Still Trending Down: Computing-related graduates in Alberta

If we’re serious about shifting the Alberta Advantage, I think we need to focus on technology. If we really want to be in the sweet spot of adding lots of value, participating in the economy of the future, and being globally competitive, we need smart people who can be creative and innovative in the appropriate sectors and industries. Technology is absolutely going to be at the heart of any sector or industry that will enable us to be world-class and trendsetting, there’s just no question about it.

That’s why this graph absolutely shocked me:

The data comes from the University of Alberta, but I think it is representative of the province as a whole.

The number of students graduating in the fields of Computing Science and Computer Engineering in Alberta is trending downward, with no correction in sight. How can we build the economy of the future when the picture looks like this?

Here’s a bit more detail – with the number of graduates broken out by degree/program:

I haven’t looked, but I suspect enrollment numbers would be similar (that is, I don’t think an incredible number of students register in computing-related programs and then switch out).

Bill Gates has been talking about the need for more students to take up computer science for years now. There’s more demand than supply, even when you factor in immigration. The need for us to stay competitive in this regard is well-documented. It looks like we’re falling further behind.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we get more students interested in computer-related degrees. But I do think it is important to consider this data when we talk about the success of our provincial technology sectors, and indeed when we consider shifting the Alberta Advantage.

Recap: 2010 EEDC Annual Luncheon

Today I joined hundreds of other Edmontonians at the 2010 EEDC Annual Luncheon, held at the Shaw Conference Centre. The event was an opportunity for EEDC to share its accomplishments over the past year, and to provide thoughts and guidance on the economic outlook for our city. Outgoing EEDC board chair Randy Ferguson got things underway with some thoughts on two of his favorite subjects: downtown, and EXPO 2017. Randy reiterated how important a downtown is to a city, and said that we must have the courage and commitment to make EXPO happen.

Next up was EEDC President & CEO Ron Gilbertson. Something that Ron has been showing a lot lately is the Edmonton Economic Dashboard, which grades our city on eight different aspects. Here’s where we are today:

  • Income/GDP – A
  • Retail Sales – A
  • Unemployment – B
  • Insolvency – C
  • Office Vacancy – A
  • Housing – B
  • Air Service – B
  • Inflation – A

Overall, that gives us a B+. Looking long-term, Ron gave Edmonton an A, saying:

Though Edmonton was not immune from the 2009 global decline, our economic fundamentals remain strong. Few economies have as bright prospects over the coming decades as Edmonton and northern Alberta.

EEDC Annual LuncheonEEDC Annual Luncheon

The 2010 EEDC Awards of Excellence were also handed out:

EPCOR President & CEO Don Lowry, Innovotech President Ken Boutilier, and AGA Chair Allan Scott were all on-hand to accept the awards on behalf of their respective organizations.

University of Alberta President Dr. Indira Samarasekera closed out the event with a phenomenal speech about the importance of working together (which you can read online here in PDF, or here). She focused on innovation, smarts, and creativity, and shared some really interesting and scary statistics (such as the low percentage of Albertans that go to post secondary). My favorite part though, was the beginning:

“I would like each of you to take your trusty digital device – Blackberry, iPhone, Palm, whatever you use – from your belt or pocket, or out of your bag and purse, and hold it in your hand,” she instructed. “Now, take a second moment to take a good look at it. In your hand, you hold the symbol of innovation. We call them smart phones. These smart phones have transformed our lives – our social lives, our business lives, our family lives, even our emotional and physical well being.”

It was a great way to start. She said one of our biggest challenges is speed – we have shorter incubation times than ever before, and we need to keep up (Innovotech’s Ken Boutilier talked about that too in his remarks). She also said that we need some BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals. And she stressed that both the City and the University desperately need to diversity their talent and economic bases. Dr. Samarasekera is a great speaker, and was definitely the highlight of the luncheon.

You can read the 2009 EEDC Annual Report here in PDF. Stay tuned to @EEDC on Twitter for updates.

Alumni outreach at the University of Alberta

A little over a month ago, Avenue Edmonton’s Top 40 Under 40 for 2009 was announced and I was fortunate enough to make the list. So many people have said “congrats” in tweets, wall posts, emails, and other messages, and I really appreciate all of them, thank you! I was somewhat surprised, however, to receive a letter and a follow-up email from the University of Alberta’s Office of External Relations.

The letter itself was fairly standard, and basically said that as I am a graduate of the University they wanted to offer congratulations. The email was from Jen Panteluk, a Development Officer at the Office of External Relations. She invited me to meet for coffee, and I happily accepted. We met at Credo Coffee yesterday afternoon and had a great chat about what I do, what she does, and about social media and the University of Alberta.

I learned that Jen is meeting with as many U of A grads on the list as she can, and that the idea to do so was hers. Alumni Affairs rightly or wrongly has a reputation of only reaching out to alumni when they are able to contribute back to the University financially. Jen decided to do something about that perception, and that’s why she pitched the idea of meeting with the Top 40 Under 40 grads. I think it’s fantastic!

