The End of the Assembly Line

Please join us at the McLuhan Centre for Culture & Technology’s #cityasclassroom Workshop on Tuesday May 3rd, 6-9pm. We are bringing together a small panel of current and former U of T students to ask:

  • What can U of T do to prepare students for the end of the assembly line
  • How can we  better integrate city & university?


The End of the Assembly Line
Tuesday, May 3rd, 6-9pm



Christopher Penney // Joseph L. Rotman School of Management // Toronto Experience & Learning Lab
Jeff Pinto // Center for Distance Education // Athabasca University


David Morton // U of T 2006
Philippa French // U of T 2014, Queens 2016
Anthony Burton // U of T 2017

Note: We have sought to draw from a range of current and former U of T students but we recognize our small panel does not reflect the true diversity of the city or the university. This will be a very open discussion and we warmly encourage students and Torontonians to help us broaden the discussion.

Formal Education as Assembly Line

In his 1980 book Mindstorms, MIT AI pioneer Seymour Papert describes a class of fifth graders using the mechanical turtle he and his colleagues developed to draw Merry Christmas on a banner. Using the LOGO programming language, students were creating instructions to guide the retractable-pen-toting Turtle along a banner that would be displayed in their school’s halls. Snowstorms and other delays slowed the class’ progress and the banner was incomplete as the last week of school approached. The instructor decided to break protocol and do some of the programming herself at home. Not having a Turtle at home, she could only test the code when she was back at school the next day. When she and a group of students ran the code instructing the Turtle to draw an “R”, the sloping line was in the wrong place.

Where was the bug? As they puzzled together the child had a revelation: “Do you mean,” he said, “that you really don’t know how to fix it?” The child did not yet know how to say it, but what had been revealed to him was that he and the teacher had been engaged together in a research project. The incident is poignant. It speaks of all the times this child entered teachers’ games of “let’s do that together” all the while knowing that the collaboration was a fiction. Discovery cannot be a setup; invention cannot be scheduled. (p 115) Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Beginning in the 1990s there has been a movement to create a more student-driven learning experience Dervin, B. (1998). Sense‐making theory and practice: an overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of Knowledge Management, 2(2), 36–46. To treat students not as cars being progressively assembled as they inch along an assembly line, but as active builders of knowledge and understanding. At the same time, curriculum guidelines and the custodial aspect of K12 education define a real limit to the student’s agency. These constraints are eased in post secondary education, but to what extent should we expect students to be capable of directing their learning after spending the vast majority of their lives in environments that so limited their agency? Is high school the end of the assembly line, or is university now also seen as a mandatory part of the production?

The Value of a Degree

Matters are complicated further by the end of the actual assembly line. In the emerging knowledge economy, in which some estimate 47% of jobs in America are at risk of being automated, the ability to manage one’s own lifelong learning becomes essential  Frey, C., & Osborne, M. (2013). The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? | Publications. Oxford: Oxford Martin School. Retrieved from As Alvin Toffler put it, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” Toffler, A. (1984). Future Shock (Reissue edition). New York: Bantam.. Most students & parents look to universities to prepare students for employment. This expectation needs to be examined in terms of both legitimacy and likelihood. Within the OECD, likelihood of employment, income and health increase with level of education but at an ever-increasing cost  OECD. (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI: Among the 50% of students graduating in debt, their average debt load is $27,000 Canadian University Survey Consortium. (2015) Graduating University Student Survey. Prairie Research Association. In Canada, a third of humanities grads work jobs requiring only a high school education Uppal, S., & LaRochelle-Côté, S. (2014). Overqualification among recent university graduates in Canada. Statistics Canada. 70% of recent graduate survey respondents recently reported their intent to pursue further education Canadian University Survey Consortium. (2015) Graduating University Student Survey. Prairie Research Association. Do the benefits of a university degree outweigh the costs?

The Value of Being There

U of T President Marc Gertler has made re-imagining undergraduate education one of his three top priorities, with a focus on “cataloguing and communicating our successes, building on our strengths, and elevating the value of being there” Gertler, M. (2014, November 3). Teaching and Learning Symposium Keynote – Office of the President. Retrieved from What are the advantages of attending a university situated in a world-class city? Are students rewarded or penalized for engaging with the community? Are community stakeholders willing to engage in the U of T student learning experience? Is it it the responsibility of the university to connect their students with the creativity, talent and diversity that Toronto has to offer? Should U of T be responsible for providing additional information and experiences to inform personal and career decision making for their students?

We hope you will join us to explore these and other questions at the upcoming workshop.


    About Jeff Pinto

    Educational Technology consultant, developer and researcher.

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