Canada’s new U builds IT into the lesson plan

The key to providing the Canadian marketplace with sorely-needed highly skilled professionals lies in incorporating more IT into higher education, according to the founding president of Canada’s newest university.

Set to open its doors for the first time in fall of 2003 — just in time to

greet Ontario’s double cohort of high school graduates — the Oshawa-based University of Ontario Institute of Technology will be an IT-centric learning environment, says president and vice-chancellor of UOIT Gary Polonsky.

The school will offer degrees in biology, business and information technology, education, justice studies, as well as nursing and nuclear engineering.

Ontario’s 18th University, UOIT will be the province’s only one whose entire student population will have his or her own laptop, he says. Every student will lease a mobile computer from the university, receiving what Polonsky describes as a “”high-end machine”” at the beginning of year. These will be replaced with new devices by the student’s third year, he said. UOIT has not provided details on the school’s notebook suppliers.

The university plans to use the equipment it is making available to students to create a learning environment that relies heavily on Web-based resources and provides pervasive internet access throughout the campus, says UOIC director of learning technologies Bill Muirhead.

“”All of our new buildings will be wired, all of the common areas within the buildings and all of the common areas around the campus environment itself will be wireless. So that students will have access to the Internet from anywhere at any time when they’re physically on campus. That includes classrooms, dorm rooms, or sitting out under a tree, “” he says.

While the UOIC network infrastructure is an in-house developed resource, the university has partnered with Nortel Networks, IBM and Bell Canada, who will be providing equipment and support for the university’s IT programs. Polonsky says details on the partnerships will become public knowledge in a matter of weeks.

UOIT’s school of business and information technology will offer IT-centric studies. However, the goal is for the university to turn out IT-savvy graduates in all programs, like its nursing faculty for example, Muirhead says.

“”If you take a look at the medical profession and the adoption of information technology within health-care, it’s tremendous,”” he says. “”We would hope to mimic the rich healing environment within a rich learning environment at UOIT and the use of information technology.””

The school plans to do that by getting students involved in online study groups and inviting experts from around the world into the classroom via Internet. A similar model of student interaction has proven quite successful for Canada’s only fully online university, the University of Athabasca.

Athabasca has found that online interaction between students can actually be a more meaningful learning experience than classroom lectures, says the school’s chair for the centre for innovative management, Peter Carr.

“”The real benefit of the technology we have is that it allows people to work really closely together across distance and time. When it’s asynchronous, it can accommodate their work and personal lives. One person will contribute to the discussion at three in the morning, and somebody else will contribute to it at three in the afternoon,”” he says.

The UOIT plans to reach a student body of nearly 4000 by fall of 2004. Its focus will always remain on technology and IT training across all disciplines, Polonsky says.

“”The goal is to have our students be IT experts by the time they leave the university. We’re prepared to help them reach that level of expertise in whatever form works best for them be it tutorials, classes,”” he says. “”IT expertise is not an option in the workforce anymore, it’s what employers are asking for.””

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