What is the hot topic in Canadian Higher Education?

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I have the pleasure of working with Melissa on her amazing PSEWEB conference in the roll of being an email instigator. Recently a discussion has been going around the advisory group on the keynote and in true committee fashion we are throwing some great thoughts out there but not helping get things done ;) My latest ramble (slightly edited) was the following list:

  • Distance education and part-time masters are only now coming to fruition (in established academic/research schools)
  • Student experience sucks, focus on ‘student success’ and overall student experience is becoming more intentional — example, creation of the Student Success office at the University of Waterloo
  • Other than uwaterloo and maybe some colleges (that have a little potential budget surplus), most schools budgets are in bad shape (are there some that aren’t? Please comment)
  • Canadian’s time spent online is higher than the US yet we don’t engage our students that way very well (or do we?)
  • Entrepreneurship is the buzz word of our Federal government and looking to education and commercial partnerships is important to all levels of government
  • A University President just became Governor General of Canada
  • Very little cuts to Canadian research and education when compared to the rest of the G20 countries
  • Grade schools are full (to busting) with kids… at least in soem parts of southern ontario, however demographics say student numbers coming from Canada may slow down (some schools have seen that) which means more focus on international recruitment. Can we even predict this?
  • Branding madness… sweet f is it irrational. A unified brand across something as diverse as a University seems to be a crusade on a visual level that runs on 5-10 yr cycles when what I think all we really need is a raised level of professionalism across all marketing and communications.

I certainly don’t claim any of those is steadfastly factual besides the Governor General being David Johnston. Any of those points above is a blog post explaining the problem in detail and a lot of them are where a raised awareness of branding and marketing in Canada’s business culture has spilled over into Post-Secondary education. From my perspective as a Past-President of one of the larger staff groups in Post-Secondary education and someone that entered the workforce right as Canadian institutions in Ontario welcomed a ‘double cohort’ of younger first year students with less high school education, I see a (one of at least a few) fundamental challenge in Higher Ed as the following:

The demands for professional organizational management and productivity along with the increasingly specialized focus of academics, renewed expectations placed on academic research being tied to commercialization, along with a long standing (but ignored) issue surrounding student experience in Canada points to Canadian (and maybe global in some respects) Post-Secondary Education being at a crossroads.

I see the marketing and web technology solutions being caught up in the turmoil but it is a big part of the solution. If an institution can deploy a strategy effectively it likely has organizational issues either sorted out or in check. I personally look to startup culture for some solutions and I see many things we could try in higher ed.

What are the hot topics though? Is it measuring the effectiveness of marketing (measuring anything in higher ed is a new thing)? Is it using marketing communications as part of a larger effort to enhance student experience? Is it international branding? Do I even have a grasp on reality with what I see as a (one of many) fundamental challenges in higher ed?

Just to throw this out there was well… I see the University of Waterloo as being in a position to be a major disruptor and really shake up Higher Ed in Canada like it did in its first 25 years with co-op, Math, Engineering, etc. We are getting the right people in the right places across both staff and faculty, all I think we need is the right President that won’t just walk in David Johnston’s foot prints but help lead us down the path that David showed us exists.

The “Dormcubator” and the entrepreneur by-products of higher education

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Having had a great opportunity over the last year and a half to work at VeloCity I am convinced that the “Dormcubator” (The Globe and Mail made it up, not me, but have you Google’d it?) model in higher education is a hugely important effort as part of an overall student success strategy in higher education. This, in my opinion, is because it leverages a by-product of higher education and therefore is actually easy (with regards to the relative cost of new investment) to make relatively successful but it also essential to consciously enhance the experience for those students that enter University for other reasons than academic development.

The business take of by-products is pretty well explained in this Think Vitamin article, here is my take in the context of what I am doing at VeloCity in Higher Education.

Why are entrepreneurs a ‘by-product’ of Higher Education?

