U of A turns Masters program into IT services company

A university humanities department might be the last place you might think to go for IT help. But a fledgling non-profit and the Masters program that spawned it are trying to change that kind of thinking.

Humanitech is a non-profit provider of IT services for academia, small business and

charitable organizations. It was launched in January of this year by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts as an outgrowth of a project by students in the department’s Humanities Computing Masters program.

“”When the program started the thing behind it was, there was demand for arts graduates in the work force, but they were lacking IT skills,”” said Wioletta Polanski, a student in the Humanities Computing program and director of marketing for Humanitech.

Rick Szostak, the associate dean of the Faculty of Arts at U of A, said that while the two-year-old masters program does give students some technical skills including Web design and multimedia, a large part of the program is still theoretical. For example, he said, students are challenged to think what effects a change to the form of a piece of text has on users.

Through Humanitech, students are able to apply this dual-education training to real-world projects, whether it is developing an online Spanish language test or redesigning the Web pages for the U of A’s arts faculty.

The arts faculty contracted Humanitech to give its Web pages a common appearance and format and to ensure they are all properly linked together.

“”For us, it’s something that needs to be done. When students want to find out about us, more and more, they use the Web site,”” Szostak said. “”We get a lot of foreign students, and the only way they could have found out about us is the Web.””

In its two years, the program has attracted 23 students (eight in the first year, 15 in the second), among them nationals from China, Turkey, the United States, India and Kazakhstan. Szostak said he gave the project to Humanitech largely to support the program’s students, and to date all of Humaitech’s clients have come from the university. But Polanski hopes the cost of Humanitech’s services, estimated to be 50 per cent less than the competition, will attract small businesses and charities in the broader community.

However, Polanski said attracting charities is a challenge, even at 50 per cent of the cost. A recent story in the New York Times examined the unwired nature of charities, noting that of the 200,000 largest non-profits in the United States only five per cent, or 10,000, use the Web to solicit donations.

“”It’s usually the cost thing. We would like to get some money for the students,”” said Polanski. “”It’s not just work experience, it’s paid work experience.””

Funding is a problem for Humanitech and Polanski as well. She said she might be out of a job next year because of a lack of financial resources.

“”(Humanitech is) still under development because of the problem of funding and everything we want t do requires funds.””

But Szostak is optimistic Humanitech, which got its original funding from the Faculty of Arts, can becoming economically sound. “”We’re hoping that pretty soon it will become self-sustaining,”” he said.

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