by Dr. M.C.Ircha, P.Eng.
Professor of Civil Engineering
Assistant Vice-President (Academic)
University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, (Canada)

Financial Constraints and Growing Competition

Cut-backs in government support for higher education in Canada and other countries coupled with stable or declining student enrolments are forcing universities to find more effective ways of providing learning opportunities for students (both on- and off-campus). In North America, competition for students is growing not only among universities and community colleges but also from an increasing number of specialised private sector training institutions (particularly in the area of computing software and information technologies). These financial and competitive pressures are forcing Canadian universities up "against the wall" in terms of the need to reform curriculum and teaching methods - tradition no longer attracts contemporary students in the face of a host of alternative opportunities.

Canadian universities are seeking to "breach the wall" by adapting to continued financial constraints and growing competition through: curriculum renewal (developing more appropriate multidisciplinary programs to address society s complex problems), examining and improving their image (through effective public-relations efforts), actively recruiting students using new techniques (using CD-ROMS, creating attractive Home Pages with on-line registration and other sophisticated approaches), expanding the outreach of their programs using more effective, interactive distance education technologies (such as interactive Picture-Tel and providing courses on the Internet), and enhancing on-campus deliveries with sophisticated educational technologies (such as multimedia).

Renewing Canadian Universities

Canadian universities are using a wide variety of methods to renew their institutions. Simon Fraser University serves as the node for a National Centre of Excellence in "TeleLearning". This Centre of Excellence has been funded by the federal government to support research and development in educational technologies in partnership with other institutions, including the University of New Brunswick (UNB). Acadia University has entered into a partnership with IBM to redevelop itself into a "Think-Pad U" - one in which all students must acquire an IBM "Think-Pad" lap-top computer to access course notes, library resources and other academic support. Acadia faculty members are expected to mount their course material on-line for student use. UNB has introduced new programs such as: a BA in Multimedia Studies, a majors in Multimedia in Computer Science, and recently, an expanded Information Technology program. Faculty members are encouraged to access the Internet for resources and other material to support their in-class deliveries. UNB s Department of Civil Engineering has partnered with the University of Maine to offer shared graduate courses in soil mechanics via distance education using interactive Picture-Tel systems.

Although these educational technologies offer universities the opportunity to improve their on- and off-campus course offerings, making them more attractive, and possibly more relevant, to contemporary sophisticated students, they do come with a significant price tag attached. The cost for the acquisition and ongoing technical support of educational technologies is high. These costs are particularly important in this ongoing era of government cut-backs and restraint.

Acquiring computing equipment and other technical systems to support enhanced educational technologies is not overly difficult. Many philanthropic donors to Canadian universities are attracted to the "high-tech" vision of computer-based learning and are willing to support systems acquisition. The real problem facing universities lies in maintaining and renewing this expensive equipment over time. Donors (both from the private sector and from governments) are normally far less willing to support this aspect of the university s operations. With a typical three-year operating life for most high-end computing equipment, the renewal issue has become a critical concern for Canadian universities. The manufacturers and suppliers of computing hardware and software are considered "immature" philanthropists - as donors they continue to seek a business-benefit for their contributions (such as entering into a university-industry partnership, like "Think-Pad U", agreeing to discount equipment costs in exchange for preferential purchasing arrangements and so forth). The high-tech industry seems more concerned with generating additional sales to universities rather than working with these institutions as true partners in directed research and development. Despite the financial costs, in their continued quest for renewal, Canadian universities have no choice but to persevere on their path of expanding the use of educational technologies.

Multimedia at UNB

The University of New Brunswick has been involved in supporting educational technologies for decades through the continued expansion and development of its Computing Services Department. During the past five years, UNB has been actively pursuing the development of multimedia for on- and off-campus courses. In late 1993, the President created a multidisciplinary multimedia committee to encourage the use of educational technologies to enhance teaching efforts. The President provided some of this discretionary funds to support the committee s efforts to promote the development of courseware and its use in the classroom. As part of its activities, the committee developed a Multimedia Strategic Plan which incorporates the following mission statement:

Our Mission is to support an effective learning environment for our students and our faculty through the availability and use of appropriate and effective educational technologies.