Higher Education is tooled to create more academics, not employees (and yes, the government talks about direct influence on job growth and training but the economic impact of higher education is itself arguably by-product). The process of undergraduate to graduate student to post-doc to finally a prof (with a few steps in-between) is a long held process to find the best of the best academics. It attracts the some of the smartest people in society to push themselves and give it a try. Pretty close to all of those that try don’t go all they way to a PhD but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely intelligent and capable people, they just aren’t academics.

This talent that ‘falls off’ after their undergraduate or even graduate experience is what fuels the job market with highly skilled and knowledgeable work force. Those that go on to do research fuel development of new technologies, develop greater understanding of how technology or others influence us and our world, and educate the next generation of talent. Those that don’t go on to become academics and do research and/or teach are a by-product because the primary product that higher education focuses on is the academic or researcher.

At the University of Waterloo it is a bit different. The University recognized early on that Engineers aren’t going into Engineering to be PhD’s — they go to be Engineers. Consciously or not, the University was focused on creating professionals as well as academics and researchers which crosses all Faculties. Developing the worlds largest co-operative education program made perfect sense. The University’s second core product was born, a highly skilled and educated professional worker. The University of Waterloo produces amazing Engineers, Actuaries, Optometrists, Accountants, Pharmacists, etc. All roles that could get PhD’s but it isn’t the primary focus of the program.

Enter the Entrepreneur as a professional product of higher ed

The Entrepreneur is a different professional and much harder one for a University to create a program for. An Entrepreneur tends to not fit in any one program, likely aren’t attracted to or perform well in the lecture style environment, and they come from just about anywhere without a set academic career goal. They likely go to University because it is an interesting and a challenge, not because they want to conform to a system. Waterloo has the coders that are entrepreneurial but we also have the business or medical or physics or math or recreation and leisure entrepreneurs. Even the Co-op program isn’t ideal as it is focused on getting  the student a job and a great experience as an employee. However, my theory is that the Co-op program along with new leading edge academic programs attract some of the most talented and entrepreneurial students in Canada.

Campus culture in Canada and Waterloo is weak

Where the University of Waterloo has fallen short overall is on building a campus culture and experience. The challenge of the co-op grind every 4-8 months (month 1 is apply to jobs, month 2 is interviews and midterms, month 3 is midterms, assignments, and maybe interviews, month 4 is exams, repeat), the constant moving, the lack of real community connection and culture in the City of Waterloo, along with a bunch of other things means the positive experience and culture is difficult to create. A lot is changing though.

Enter the frat house for entrepreneurs that make stuff

Certainly by no means an Animal House, VeloCity is a fraternity of entrepreneurs that share a common goal in life but come from all sorts of different programs and/or streams on campus. The living environment allows Waterloo students to establish solid friendships with future co-founders, expand their network, and find some of the best co-op jobs at startups that are out there. This has been called a “dormcubator” as it mixes a dormitory setting with an incubator like program.

The advantages to students are numerous but I think there are a few core things:

  • Broader base to build relationships with fellow students: connections across educational streams means students meet people they likely would have never met, Computer Science and Software Engineering students rarely go to class together and then we through a Business student in there.
  • A common experience: the experience in the environment gives those that live there a common but exclusive connection even if they weren’t living there at the same time. These connections are stronger than simply the ‘you went to Waterloo?’ connections — which are also fairly strong given the grind all of Waterloo Alumni have experienced.
  • Leveraging connections the University has already: Startups based in Silicon Valley, Montreal, Toronto, Boston, etc have a self selecting group of entrepreneurs to aim for at the start of every term they are looking to hire. This gives the students easier access to learn from other startups and still keep their debt loads down.

The residence, in my mind, is one part of an important shift to improve the student experience outside of the academic streams recognizing that students go to university not only for the lectures and assignments. This is something that is easier for Waterloo to do given the Co-op program is something it is already deeply committed to and it certainly is not an academic process. I would challenge other schools to look at similar ideas.

