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5 Questions with Nick Rubidge

Nick Rubidge retires this summer as President and CEO, College of the Rockies and as a BCcampus Strategic Council Member.

Dr. Nick Rubidge1. In February, you received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for your exceptional contribution to the post-secondary sector and adult education. Can you share with us your thoughts about open education and access?

Colleges in B.C. were established to provide educational opportunities to all residents of the province. They were created on the assumption that we should be providing our citizens with the opportunity to succeed regardless of where they live or what was their previous socio-economic status. They were grounded in the social movements and egalitarian ideals coming out of the ’60s. Educational opportunity was seen as being the means through which individuals could acquire the skills to lead productive and fulfilling lives. As a consequence of creating an informed citizenry and workforce, our productivity would increase and our reliance on government programs would be reduced.

Our colleges were created with the mandate to provide access to all to that opportunity and not to serve an elite few. This was in contrast to the universities who traditionally have had a highly selective admissions process. Yet from their foundations colleges were conceived as being complementary to the universities and were part of the whole integrated B.C. system. They were to be the means through which knowledge was to be democratized.

Originally I saw open access as being what colleges did, in part by their admissions policies, through their student support systems, and through being geographically accessible, enabling individuals to succeed no matter what their personal circumstances and prior educational experiences. You could enter as an illiterate and graduate in the field of your choice. Of course, the intervening years with dramatic changes in technology have made knowledge even more accessible.

Our institutions are now in the uncomfortable position of having to adjust to the reality that they no longer have the monopoly on knowledge or credentialing, nor are their students geographically or economically bound to them. This requires us to become a whole lot more creative in how we design and deliver our programs. However, the original commitment to providing access to affordable, high quality learning experiences to enable our citizens to lead fulfilling and productive lives is still a cornerstone of what post-secondary learning is all about. Perhaps it’s why I still feel what we do is important and why I have stayed working in this field.

2. The College of The Rockies recently received money for haul truck simulators to train those interested in working in the mining industry. Can you talk to us about the importance of these immersive technologies and other examples of simulators being used in Canada?

In total, the college received more than $2.7M (with contributions from Western Economic Diversification Canada, the B.C. government and the Columbia Basin Trust). We now have five haul truck simulators.

Some of the world’s largest coal mines are found in the East Kootenays. We have mines opening in other parts of the province and we have, of course, the tar sands in Alberta. In many cases the entry level job is that of a haul truck driver. These haul trucks are a little larger than the trucks you see working around the lower mainland; they can carry 400 tons (or 800 pick-up truck loads) and cost about $7.4M. Their tires cost about $70K each. A driver can wreck a tire by driving over a rock, or even by trying to turn the wheel when the truck isn’t moving fast enough. These are big trucks, and there is a shortage of haul truck drivers. If we want to provide more people with the chance to find employment in the mining industry—by the way, women make excellent haul truck drivers—we need to find ways to provide some entry level training and expose them to these opportunities.

These simulators provide a totally realistic experience for students. In a safe environment they can experience emergency situations such as engine fires, roll over, and burst tires—situations that simply are impossible to create on a real truck. These training experiences can be provided at two of our campuses, and one simulator is mobile and can be moved to any location in the province to provide access to this training.

I believe that we will find more and more ways to use fully immersive simulator types of experiences for many of our other programs in the future, in both our academic and vocational programs, as an alternative to acquiring prohibitively expensive equipment. Of course, we are already seeing the development of remote labs at North Island College and students all over the province can access their science experiments at NIC. We at College of the Rockies, as do many other institutions, have programmable simulator manikins in our nursing labs, who can provide students with an unnervingly real patient who can present a range of conditions, respond to injections, has a heart you can listen to, and if the treatment is wrong the patient will die. Business simulations have been used for years in business competitions or in training programs. As we get better at designing simulations, and as we find ways to make them affordable, I see simulators as being a way to greatly enrich the learning experience and I see potential applications in all our classes.

