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Research and Innovation


INNOVATION - Ryerson University Research & Innovation Newsletter

Issue 19: January/February 2016

A Workforce for a New Economy

A Workforce for a New Economy

The highlight of this issue is the announcement of the new Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation, a collaborative centre of excellence that will drive evidence-based innovation in employment and training.  But there are many other ways in which Ryerson researchers are working to improve teaching and learning for the 21st century, and the stories in this newsletter provide just a taste of the many projects we are engaged in.

Ironically, while universities promote research and evidence-based innovation in other sectors, they are not always practicing what they preach. Universities are recognized to be drivers of research and innovation, yet in some respect they continue to operate as they have for centuries. At Ryerson, our researchers are demonstrating that we can bring rigor and analysis to better understanding how we teach and how our students learn and how we can challenge the status quo with new approaches.

One way is through the use and evaluation of new technologies, which have the potential to transform teaching and learning. Ryerson is a leader in e-learning and new modes of teaching delivery, with more than 400 online courses and a number of blended and hybrid courses using innovative approaches to incorporating technology, in and outside of the classroom. From virtual and augmented reality to online simulations and gamification of courses, our researchers are creating learning environments where comprehension and engagement is enhanced in innovative ways.

A recent study on the mobile-connected workforce — conducted at Ryerson for Rogers Communications — has revealed that although university students are among the most connected generation ever, universities for the most part do not leverage technology as effectively as other sectors. Ryerson researchers are working to reverse this trend by experimenting with new ways of incorporating technology into the classroom. Ben Barry’s research, for example, shows that using Twitter in the classroom connects students to the curriculum and can enhance peer-to-peer interaction. Daria Romaniuk has led the nursing gamified learning project, using virtual simulations that have been shown to enhance students’ ability to make time-sensitive clinical decisions. Vincent Hui has demonstrated that technology can enhance architectural education with students perceiving that they are, as a result, better equipped to innovate in their field upon graduation.

While technology is an important area of focus, researchers at Ryerson are also looking at fundamental questions about learning outcomes and the skills our graduates possess in relation to the skills in demand in the workplace. Internationally recognized for our “zone learning” and entrepreneurship training, researchers at Ryerson are examining the most effective ways to develop entrepreneurs.  The evaluation of Summer Company, which provided support for more than 50 young entrepreneurs last year, has been shown not just to help students develop entrepreneurial skills but also confidence and success in other domains. Another study, funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, explored the very notion of “experiential learning”, finding a lack of agreement on how it is defined, its goals or its impact.  These issues are critical if it is to be effective.

Finally, Ryerson researchers are focusing on better understanding employer needs and the ways in which we can enhance the employability of our graduates. A study funded by the Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund (OHCRIF)  revealed that the perceptions of students and graduates regarding their proficiency in both “soft skills” and “technical skills” were not shared by employers.  In fact, while recent graduates perceived themselves to be “highly proficient” in oral communication (90.7 per cent) and writing (93.1 per cent), employers view them as considerably less proficient (47.6 per cent and 39.4 per cent, respectively). Subsequent work, funded by SSHRC, suggests that part of this may stem from very different perceptions of how skills are defined, assessed or developed.

Teaching and research are core to universities and critical to economic and social development. By applying our deep research expertise to the core functions of the University, we are not only expanding knowledge but helping to be the best we can be.


Wendy Cukier
Vice-President, Research and Innovation


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Image: 2015 Summer Company participants and their mentors at the closing reception.

Ryerson is recognized internationally as a leader in entrepreneurial education and “zone learning” and increasingly is turning its research and evaluation capacity to explore the impact and best practices in these domains. Ryerson is the only university offering Ontario’s Summer Company program, which provides startup funding and support to youth 14-29 years old who are returning to school. Since its inception in 2001, it has supported over 6,000 student startups across the province through partners like Ryerson University.

At Ryerson, Ted Rogers School of Management professor Ken Grant is examining how the program has evolved, using data from a total of 4,562 program questionnaires (representing 90 per cent of participants from 2006 to 2014). To date, the study has shown how Summer Company can instil students with fundamental skills and produce significant advances for youth business development. Other early findings include:

  • Since 2007, approximately 40 per cent of companies seeded through the program remain in operation today, despite the fact that the program only intends to fund short-term businesses. Additionally, 22 per cent of participants have started other businesses, creating close to 4,000 full- and part-time jobs throughout the province.
  • Most of the startups show a reasonable amount of profit, with 36 per cent being the average profit margin.
  • The program has received very high ratings from its participants, with 99 per cent willing to recommend the program to others and 90 per cent reporting that they learned useful skills and gained knowledge and experience that impacted their future self-employment decisions.
  • SummerCo graduates reported only a 3 per cent unemployment rate compared to the youth average of 16 per cent.

