A less than warm welcome has not deterred TechBC, Canada's first high-tech university. Philip Fine meets a precocious two-year-old.
Dianne Cyr is trying hard to think of some incident that could bring alive what she does as an online instructor. But she cannot. It might simply be the pressure of trying to come up with an instant anecdote or it might be a telling shortcoming of online education.
The traditional university lives in one's senses: in the smell of the library stacks' mix of dusty books and floor polish; in the squeezing along the row to reach a lecture room seat; in the sounds of cans popping and throats clearing. But Cyr teaches in a high-tech shopping mall in Surrey, a new town in Fraser Valley, outside Vancouver. When she interacts with her students it is mostly online, which is not surprising as most of them are studying for careers that they hope will make them a fortune in Canada's high-tech industry.
While Cyr may be at a loss for the sensual experience of teaching, she is proud of the words that appear on screen when she monitors discussions of her students at the Technical University of British Columbia, known as TechBC. "They have to write things down and frame what they want to say. These are first-year students, but the depth of the discussion is what I have heard from third or fourth-years," says Cyr, who was recruited to teach management and technology from nearby Simon Fraser University, where she was in a traditional classroom.
TechBC is only two years old and, like many young people, it mixes insecurity with a brash take-on-the-world attitude. "Make sure you write something good about us," Cyr says. "We're Canada's newest and only high-tech university."
She has reason to worry about bad publicity. TechBC's birth was fraught. Founded as a result of public pressure in Fraser Valley, the provincial government pushed through legislation that allowed TechBC to sidestep traditional university governance.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers organised a worldwide faculty boycott of the university on the grounds that its statutes did not protect academic freedom or institutional autonomy. Union president Bill Bruneau said: "This institution simply isn't a university."
In its eagerness to foster links with business, the provincial government had legislated to allow TechBC to be administered by a government-appointed board of governors responsible for research and finances, but no senate to safeguard academic standards.
The boycott was called off when an agreement was reached for an academic planning board with staff, students and industry representatives.
Since then, the university has recruited nearly 100 staff from the local area and abroad and welcomed its first 200 students in September 1999. The main Surrey campus is expected to be built in 2003 with student numbers expected eventually to reach 3,000.
Virtual universities such as TechBC, which run about half of most courses online, seem to have a penchant for using a virtual form of English. Cyr and administrator Terry Fuller enthuse about students working in "cross-functional teams", on units and five-week modules. The students are "learners" and taught by "learning associates", a number of whom hold jobs in industry.
Tammy Mooney, a 33-year-old mother of two teenagers who is enrolled on a management technology course, said: "I did get insulted, at first, at the idea of being called a learner." Like all Canadians, she is eligible for a government student loan, and scholarships are available. Management technology, interactive arts and information technology are the three undergraduate programmes offered.
This autumn, TechBC expects to welcome 350 more learners and to offer PhD and masters degrees in two programmes. By 2002, it will offer them in all three. TechBC offers face-to-face teaching and the use of computers and the web in high-tech labs in the mall, but the flexible course design allows students to work at home.
Mooney estimates that she spends 14 hours a day in front of the computer. She has learnt not to try to take in everything on screen but to get the gist of what she is reading. If she cannot understand a difficult concept in, say, her finance class, she knows she can get in touch with her professor by email or can ask questions in the weekly face-to-face tutorial.
She can also access a huge database of academic journals for free. Sometimes she will go to a chatroom or to a discussion board and feel assured when others in her class also do not understand aspects of the course. She remembers once when the whole class was stymied: "We ended up not doing the assignment."
In the same way that Mooney breaks every 45 minutes from the computer to rest her eyes and see what her teenagers are up to, she appreciates breaking out of the virtual world for class contact. "You still need to know what (your professors) expect. There is a loss of the intangible online, like body movement. You want to see what they're conveying."
Canada, like many other countries that are riding a wave of online learning, has been trying to find its sea legs. Teacher-designers are still at a premium, and much of the research to gauge learning outcomes of courses that combine online learning with more traditional forms is being done on the hoof.
Young, small places such as TechBC do have a natural advantage in their newness. There is an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit in the course design teams, and any curriculum or technical criticism is quickly brought to the attention of the administration and faculty.
Provincial faculty association leader Robert Clift, who recalls the gung-ho attitude of the provincial government in founding the university, sees difficulties down the road when TechBC's numbers necessitate a more institutional approach, with faculty put on fixed contracts and alternative funding sources needed to bolster the provincial start-up funds. "Then, will they still have that cohesion?" he asks.
Clift sees some promise in TechBC's willingness to collaborate with the other traditional universities in the province and in its bringing in faculty from other programmes. He says TechBC does not pretend that online education is the only way to study.
But Clift says that it may not be online study that makes for the deep thinking observed by Cyr. "My graduate seminars were far more engaging than some undergraduate classes for some of the same reasons that TechBC is finding engagement. They were small and the people were motivated," he says.
Mooney certainly seems motivated. As each module runs for only five weeks, she says she has no choice but to "hit the road running" while her friends in traditional classrooms are just getting around to buying their texts. The talk of missed campus sights and smells might be moot. With her schedule, there would be no time for her to lie on the freshly mown lawns of traditional university grounds and see the student world go by. But then again, she can watch the shoppers go by.