3. What is a student-centred college?

A student-centred college is one where the interests of students are ahead of all the other competing interests at an institution. That is, serving a student takes precedence over research interests, faculty interests or administrative expediency. Where collective agreements and operating policies are all subservient to the question of “how can we best serve our students?” The institutional focus is on what students want or need, and not on what resources the institution has, or the particular skill set of existing faculty. It is much easier to say than to actually create such a culture within an institutionalized environment.

4. You were instrumental in setting up the new governance framework for BCcampus as a Strategic Council Member. Can you share your thoughts about BCcampus’ role within the post-secondary sector?

BCcampus has a really important role in helping us manage and support innovation in our institutions.  For many of us, change is threatening, especially when the change is technology based and along with the unfamiliar comes anxiety of job security. I recall years ago a conversation with a faculty leader reacting to a government paper on distance learning, who denounced it as a means to deprive faculty of their livelihood and told me he and his colleagues would have nothing to do with it. That was some 20 years ago. Now he is an advocate for distributed learning, and the institution he works for relies on the distance students for survival. Many programs are only offered making use of technology, and hybrid delivery is almost universal.

BCcampus has a huge role to play in supporting pockets on innovation, showcasing successes and championing best practices. As institutional leaders Presidents, VPs and Deans are not likely have the time to be in the vanguard of change. They might like to be, but the reality is they need a centre of innovation where they too can go for advice, sometimes to temper the pressures they are experiencing from their own faculty (either for an innovation, or against it).  BCcampus plays an essential role in keeping us moving ahead. In addition, of course, there is the added advantage of the various shared services that make real costs savings to the system.

The challenge BCcampus faces is that much of its excellent work goes unnoticed, or is done under the radar. Which on the one hand gives it great freedom to explore and to innovate, and on the other is a handicap when Presidents are asked, “What does BCcampus do for us?” I learned a great deal about BCcampus through my participation on the Council, and expect the other participants have as well.

5. You have announced that you will retire in July 2013. What do you think the post-secondary education sector will look like five years from now? 

In an educational system, five years isn’t really a very long time. In some of my more depressed moments I think we will have had another five years of underfunding. The pressures on the system to do more, smarter, and better will not change. But then if I was asked that question 10 years ago I didn’t expect to see the university colleges turned into universities, I thought the university college was a model that would continue to evolve gradually and to become a feature of the post-secondary scenery in B.C. rather than quickly morphing into teaching universities. We could see similar dramatic changes to mandate and structure in response to government policy changes.

There will be more use of so-called smart technology and maybe we will have found ways to use social media in many of our classrooms, rather than just those who are taught by techno-junkies. I suspect we will see more resources on the web, with the Khan Academy or TED Talks type of resource finding its way into every class. I hope we would have made great progress in the provision of open source material for our students. Hopefully, we will see more collaboration between institutions making use of the technology to allow us to share resources in delivering choice throughout the province, to some extent ameliorating the impact of ongoing funding constraints.

It would be nice to think we have dealt with the challenges of how we train apprentices, and have found ways to integrate trades training into the rest of the post-secondary world, a bit like what is happening in Alberta.

I suspect our students will continue to pressure us into making more and better use of the technology.

Hopefully the one thing that won’t change is our commitment to providing access to post-secondary experiences rated among the best in the world.

 

NOTABLE QUOTES

Our institutions are now in the uncomfortable position of having to adjust to the reality that they no longer have the monopoly on knowledge or credentialing, nor are their students geographically or economically bound to them. This requires us to become a whole lot more creative in how we design and deliver our programs. -Dr. Nick Rubidge

A student-centred college is one where the interests of students are ahead of all the other competing interests at an institution. …Where collective agreements and operating policies are all subservient to the question of “how can we best serve our students?” -Dr. Nick Rubidge

BCcampus has a really important role in helping us manage and support innovation in our institutions.  For many of us, change is threatening, especially when the change is technology based and along with the unfamiliar comes anxiety of job security. -Dr. Nick Rubidge