Grant believes that the combination of creating a mini-business plan during the selection process and the ongoing mentorship throughout the program are the keys to its success. “The program has become a virtual incubator,” said Grant, noting the long-term success of many of the businesses. “They are improving employment and creating jobs for the economy.”

The next stage of the research will involve in-depth interviews with program participants to gather further information. 

Summer Company is a program open to high school, college and university students aged 15-29 who are returning to school in the fall. Successful applicants receive a total of $3,000 in funding. For more information, visit


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Image: Dr. Ben Barry investigates how Twitter can create a richer learning environment. Photo credit: William Pemulis

Incorporating Twitter into the classroom has made converts out of previously reluctant social media users, creating engagement among students both in and out of the lecture hall.

Originally funded by a grant through Ryerson’s Teaching and Learning Office, several experts are studying the impact of students tweeting about the course and course material, including Ryerson fashion professor and director of the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change, Ben Barry; TRSM’s Chair of Marketing, Bettina West; and colleague Hélène Moore. In Barry’s Fashion 223 class, students must tweet the required number of times in order to be eligible to receive a top grade. The tweets often occur during the lecture, as students are asked to show examples of fashion diversity or marketing in action.

The original study, published in the Journal for Marketing Education in 2015 found that despite the original lack of interest in Twitter from male participants, that they eventually tweeted more avidly than their female peers. The results showed that those who tweeted more frequently saw a direct correlation in higher overall scores in the course. Moreover, there was and continues to be improved engagement from students.

In order to track tweeting activity, students were asked to use a class hashtag provided by the professor at the start of the semester. According to West, approximately 15 per cent of tweets were made during scheduled lecture times.  “The remaining tweets were made outside of class, meaning students could be observed connecting back to the course in meaningful ways even outside of scheduled class time,” said West.

Posting outside of the classroom shows the students’ ability to apply the knowledge learned in classrooms to the outside world, according to Barry. Generally speaking, the grades in the Twitter-enhanced class are quite high compared to others, and Barry attributes that to the success of having students shake up the traditional methods of listening to lectures by making them more participatory. “Often you can feel anonymous in a big classroom,” said Barry. “Twitter makes everyone part of the conversation.”

Barry is a believer in its benefits. He uses Twitter regularly with his students and anyone interested in following the discussion can do so by using the hashtag #FSN223. When the class is engaged, the hashtag can often be seen trending on Twitter.

Beyond class engagement, Barry said that this helps students create social media accounts that project a professional voice and demonstrate critical thinking. Furthermore, it is providing them with proficiency in a social media tool that is used extensively in the fashion industry. “Using Twitter in the classroom develops a professional voice and brand which makes [industry] people want to follow them,” said Barry. “It also allows students to follow industry professionals and engage with them.”


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Image: Janice Waddell investigates how to define experiential learning.

In Ryerson’s Faculty of Community Services, 80 per cent of undergraduate programs employ “experiential learning” as a core teaching strategy. But what is experiential learning? What are its goals? How is it measured? These are all questions that Janice Waddell, associate dean of the Faculty of Community Services (FCS) and associate professor of nursing, asked in a recent study. 

Conducted with colleagues Pamela Robinson (Urban and Regional Planning), Samantha Wehbi, (Social Work) and Cristina Catallo (Nursing), and with funding from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Knowledge Synthesis grant, the study explores the current understanding of how “experiential learning” is conceptualized, implemented and evaluated in professional service fields of study. The research team discovered a significant research gap: there was a lack of understanding of how “experiential learning” is conceived and defined by educators, particularly in relation to its capacity to help foster a positive transition from student to professional roles.

“We believe that experiential learning in the forms of studios, labs, simulations, clinical practice, internships and field placements is valuable and likely helps students to bridge the theory-practice gap,” said Waddell.  “However, based on the results of our review, we are investing significant resources into experiential learning initiatives without a common understanding of what comprises experiential learning, nor clear evidence that it is successful in achieving the outcomes attributed to it.”

The results of the study indicate that there is:

  • An uneven disciplinary engagement in experiential learning (not all disciplines use it in the same way or to the same degree).
  • No widely accepted definition of experiential learning.
  • An overemphasis in research on specific models of experiential learning (i.e., simulations, problem-based learning, practice/field placements) and a gap when it comes to research into other models.

Waddell and her colleagues believe that Ryerson has the opportunity to take the lead in furthering research on this subject, starting with establishing a clear definition of what experiential learning is.

