Colleges in Canada were created to broaden access to post-secondary education, and their economic value has proven itself again and again.
In British Columbia the numbers are in for 2014 and they are definitive. A recent economic impact study conducted for the BC Colleges, a consortium representing the province’s 11 public, community colleges, found its colleges and their students contributed $7.8 billion to the provincial economy, equal to approximately 4.2 per cent of GDP.
That demonstrated that BCs colleges have an effect comparable to industry sectors such as, finance or food services, the report said. It also found that B.C. college students gain valuable skills to advance in the workforce, strengthening the economy and adding $7.1 billion in income annually. “These students also earn 51 per cent more than their peers with a high school diploma. The result is college students can earn more, pay more taxes and therefore are active contributors to the BC economy,” the report said.
Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is a critical enabler of this access and the resulting provincial and national economic benefit.
In 2014 we have reached a point in the post-secondary education system where ICT services are mission-critical and a significant contributor to the economic benefits colleges create in Canada. This is aligned with many other sectors including health and finance where ICT is critical to daily operations and a top consideration in strategic planning and goal setting.
In British Columbia, post-secondary ICT relies on BC NET to co-ordinate and optimize ICT province wide strategy and infrastructure. BCNET is a not-for-profit, shared information technology (ICT) services organization led by and for its members, British Columbia’s higher education and research institutions. BCNET is owned, governed and funded primarily by its members, and facilitates a unique, collaborative, inter-institutional environment—one based on equality and common goals—to explore and evaluate shared IT solutions for mutual technology challenges.
Michael Hrybyk is the CEO of BCNET and has managed the organization since 1994. “IT and attendant digital content is strategic to almost every facet of college operation and life,” he says. “Students want e-textbooks and mobile facilities for communicating with peers, faculty, and administration. The need for network infrastructure, mobile apps, conferencing systems, and content management is now necessary. Digital infrastructure and applications are every bit as important as bricks and mortar for the college system. Given the constrained budgets and competition for IT talent to provide such systems and services, colleges will need to more extensively use third party suppliers (“the cloud”) or consortia to ensure facilities are in place and keep pace.”
Mike is noted as an innovative leader in the sector and pioneered the concept of transit exchanges as a method of linking research and education networks to their local communities as well as to national and international peers. When asked what the best possible IT environment for the post-secondary system in BC might look like, Mike sees it this way. “IT in higher education needs wholesale improvement to meet the demands new learners are bringing to the environment. Better networks, data centres, and applications infrastructure are necessary for this improvement to happen. Excellent network infrastructure is needed, emphasizing connectivity to content providers (e.g., Google, Microsoft, etextbook sources, …) and the general Internet.”
As for the traditional bricks and mortar and the more recent networked approach to delivery, Mike recommends “Rethinking the institution as more than just disparate campuses that need to be connected, but insisting on the primacy of connectivity to the outside world.”
On the infrastructure side, a constant challenge for colleges, institutes and CEGEPs in Canada, Mike suggests that “given the network, (we need) access to state-of-the art data centres with cheap computing and storage facilities. Basically, the ability to use Google-like facilities, located locally or regionally as needed.” This would allow post-secondary institutions “not to rely on institutional data centres, which are typically difficult to maintain and modernize, as well as being costly.”
While in house and system infrastructure are critical a new challenge has emerged. Canada’s post-secondary system is not immune from the growing appetite for mobile access. In the ideal IT world for this sector in British Columbia Mike envisions the “ability to stage applications which integrate tightly with mobile devices. The applications would utilize servers in modern data centres properly maintained. Applications can run the gamut from student registration to video/voice for distributed teaching and learning.”
Post-secondary education is critical to the economies of British Columbia and Canada. There is a lot of work to be done to ensure the ICT environment in that sector is up to the challenge. Thankfully, organizations like BC Colleges and BCNET are on the job striving for a best practice, futurized environment. Students and indeed, all citizens of BC and Canada, are lucky for that.