The Plan led to a number of specific strategies to promote the development and use of multimedia in the University s educational process.

UNB was fortunate to be the recipient of $ 7 million from various donors (including the Provincial government) from a 1994-96 Venture Campaign to support the development and use of educational technologies. This funding has been earmarked for four specific programs within the University s "Distributed Network Learning Environment" (DNLE), namely: the development of the Eaton Multimedia Centre (a focal point for multimedia production, specially equipped classrooms, electronic access to library resources and so forth), a distributed network of smart (digital) classrooms throughout the campus (renovating existing space for both on- and off-campus deliveries), the construction of an Instructional Technology Centre (as part of UNB s contribution to an overall Information Technology /IT/ program supported by the federal and provincial governments), and a multimedia equipment renewal fund (placing part of the funds in reserve to support future replacement of equipment and software).

In parallel with the DNLE program, UNB has been actively promoting the development of new multimedia-related programs including: offering for a number of years, a successful Certificate Program in Multimedia (offered through Extension to educational practitioners across the country and abroad), a BA in Multimedia Studies (a Faculty of Arts degree program linking the creativity of Fine Arts students with emerging multimedia technologies), a majors program in Multimedia in the Faculty of Computer Science (integrated with the Arts BA), providing a suite of first year courses available for off-campus students on the Internet, appointing a Professor of Multimedia Studies (a joint appointment in the Faculties of Arts and Education) supported by donations from the provincial telephone company (NBTeL), and actively digitising library resources for on-line student use through the Library s dedicated "e-text" Centre. In addition, UNB has provided courses and dedicated facilities for faculty and staff to ensure they too are able to use emerging educational technologies effectively. A number of dedicated sites have been provided on-campus including: the Centre for the Promotion of Instructional Technology, Instructional Technology Learning Centre, Interactive Multimedia Instructional Laboratory, Multimedia Lab, and the Teaching and Learning Centre. The Vice-President (Academic) has a Multimedia Fund to provide stipends to relieve faculty members wishing to dedicate time to developing specific courseware and to "top-up" additional support for faculty and staff.

As part of these expanding endeavours in the exciting world of educational technologies, UNB is actively involved with the growing multimedia industry in the Fredericton area. This involvement includes providing graduates who both create and work in these firms and by supporting their ongoing research and development needs. The University is a major participant with provincial and municipal partners in developing a Knowledge Park (on University lands) to create an incubation centre to nurture the development of the regional IT and multimedia industries.

In a variety of ways, the University of New Brunswick has established itself as a regional and national centre in the emerging field of multimedia as a form of advanced educational technology. These initiatives support the complementary IT initiatives both on-campus and throughout the region.


Financial and competitive pressures are forcing Canadian universities to seek ways to "breach the wall" they are facing. The steps being taken to counter these pressures include embracing emerging educational technologies to enhance the universities curriculum and programs being delivered both on- and off-campus. Although the use of educational technology is expensive, contemporary sophisticated students are increasingly demanding access to the latest computing technologies and the Internet - an additional pressure to which universities must respond. The University of New Brunswick, in a manner similar to other Canadian institutions, is taking active steps to improve its curriculum and programs to meet the needs of contemporary students by embracing the use of multimedia in the classroom.

About the author: In the AECEF Newsletters 1/98 and 2/98, we have published a series of papers about general problems of civil engineering education in Canada by Professor Michael Ircha. Professor Michael Ircha is a long time member of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of New Brunswick (Canada). Presently, he is also the Assistant Vice President (Academic) (Assistant Rector in an European University). He is trained as a civil engineer and planner and is associated with the Transportation group at UNB. He is the immediate past president of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering, Chairman of the Fredericton Planning Advisory Committee, a consultant and lecturer for the United Nations with a particular interest in Harbour Planning and Operations. He publishes extensively in Planning and Administration Journals.

Return to the page "Newsletter 2/1998"