University, Mariela Magana explained that her first reaction in the pandemic was fear – mostly for her family members back home, who were suffering both economic and personal loss. But eventually, she realized that she had to choose a different response:

“It was obviously hard to cope with everything going on, but I had to fix my perspective. I had to decide through what new lens I wanted to see and live life. I started being conscious about the little control we have over life. I became more aware that things in life can change in a matter of seconds. We cannot take anything for granted.

Now, that things seem to be ‘better,’ is time when us Western students have to be more aware of the impact our small actions have on us and others around us …This pandemic hasn’t been the easiest, nonetheless, I believe that hard times are an opportunity to be intentional in finding ways to support each other and building a better world around us.”

Looking forward to 2021

With a year of lightning-quick reaction time and innovation behind us, the Canadian international education community is ready for 2021 – whatever it brings. We know how to be more agile, to use data more to help us in recruiting, and to keep students’ needs more top of mind than ever before. We will be smarter and at the same time more caring in 2021, and that combination will help us to meet all the challenges and opportunities the year will bring.

CP- Image - Person- Elle Butler
Elle Butler22 December 2020