28 - TEACHING THE GOVERNMENT COMPUTER SKILLS
by BERNARD A HODSON
In the late Spring of 1992 the University of Ottawa was invited by the government to attend a meeting, along with several other Universities. At this meeting attendees were briefed on a government Informatics Institute. This had been formed recently with the objective of retraining Federal government personnel working in the area of information technology. This Institute had developed a continuous learning model, a portion of which involved University accredited courses. With this it proposed to upgrade approximately 5500 computer science category personnel. After considering doing this with the private sector, or within technical institutes, the government had concluded that the best opportunity lay in an approach that was academically oriented and at the level of accredited University courses, in partnership with the Universities. The initial reaction by the Universities to this proposal was lukewarm. However the government was serious about the Institute and subsequent debate within the University community focused on such problems as getting courses accredited, defining intellectual property rights, and deciding how to organise such a venture.
The University of Ottawa was not inexperienced in this type of operation. That same year was the fifth and final year of two four year honours programs in computer science, sponsored by the local high tech industry. These courses were conducted on company premises, in the evenings, to technical graduates who were working full time in informatics. This meant the University was able to anticipate the problems that might be encountered in the Federal government initiative. The University also knew, through its contacts with local industry, that such programs were desperately needed. Another advantage of the University of Ottawa was the fact it was a bilingual University, offering courses in both French and English, Canada's two official languages.
Having been involved with the program to the high tech industry I was asked to negotiate on behalf of the University. This involved getting the cooperation and approval from all levels within the University, including the Rector, the Vice Rectors and Registrar, the Deans and, of course, the Departments involved. In addition, because of the anticipated size of the program being requested, it was necessary to obtain the cooperation of several other Universities, a move which would also find favour with the government bodies concerned. Ultimately I arranged a consortium between the Universities of Ottawa, Waterloo and the University of Western Ontario, with the University of Ottawa acting as prime contractor.
Why did the University change from an initially negative attitude to a very positive one? Why did the University decide to make this commitment, particularly when, like all Universities in Canada, they were strapped for funds and staff and literally working flat out to maintain their current operations?. One reason was that the University had a history of distance education, of developing courses for the high tech industry, of developing courses for Judges and other members of the Judiciary, and of sponsoring a variety of seminars and short courses. Community involvement was not something new, so there was a receptive attitude by Faculty.
A second reason was the potential financial and staffing benefits to the University although it must be stated that I had to bargain very hard before winning the contract (the government would have liked everything to be at minimal cost) Initially the University had to ask members of the full time Faculty to launch the project. However it could foresee hiring six or more additional staff, since the program could not be accomplished entirely with part time staff, nor was it desirable from either government or University perspectives. Hiring additional staff also meant adding research capability to the University, and an expansion of its own research interests. These developments would benefit not only the University but also government and the local high tech community.
What encouraged the University even more to participate in this program was the agreement by the government to give it total control over the academic content. To achieve this the University appointed two of its professors to act as academic advisers. These professors were responsible for prerequisites, equating work experience to prerequisites if applicable, and ensuring that the courses offered were academically sound and that they received accreditation through the normal University processes.
In addition the Institute set up "curriculum councils" whose task was to define a course structure for Institute participants and to integrate it into the career structure of the government. "Curriculum councils" were also responsible for monitoring the quantity and relevance of Institute courses. There were four such councils, one for each discipline covered by the Institute, the major discipline being software engineering. The councils were made up from representatives of government, industry and academia. The modus operand was for the government to bring up its needs, which were then discussed by the other parties. In particular the University personnel would match the needs to existing courses, or recommend a new course be developed if they thought it might meet academic criteria. No academic compromise was allowed. This methodology also was used to enhance and upgrade existing University courses.
The initial course offerings, since expanded, covered forty courses to be made available to government personnel. The courses covered a variety of topics in the four categories of software engineering, telecommunications, project management and professional management topics.
Apart from development and presentation of courses the University provided, on a fee for service basis, professors, laboratories (in conjunction with industry), laboratory management, administrative staff, teaching assistants, text recommendations, lab and course scheduling, linkage between students and the Registrar of the University, and quality control on the teaching program. It also negotiated excellent terms for software and hardware acquisition. The University of Ottawa also had to liaise with the other participating Universities and coordinate their activity.
I was involved with the development of all the above, playing a key role in reconciling the needs of the University with government demands. My considerable experience in both government and University was of considerable help in this regard. Having successfully negotiated the government tendering process (it helped that I had previously done some evaluation of tenders for the government) I was asked if I would act as Project Manager for a year or two, to ensure a successful launch. This I agreed to do, hiring a small staff to assist me.
The job was quite interesting, involving some travel to the participating Universities and getting to know their senior staff. It also involved a considerable amount of public relations in addition, of course, to the management skills needed. Problem solving for the many students involved was also on the agenda. In regard to the academic side of things I had two academic support persons to call upon, one for computer science activities, the other for everything else. Between us we determined who developed and who delivered the various courses being developed outside of the regular University curriculum. We also examined the content for academic soundness. The academic support staff were also responsible for seeing that new courses went through all the necessary academic hurdles (various approval committees etc.)
My role expanded as the project grew in size and scope. It was decided to expand the project to the West coast, so I had the task of negotiating with Universities in British Columbia. In all Universities I was the chief contact with senior University staff, the Registrar for student enrolment, the Secretary for legal matters, the Director of Research Services for contract negotiation with the government, with Deans of the Faculties involved with the program and so on. Initially I reported to the Dean of Science, later the job reported to the Vice Rector (Academic).
The program initiation was quite a challenge to both me and the University. The University expected to get the contract. However governments are inherently unstable and unreliable partners so no real work could begin until the contract was formally awarded. Time dragged on until late November, when finally the contract was awarded. As 13 courses had to be ready by mid January, some of which had to be modified or developed from scratch, this involved a mad scramble. Staff had to be hired and salaries negotiated, computers had to be installed and software attached, books had to be ordered, professors already established University schedules had to be adjusted, registration procedures had to be established, partner University coordination had to take place, travelling and expense items had to be arranged. That was just on my part, the government had to advertise, organise, do their usual quadruple copy paperwork, so that they could have students on the initial courses.
The University culture is not accustomed to such a timetable but I was nevertheless able to achieve the start date. One reason was that both University and government saw this as a unique opportunity and wanted it to be successful. As it turned over 300 government personnel registered for the initial 13 courses (initially we limited class size to 25 students, later that number was increased). The next session began in the Spring with roughly comparable numbers, the Summer session being reduced in both numbers and course offerings. The Institute has grown considerably since this start and is now an accepted part of government training.
Although a fairly selective student screening process was established for the first courses it became evident that some of the students required introductory courses. These included introductions to project management, to telecommunications, to software engineering and to business courses, as well as some introduction to mathematics and database. These were later developed and offered by the partner Universities. Perhaps the most difficult problem faced, which I was not involved with, was equating on the job experience to an equivalent academic criterion. This was controversial within the academic community and continued that way.
One conclusion immediately evident from the project was that there was a very large and exciting student population beyond the traditional 18-25 age group, one that should be given significant attention in the years to come. This alone could have a profound effect on University development and culture.
There was a wide diversity of expectation for the project between government and University. On its side the government wanted courses heavy with "hands on" activity, on the other side the Universities leaned to more theoretical and academic studies. The gap narrowed considerably through dialogue between both parties, with the University modifying some of its courses to partially address the government need. Interestingly this dialogue helped both parties, the Universities have fine tuned their courses towards industry and government needs, in turn government and industry have fine tuned their expectations, accepting the need for an academic structure.