The Ryerson DMZ is another take on this model in Canada that is really exciting, lets see some more.

There is a likely a PhD in waiting on this topic so yes I oversimplified this but it is a blog post after all ;)

The VeloCity workspace

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Yesterday on the VeloCity blog I announced the VeloCity workspace at the Communitech Hub. It is, to me, a piece that has missing at VeloCity as we have tried to do an awful lot in what is a residential building but what you can’t do is work as part of the startup community locally. The University of Waterloo campus is just too isolated with the way parking is and its size to try and have a space that is open to the community for various events and collaboration. When you add the cost of living in residence and housing rules that require you to be a current full time student (all understandable and reasonable) there was a clear need to have a ‘next step’ space for students that have other living arrangements and recent grads of the University.

Currently there is no better place to be than in the new Communitech Hub in Kitchener. With bigger companies like Desire2Learn (founded by a uwaterloo grad) and Google as well as smaller companies like DossierView in Tannery space along with the partner organizations within the Hub itself, it is a good opportunity to be in the middle of the best that the Waterloo Region has to offer. Plus I get to work with the Accelerator Centre and Communitech, something I love doing as they are both organizations that have climbed a big learning curve and are now really influencing the services offered to companies across Canada.

This is a fluid experiment and I am assuming certain details of how we run the space will change but it is really exciting to try. What I do know is that a similar space at Ryerson (the Digital Media Zone) is a success with a load of startups working away in a gorgeous space in downtown Toronto. VeloCity and the DMZ are working closely together to develop this new model for an incubator type service inside higher education which is also something I am excited about. My hope is that we can get more Universities and Colleges working with us but time will tell.

What I see as our big challenges going into this are:

  • Cost of the space and covering the costs of the services — current guestimates place this kind of service for very early stage startups at around $1000 a month per startup. Our costs aren’t that but I will need to keep an eye on it. Certainly we do not have anywhere close to the same staffing level as Ryerson and I am not sure we need to but we do need more help to keep things moving. That will increase our cost.
  • What does success look like? With the residence I am still not sure what success is. I know it isn’t having a startup launch out of the residence into the real world and it is more important to build a strong bond between future co-founders but I will need to work on that. With the workspace it could very well be measured by the number of startups that find some revenue.
  • What are we missing? I try not to let this drive me nuts but I am constantly trying to find the gaps in what we are doing and ensure we stay focused on what are core mission is. That means saying no sometimes but a lot of the time the ‘no’ is because we just don’t have the staff to work with certain groups. Need to tackle point one above.

In a few months I will find new challenges and see if what I think are important problems really are. This is pretty exciting! Any questions, just ask. I aim to be as open as I possibly can about this whole thing ;)

Mentor a student entrepreneur while helping your startup

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Being a student at the University of Waterloo has one huge advantage over most other schools, Co-op. Startups have one huge advantage available to them available here in Waterloo, Waterloo students in co-op and the Small Business Internship Program along with a ton of other funding programs. From my perspective at VeloCity there is no better mentorship opportunity for students wanting to break into the startup world than by working for a startup.

However, it is not that easy for startups to stand out and be found by students — there is a lot of competition and with companies like Yahoo!, RIM, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and more posting jobs startups need to market themselves. On top of that, it is really hard to startups to get the timing right and navigate the co-op hiring process at the University. It’s not the fault of the process but more the nature of a fledgling business balancing a lot of demands meeting the deadlines that are at the start of each term.

Through VeloCity I want to help startups find good students to work with and I want the students to have the opportunity to gain some great experience working with a startup in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, San Francisco, etc. What I ask is that startups take a moment and fill out some basic information first (at the end of the post or use this link). From there go over to the Employer Manual on the CECS site and read up on hiring a student. You will need to follow their process to get a job posted.

Next VeloCity will follow-up with you. Once you have a job posted with CECS we will need to share that job posting number with students so they can find it faster.