“We have rich and diverse learning opportunities that we define as experiential,” said Waddell, “but we don’t want to assume that a student is engaged in experiential learning solely because they are placed in external settings as a component of their curriculum.” She hopes that furthering the research on this subject can lead to the development of new knowledge related to experiential learning — not only for Ryerson, but also more broadly in the education community, advancing research as well as practice. 


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Image: Research shows a gap in the skills employers want and the skills that graduates have to offer. Photo credit: William Pemulis

Recent headlines have continued to raise questions about the extent to which Ontario’s post-secondary system is meeting the needs of employers. For example, a study titled: Youth in Transition: Bridging Canada’s Path from Education to Employment revealed that 83 per cent of educational institutions felt that their students were equipped with the necessary skills for the workforce, however only 39 per cent of employers agreed that graduates were prepared. Ryerson is actively contributing to this discussion, looking not only at the data but its implications for learning and teaching and responding with innovative and unique programs aimed at addressing the so-called “skills gap”.

A series of research studies at Ryerson have focused on trying to better understand the needs of employers, the skills graduates possess and the ways to increase the employability of graduates through innovative programming. The first study funded by the Ontario Human Capital Research Innovation Fund examined the perspectives of recent graduates, Ryerson University students, and Ontario employers to examine their perspectives of the skills needed and skills possessed.  

The study found the following among recent graduates and current students:

  • Current students and recent graduates rated their “essential” skills proficiency highly. For example, 85 per cent of students rated their skills proficiency in reading, document use, thinking, writing, working with others, and continuous learning above average (4 or 5 on a 6-point scale ranging from 0 [no proficiency] to 5 [expert proficiency]).
  • Over 70 per cent of current students and recent graduates believed that they were highly proficient in “thinking skills” (problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, job task planning, significant use of memory and finding information). Both current students and recent graduates were less likely to rate their proficiency above average in numeracy (55.5 per cent and 61.2 per cent, respectively) and digital technology (66.4 per cent and 65.2 per cent), but this varies by discipline. 


However, employers painted a very different picture:

  • While recent graduates perceived themselves to be highly proficient in oral communication (90.7 per cent) and writing (93.1 per cent) skills, employers perceived recent graduate hires to be less proficient (47.6 per cent and 39.4 per cent respectively).
  • Employers perceived few recently hired graduates to be highly proficient in digital tools. For instance, employers found only one-quarter of recently hired graduates to have a high proficiency in Windows or Linux (25.3 per cent) and less than ten percent in website design and development (9.8 per cent).
  • After salary expectations, employers reported that the biggest challenge they face when recruiting recent graduates is finding candidates with the necessary technical skills (21.2 per cent).


The study was supplemented with data analytics, courtesy of Magnet (described in our Spotlight story), which provided more insight into the skills most in demand among Ontario employers for entry level jobs. Digging further, it seems that part of the problem is a lack of clarity surrounding the ways in which skills are defined. A recent SSHRC-funded study explored these issues in more detail, focusing specifically on “soft skills”, which are in demand across sectors. The study, based on a review of more than 6,000 research studies from around the world, showed that there was a lack of clear definition of "soft skills". Consequently, there is little agreement on how to assess them. Moreover, it revealed that much of the research on the nature of "soft skills" has tended to focus on the needs of graduates from Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) or other professional disciplines, such as business, perhaps because it assumed that Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) degrees develop "soft skills" through the course of their studies. However, there is evidence that while SSH graduates may have important critical thinking and communications skills, they may also lack the specific "soft skills" required by employers. For example, when SSH students and graduates think of excellent writing skills, these are developed in the context of writing academic papers, whereas employers may be thinking about more applied writing skills for memos and short reports.

The research from these studies has played a significant role in shaping innovative internship and training programs being supported by the Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation, including Ryerson’s Advanced Digital and Professional Training (ADaPT) program. The boot camp, coupled with paid internships, is designed to provide social sciences and humanities graduates with a leg up in finding employment, and in exploring ways that their academic training can be augmented with specialized training to improve their success in the workplace.  The preliminary results of the evaluations suggest high levels of satisfaction among the participants, with most obtaining valuable work experience.  The longer term assessment is still in progress as the program moves into its final year.

For more information on Ryerson’s ADaPT program, visit


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Image: The province announced the creation of the Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation (OCWI) on Monday. Partners in OCWI gathered for the announcement and to start moving forward on the province-wide initiative to improve Ontario's labour market. Photo credit: Barry Roden

In spite of high unemployment rates, almost one-third of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Ontario do not have the talent they need. According to Ontario Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Allan O’Dette, “Ontario’s economy is facing a labour force challenge. There are far too many people without jobs and far too many employers in need of people with the right skills. Building a 21st century workforce is a key priority area of our Emerging Stronger agenda, which focuses on fostering greater connections between graduates and employers to ensure Ontario has the skilled workforce it needs to compete in the global economy.”

