Signs of the times

Signs of the times

It’s one thing to enhance your campus with online technology. It’s another to offer a top-quality education without a physical classroom at all.

But that’s exactly what the University of Fredericton is doing.

“Our business school is one of the biggest in Atlantic Canada. It’s also 100 per cent online,” Peter Mersereau, Director of Operations at UFred, tells Atlantic Business.

On a virtual campus, innovation is critical. The university has partnered with Cisco to provide students with a dynamic and responsive learning experience without a large onus on the user. Because everything is online, students need instant access to resources, and a level of support at least as engaging as a traditional classroom. But UFred is up to the task.

“Our program designs are key to our success,” Mersereau explains. “We’ve incorporated a high level of collaboration into our classes. Our students regularly work together on projects and assignments. We have also partnered with Wittenborg University in the Netherlands to provide the first game-based learning MBA (which we’re currently piloting), which will take interactivity and collaboration to the next level. We’re very excited to see the results.

They’re already promising. UFred has tripled in size over the last three years, employing 30 operational staff and more than 40 professors and instructors teaching nearly 3,000 students.

“Students don’t want to be told they only have one way of obtaining their education,” Mersereau says. “So we provide them with options. And we never stop trying to become better.”

At the NSCC, innovation isn’t just a way to tinker with teaching — it’s at the absolute heart of preparing their students for the reality of the IT industry.

“Students demand to learn the most current stuff,” Sean Morrow, Faculty for Web Programming at the Truro Campus, tells Atlantic Business. “So that means we have to stay as relevant and cutting-edge as possible. It’s fun, but exhausting.”

But Morrow has a two-pronged approach to making sure both he and his students stay on top of the shifting sands of the tech industry.

“I dedicate a certain amount of time, when I’m not teaching, to just being a programmer again,” Morrow explains. “It’s lovely. I just code like crazy for however many weeks, trying out as many techs as I can and incorporating them into my lessons. It’s all about keeping your finger on industry.”

This passion for constant learning is something that Morrow brings to the classroom. “Some instructors will just throw a piece of finished code up on the board and have students dissect it,” he observes. “I actually develop with my students. Obviously I have a plan, but I’ll join them in the lab and we’ll start with a clean file and we’ll build something together.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he laughs. “Sometimes things don’t work. Sometimes I’m scratching my head. But the learning is amazing, because they see a 25 year veteran making mistakes, and showing that they need to be methodical and think about these things and look for bugs.”

It’s the NSCC’s focus on teaching concepts, ideas, and the programming mindset — and not just the latest hot tech — that really sets their grads apart.

“I call it adaptability. They get to a point I like to call ‘Nerdlinger Zen’,” Morrow chuckles. “They’re just able to adapt to whatever technology comes their way with confidence. Which is important, because in IT, everything we teach will be outdated in five years. So we make sure they can handle whatever industry throws at them. To me, that’s success.”

Indeed it is.

We found the same basic truth in every classroom we visited, from the sophisticated laboratories of Memorial University to the purely virtual environment of the University of Fredericton. Whether they’re grappling with the written word or the world wide web, the best teachers are those who equip their students with the right mindset — not just the newest edition of a textbook, or a script for the latest programming language.

“The mind is not a cup to be filled,” Socrates once mused, “but a fire to be kindled.” And in campuses across Atlantic Canada, that fire is burning more brightly than ever.

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