What we plan to do is create a list for students at VeloCity to see right at the start of each term so that the company names are front and center. We will also send out the list of students (and some recent grads) that have been in VeloCity. We will share the details as we get them and keep them informed. The last thing is that we will develop a poster for campus that can feature startups and working for them.

What is asked in return…

We have the following topics that need speakers on the specific dates at 4pm:

  • A Start-up Life, Sept 20
  • Starting a Business, Sept 27
  • Building a Team, Oct 4
  • The Pitch, Oct 18
  • Selling your Product, Nov 1
  • Financial Management, Nov 8
  • Raising Money, Nov 15
  • As well as networking lunches at the Bomber every other Wednesday starting on September 22nd that it would good if you (by you I mean the founder(s), CEO, etc) could try and attend at least one. There is also are start of term BBQ on September 20th and would encourage you to come out that night.

    Canadian Post-Secondary Education Web Conference (#pseweb) reflections

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    The first Canadian Post-Secondary Education Web Conference (or just PSEWEB) has come and gone . Wow what a fun conference! For a conference that started as an idea at HighEdWeb 2009 it became a great little conference with 140 in attendance, some amazing speakers, and a unique focus on not just web technology or content but how to use the web with marketing, communications, and student/staff/faculty engagement.

    With other conferences like CANHEIT and OUCC being technology driven, it is refreshing to see a scrappy little upstart focus not only on all of post-secondary education web pros but also on the utilization of the technology and the people consuming content. The other two are very technology driven and focused on different things. There is the CCAE conference as well but quite honestly it is a very high priced conference that doesn’t get into the more leading edge stuff people are trying and a bit too advancement focused.

    What I really enjoyed about the conference is meeting some great professionals from across the country and sharing war stories from the years of working on the web in higher ed. Sure I can do that at HighEdWeb in the US but they are well ahead of Canadian schools in many things and have a different type of student market. It’s not that a ton can be learned by going to HighEdWeb 2010 (I highly recommend it) but there is something really good about having a bit of a sanity check measured against peers in your own country.

    The other really surprising and pleasant thing… Brock University has a really nice campus and community surrounding it — I never really had a chance to appreciate that before.

    Big thanks to Melissa for bringing this all together and anyone else who helped her ;) Have a look on twitter (pseweb) for some great insights and I will be posting a bit more about my presentations later this week. For an American’s perspective (and a great overview) have a look at canada’s 1st highered web conference a success: a foreigner’s perspective.

    Did marketing drive the coming meltdown in higher ed?

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    Seth Godin has an interesting post, The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer), where he focuses pretty strongly on the games being played in higher education to attract students and justify the huge relative increase in the cost of higher ed. Four of his five points are what everyone sees and I tend to agree. The marketing material designed to push people to apply and then (in the US) the more applications you reject the higher your rankings feeds back into the marketing material. I think that is a bit of a over-simplification of rankings but I completely agree the rankings game is one big driver of the madness in marketing.

    His point on accreditation (his fifth point) has a big hole in it but there is something to this:

    Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I’d ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high? Does NYU have to get so much bigger? Why?

    The access to the information might not be the value of higher education anymore but learning how to make proper sense of that information and evaluate it properly certainly is something that is very hard to learn outside of higher education. In addition to that, creating new high quality information is something academics are born to do. Certainly a lot of it is noise but nothing like the noise that I am contributing to with this blog post*. The other part, does an institution need to get bigger? Yes. But only if it is growing to build its research and commercialization activities in my mind.

    For those that don’t get why we need higher ed, it comes down to who you want to rely on doing your research and driving our society in the future. Currently companies like IBM, Microsoft, Dow, 3M, etc are doing all the research in closed environments with profit as their motivation. Higher education institutions have tried to keep pace but the facilities are expensive and the space required is hard to come by for labs. Most research in higher education is open (once published) with a clear way for people to replicate the results (in Science at least). Engineers take the science, add a bit of their own, and put things together. Arts looks and how people interact with it. With marketing folks and MBAs (with the best intentions) driving the fix for the money/space problem by attracting more students the priorities of the institution appeared to have lost their way.