Jen and I talked about social media quite a bit, and how effectively local schools are using it. Slowly but surely the various U of A departments are starting to embrace social media. For instance, you can keep up with Alumni Affairs on Twitter and on Facebook. There’s a long way to go, however!

If you’re on Twitter, use the hashtag #ualberta for U of A related stuff. SU President Kory Mathewson and his colleagues are hoping it becomes the standard, because it’s less ambiguous than the rival #uofa. Makes sense to me!

Edmonton’s new Centre for Public Involvement

One of the items that was discussed at today’s Executive Committee meeting (agenda in Word) was the proposed Centre for Public Involvement, a joint venture of the City of Edmonton and the University of Alberta. The idea is to combine the strengths of both organizations to “intentionally consider and apply the most effective means to undertake public involvement.” Here’s the proposed mission:

To provide leadership in understanding and applying innovative practices and new technologies for citizen participation, engagement, and deliberation.

The centre would try to strike a balance among research, best practices, and consulting. Annual operating costs would be $300,000, split equally between the City and the University. Other partners may join at some point in the future.

I really like the idea. That said, I want to echo the opening statement of the prospectus:

The timing is right for establishing the proposed Centre. In reality, the timing is probably late by ten years.

Both the City and the University have already started exploring new forms of public involvement. The City has been quite successful with its social media endeavors, and the University is starting to experiment as well. It seems there’s a new U of A account on Twitter each week (the latest I’ve come across is the International Centre)!

While it is true that there is some frustration among the public with regards to being able to impact decision-making, not everyone has become angry and complacent. Initiatives such as ChangeCamp are proof that some citizens are already engaged in re-imagining public involvement.

I think there’s a great opportunity here for the City, the University, and the public to work together to explore the future of public involvement. I think Raffaella nailed it in a recent post discussing the new City of Edmonton blog she’s been working on:

We seek to create informed communities, engaged citizens, and generally make our lives better.

You can download the Centre for Public Involvement Prospectus in PDF here.

Restricted Access

restricted access I’m rarely on the University of Alberta campus anymore, so I only heard about the SU’s Restricted Access campaign fairly recently. The main event takes place tomorrow morning at 7 AM, roughly an hour before the U of A Board of Governors’ meeting. Students will be gathering to send a message that access to education is an issue:

The cost of a full educational experience is rapidly increasing. Mounting financial burdens are preventing a growing number of hard-working, qualified students from completing or even starting their university education. Join the Restricted Access movement and protect the right to an education that all qualified students have earned.

If ratified at the meeting, tuition will increase 4.1% next year while residence rent rates will increase 8%. Dave Cournoyer, who may be live-blogging the meeting tomorrow, says that “residence rates at the U of A will have increased by $220 per month since 2006” when the increase is approved tomorrow. That’s quite a bit!

It sounds familiar. I remember all the students protesting tuition increases back when I attended the university. And yet tuition always seemed to go up anyway. The university isn’t immune to the current financial crisis either. By March, it is estimated that the U of A’s endowments will have declined by nearly $100 million.

The increases don’t affect me directly anymore, but I still find the issue important. I’m one of many former students trying to repay student loans to the federal government:

Investments in post-secondary education must be part of the federal government’s economic recovery plan, and it must help relieve massive student debt, which on Wednesday hit $13 billion, according to the Canadian Federation of Students.

According to CFS estimates, the average student graduates with a total debt load of $25,000 to $28,000. Big numbers, indeed.

Back to the campaign. The Students’ Union has distributed red scarves and handbills to students, hung posters, and manned information booths. They’ve also made use of social media tools to help spread the word. There are over 1900 members in the Restricted Access Facebook group, and nearly 400 have confirmed attendance at tomorrow morning’s event. The SU recently created a Twitter account, and they’ve been regularly updating their blog. The website also has a form that makes it easy to send letters to MLAs. Good stuff.

As this Gateway article notes, the campaign provides a platform for future discussions:

“This project is truly broader and deeper than the yearly tuition and rent increase debates that have happened. Access is a long-term project and it’s going to take a long-term push from a lot of students to make real, substantive, systematic changes,” [SU President Janelle Morin] explained.

They’re off to a good start, I think.

If you’re a student looking to participate tomorrow, meet at the tent in Celebration Plaza (outside the Admin building on the bus loop) at 7 AM for free hot chocolate and donuts, and don’t forget to wear your red scarf!

Green and Gold Day

ualberta 100 years Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of classes at the University of Alberta. To celebrate, September 23rd, 2008 has been declared “Green and Gold Day” by the City of Edmonton and the U of A. And last Thursday and Friday the City turned on the waterfall on the High Level Bridge, lit in green and gold. You can see some photos I took of the waterfall here, and a video too.