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is one of the founding members of the new Ontario Centre for Workforce Innovation (OCWI) along with Ryerson, Workforce Planning Network of Ontario, Humber College, Collège Boréal, George Brown College, Ontario Disability Employment Network, Social Capital Partners, Coalition for Adult Training in Ontario (COFA), Brock University and Lakehead University and many other collaborators.  Funded with $7.6 million for two years, this new centre of excellence will help grow the province’s economy by ensuring jobseekers and employers benefit from the most evidence-based and effective employment and training services. The Centre will fund research and pilot projects and provide Ontario’s training and employment providers with a single window for research and best practices.  It will also offer professional development for stakeholders building an employment and training community of practice that promoted sharing and collaboration across the system. Regional hubs in Toronto, Thunder Bay, London, Kingston/Gananoque, as well as a Francophone coordinating centre in Sudbury to bring local expertise to the centre’s core work of supporting employment and training stakeholders.

Core to the project is Magnet, a partnership between Ryerson and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, using technology incubated in the DMZ, which provides matching between job seekers and employers as well as never before seen data and analytics on the marketplace.

Wendy Cukier, vice-president, Research and Innovation at Ryerson University, and founder of the Diversity Institute, is the chair of the OCWI working group and led the development of the successful project based in large part on an earlier proposal with the partners, which applied a social innovation lens to the labour market. “We need to ensure the whole is more than the sum of the parts” she said “and that individual initiatives are not only evidence based and effective but also linked together to promote systems change.” Bill Young, president of Social Capital Partners, who is a leader in new approaches to assessing social impact, said, “The single most important thing we have learned from our work is that when employers are involved in the design of employment and training programs, better results are achieved for both employers and jobseekers. Encouraging new public/private partnerships and demonstrating what works and what doesn't will allow the Centre to better address and support the needs of employers and jobseekers alike."

Currently, Ontario spends more than $1 billion annually on its Employment Ontario training and services network. “The OCWI brings together key organizations who have the potential to transform the way in which we address the demand for talent by employers, on the one hand, and the unemployment and underemployment of job seekers on the other,” said Cukier. “By building on solid research, bringing together the shared wisdom of players from across sectors and rigorously examining opportunities for new and effective approaches, we can find solutions to one of the most challenging issues facing the province."

For more information, visit the OCWI website at


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Image: Mark Patterson, Director of Magnet and Brenda Rideout, Chief Strategic Officer, Tangerine. cut the ribbon at the “Thinkubator” launch. Photo credit: Jessica Blaine Smith

Ryerson’s Magnet has found a new home in the new Ryerson Tangerine Thinkubator space launched on Tuesday, Feb. 24th. Through an innovative joint venture with Tangerine, this space expands Ryerson’s growing incubation and acceleration facilities as part of Ryerson’s commitment to I-INC, a pan-Canadian business incubation network with Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). Funded by the Canadian Incubator and Accelerator Program (CAIP), the network is dramatically increasing the support for new digital technologies applied across sectors.

Magnet, a non-profit initiative co-founded by Ryerson University and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, brings together more than 120 community and employment-based organizations. Currently, over 5,000 employers and 75,000 job seekers are registered with Magnet, with the numbers growing daily. The system provides sophisticated matching between employers and job seekers based on well-defined skills. It also has special features developed to address diversity issues, including ways to anonymize demographic details to reduce unintentional bias. Magnet has made important partnerships with many groups, addressing the needs of specific populations, and in particular addressing unemployment and under-employment related to youth, new immigrants, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and other individuals facing barriers to employment.

Perhaps what is most exciting about Magnet, however, is the wealth of never-before-available data on critical dimensions of the labour market. The system can provide overall information on job seekers and employment opportunities, but also drill down to local and regional markets. The data analytics platform can be used by post-secondary institutions to help track the skills most in demand to inform curriculum. The platform also allows employment agencies to better support clients in their workforce transition.

With a focus on diversity, the Magnet platform can help individuals overcome barriers to employment by connecting them with opportunities that match their skills. Moreover, the platform improves employment outcomes for many different types of job-seekers, as individuals are matched more quickly and accurately with appropriate jobs.

Magnet is only one example of how Ryerson is driving innovation in the employment sector, and as noted above, it is fundamental to the work of the new Ontario Centre for Workplace Innovation.

Find out more about Magnet by visiting


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Friday March 18, 2016
Social Media Lab. 10th Floor, 10 Dundas Street East

As part of the Social Media Lab Speaker series, this research analyzes how people are utilizing Twitter as part of a social movement – using Movember as a case study. The research illustrates how social media can be utilized to trace the conversations of a digitally mediated social movement using conversational data.

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