    I agree with Seth Godin but I think a meltdown is a tad dramatic. I can see a shift back towards research and experience in Ontario at the very least. There is a recognition that the experience is what students are looking for and the research (along with commercialization of some research) is what could generate the revenue instead of tuition increases.

    Like a recession, by the time you identify it you are already in the middle of it. A shift is happening, not a meltdown, but I think how much power/influence marketing folks have on the institution will diminish and the emphasis will go to the story tellers that share what value and experience really is in higher ed.

    *yes there are lots of generalizations in here but I am not writing a research paper ;)

    How to screw up the higher education system in Ontario

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    The Ontario Premier made his speech the other day that gave a big nod to the need for a stronger education system (no mention of the money to do it btw) but along with nod came some silly goals that demonstrate a clear misunderstanding with the state of higher education in Ontario. The globecampus.ca blog outlines some issues but I think it misses the point, we need revolution in education not just more bums in seats.

    Here’s my view of the world (simplified/generalize for effect):

    • Universities are tooled to create more academics, other outcomes besides professional accreditation are unintentional.
    • The government has given money to build buildings over the last 10 years – not lecture halls but buildings – and no money to maintain the buildings.
    • Budget cuts have peeled away operating budget of departments over 10 years but the pressure to deliver more has seen staff being hired without the flexibility or ability to look at how things fit within the larger organization.
    • Staff are better educated than in the past and in many cases more skilled than the academics yet are seen as second class citizens within the organization.
    • Most academics want to teach, do research, and focus on their vocation – they do not want to recruit, do marketing or communications, manage staff outside of their research group, or be a department chair, associate dean, or dean.
    • Research funds rarely contribute to the well being of the institution or teaching. Heck they likely don’t pay for the power consumption of the toys they buy.
    • Academic time and process rewards mediocracy and we all know mediocre products are crap (I say this while looking at my UW degree).
    • Students are paying way too much in tuition and have earned the right to view higher education as a service not an earned place that expects, requires, and rewards hard work (not with a job but with that little warm feeling you get, currently most students think only about jobs).
    • Like all of the publicly funded jobs, the leaders are gone or in the process of being chased out. As we head out of the recession a new exodus of the employable from public service will most certainly occur.

    To tackle these things takes breaking out of the mediocre and into some pretty crazy thinking. We need to take risks, experiment, and challenge the establishment that is almost dysfunctional outside a few pockets of brilliance. What the Ontario government is offering is more of the same—rhetoric, promises, and likely funds earmarked and the established system not a revolution.

    Of course that isn’t for the government to dictate. We need to figure this out and we need the leaders within higher education that are willing to do so. I see glimpses of it but I fear we won’t really go for it as there is little appetite or motivation to break out of the crisis management culture and throw away status quo. However, if I was king of higher education this is what I would try:

    • Remove administrative or managerial positions that are just appointments of academics—make them apply against other professionals
    • Create a product management office, force them on the world with a mandate to train people to think about their products and projects.
    • Put post-docs in the classroom, formalize a new class of research focused academics which they are associated with and require them to ship a new product or service every 2-3 years
    • Create a hybrid of distance education and intense campus education along with co-op
    • Move staff from the silos of departments to special team pools that can charge out for services and rotate throughout campus (modern take on secretarial pools)—that way you can rally on time sensitive pushes and build expertise along with campus wide perspective
    • Service Level Agreements
    • More programs and services to students that are not related directly to academics but tied more to the local community (build more VeloCities).

    Could be all crazy ideas but I would like to try at least one or two of them ;) We need to think differently about higher education and how we function institutionally. If we continue down the cut backs, hand outs, and status quo we will surely self destruct within a generation.

    Disclaimer: I would say this openly on campus and I am pretty sure it may offend some but these are thoughts being thrown out there. We need to start thinking and trying things.