Unfortunately, my first day of classes at the University of Alberta predates my blog (and Twitter), so I don’t have a record of it. Nor do I really remember what my first day was like back in the fall of 2001. I remember briefly attending Orientation and leaving early to hang out with friends. I spent a lot of time in the basement of CAB (Central Academic Building) and at the PowerPlant (the campus bar) in my first two years. I didn’t get very involved with any clubs or groups or anything though I did always vote in the Students’ Union elections. If I could do it again, I think might have gotten more involved. For example, I did have one article published in The Gateway, and I wish I had submitted more (surely you noticed I like to write! heh).

As for academics – I don’t miss any of that. The thrill of attending university-level classes wore off very quickly! I was an average student, and I was eager to simply graduate and move on. That’s probably why it seems like it has been a lot longer than just over a year since I finally graduated.

Still, I feel very lucky to have been a part of the University of Alberta’s first 100 years. I always say that I have no interest in going back to school, but as the saying goes, never say never!

To learn more about the University of Alberta’s Centenary celebrations, visit the website at

U of A forces students to use ancient software

frontpage I’ve written many times before about my disappointment with the state of technology education at the University of Alberta, most recently here. My biggest complaint has usually been that they teach outdated or otherwise useless concepts in Computing Sciences and other fields, but the tools and technologies they choose and use are often just as bad (and these influence the concepts).

Here’s an example from my friend Eric, who is nearly finished his MIS degree at the School of Business:

Our latest project requires us to develop a single web page using Microsoft FrontPage that includes an Access database we created last week. This is worth 10% of our course mark.

Microsoft discontinued FrontPage in 2006, two years ago.

Technically the product was discontinued in 2006, but the last release was actually back in 2003. Yes, nearly five years ago.

I remember FrontPage with a very tiny amount of fondness. It was the first web page building tool I ever used, back when I was in junior high. It was so fun! Then I got a little older, a little smarter, and realized that FrontPage was absolute crap. Microsoft did too, and decided they’d give up on the application that they had originally purchased for about $130 million. It has since been replaced with SharePoint Designer and Expression Web.

Eric asked his professors why they are being forced to use FrontPage, and was told that the university has a contract for support until the end of the semester.

This is completely unacceptable. Students are being taught to use a tool they’ll never use in the real world. A tool that hinders development more than it helps (due to some very strange functionality, such as not keeping code and design views in sync). A tool that generates such terrible, invalid HTML that Microsoft felt it was better to start over.

That point about standards is particularly important, IMHO. By using FrontPage, the U of A is essentially teaching students that generating crappy code is okay. The garbage that FrontPage generates (and that IE used to support) is part of the reason for this mess. Microsoft has decided recently that IE8 will interpret pages in the most standards compliant way it can, a welcome change (even if it doesn’t completely pan out).

Eric finishes with:

You wouldn’t pay $468.60 for a math course using slide rules, so why should we pay to use outdated software?

It’s a good point, but more important than the tool is the concept. You wouldn’t pay $468.60 for an accounting course that taught you how to create non-standard balance sheets, so why should you pay for a technology course that teaches you to create non-standard web pages?

Read: Soliciting Fame

Tuition is not the problem, books are!

Post Image On Friday, the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta approved a 4.6% increase in tuition fees. That translates to an extra $215.55 for general arts and science students. Of course the decision made the local news and predictably the segments focused on the extra burden this places on students.

But more than teaching or deferred maintenance, it was the question of affordability that concerned Students’ Union President Michael Janz.

Janz stressed that every time fees are increased, the debt loads that students incur go up, as do the chances that someone will not apply to the U of A because they see it as financially unfeasible.

I mean, what do you expect the SU President to say? Of course he’s got to side with students on the issue, that’s his job.

I think the focus should not be on tuition, however. Looking back on my time at the university, I think the problem are textbooks. Sure tuition is expensive and I am repaying student loans now, but it was textbooks that were the real killer.

In my last two years, I avoided purchasing textbooks whenever possible. The idea of spending $175 for a 150 page book just drove me nuts. Especially since most of the content in the books can be found elsewhere. The other thing that sucks is when a professor requires the latest edition of a textbook, meaning students cannot purchase the less expensive old editions.

There’s no reason to force students to purchase ridiculously expensive textbooks. Hell, there’s pretty much no reason to have physical textbooks at all! Just offer digital versions instead. Or incorporate free materials.

I think getting rid of the expensive textbooks would help students far more than trying to prevent tuition increases.

Read: The Gateway

Other universities should follow Stanford's example

I was less than impressed with most of the Computing Sciences courses I took during my degree at the University of Alberta. I found the majority of the courses either too boring or too out-of-date. Or quite often both.

Maybe the image I had in my head about what university would be like was just plain wrong. I always thought that universities were on the cutting edge, with lots of cool stuff happening. I thought I’d be exposed to some really interesting research, like that of Jonathan Schaeffer who worked on Deep Blue and teaches at the U of A. Sadly, my classes never ever reflected that image.

Today I was reading some blogs, and came across this article that says Stanford University is going to be offering a course this fall called Creating Engaging Web Applications Using Metrics and Learning on Facebook. I’m very interested and very jealous:

Students will build applications for Facebook, then gather and analyze detailed information about how Facebook users actually use them. