Online Bridging for Computer Science: Bachelor Degree Completion Driving Economic Growth
Most communities in Northern Ontario have a long history of dependence on resource-based economies. In Sault Ste. Marie—an isolated city just across the river from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan—where Algoma University is based, the steel industry has been a major employer for many years and remains a cornerstone of the local economy. The cyclical nature of resource-based economies and uncertainty around the future of Essar Steel Algoma make working towards a healthy, growing and diversified economy essential.
Sault Ste. Marie has been working hard on the development of its IT sector as part of a diversification strategy. In late 2016, it was announced Sault Ste. Marie had been chosen as the location for the newest Microsoft Dynamics 365 customer service centre. The Createch Group is already recruiting locally, and expects there could be as many as 250 jobs created in Sault Ste. Marie over the next five years. This is but one example of an emerging and growing need for skilled IT professionals as the community transitions to a more knowledge-based economy.
The creation of an online bridging program to facilitate seamless movement from Northern College’s Computer Engineering Technician diploma to Algoma University’s Bachelor of Computer Science degree will contribute to building a skilled labour pool in the emerging IT sector. It also brings potential to spark innovation and contribute to job creation in the north.
Collaboration Is Key
Algoma University and Northern College have a strong history of collaboration. Though located approximately 600 kilometres (nearly 400 miles) apart, the institutions already offer a seamless degree completion opportunity in the field of social work in Timmins, where Northern is based. The impact of the Bachelor of Social Work collaboration is widespread; graduates of the program are practicing across Northeastern Ontario and beyond, where there is significant need for these professionals. We hope to use the same principles of collaboration to make the same significant impact in the IT field.
Durham College is an ideal partner to round out the project with their strong experience and expertise in e-learning and online development. For this project, Durham will provide process guidance as well as lead the development of multimedia learning objects to enrich the learning experience. The project was deliberately designed to be mindful of capacity building—as staff and faculty at Algoma University and Northern College work with Durham College’s team of experts, they will bring their learning back to their home institutions.
The key to making the program a reality is relationships. Strong relationships provide a foundation that makes challenges easier to overcome. And there are many challenges—having to complete the project in a short time frame with three partner institutions located hundreds of kilometres apart are two obvious ones!
The project budget includes funding for travel to facilitate occasional face-to-face meetings and relationship building between project partners. In-person meetings will be essential, however, we will also need to successfully leverage technology-based collaboration tools to complete the project. This will give the team valuable first-hand insight into some of the challenges faced by students in an online learning environment.
Another key consideration is to ensure the development of the bridge program is student-centric throughout. To facilitate this, the team will engage students directly in program and course design. This engagement will take a variety of forms. We will gather input on course and program components as they are developed based on usability tests with students, for instance. All of this must be done while overcoming the barriers of distance and time.
Where will this project be in ten years’ time? Hopefully it will be one of many collaborations between colleges and universities across the north that expand opportunity for students to seamlessly pursue their educational paths without being forced to leave their home communities. Following completion of the bridge program, we would like to see the remainder of the courses in the Bachelor of Computer Science available online to create a fully online path to degree completion.
The bridge provides a concrete example of university and college collaboration that could be replicated in other disciplines. We have always had to be entrepreneurial, and this project could serve as a springboard to begin conversations in other areas for which there is unmet need in the north.
We hope the most significant change in ten years’ time is the impact graduates will have on the transformation of our northern communities. We envision more companies like The Createch Group choosing to operate in Northern Ontario, with Computer Engineering Technician and Computer Science graduates finding meaningful full-time work that allows them to stay in the north and enjoy a high quality of life. We imagine graduates going on to be entrepreneurs and creating jobs for themselves in the IT sector.
We know expectations for labour market demand for graduates in the field of computer science are excellent, and having skilled professionals working in northern communities will contribute to a bright future for vibrant northern communities.
This is the second installment in a three-part series by the leaders of the schools involved in this collaboration—Northern College, Algoma University and Durham College. Over the course of the series, each institution discusses their role in the program and its expected impact on their students and their region. You can see the first installment by Northern College’s Audrey Penner here. Next week’s installment will come from Durham College.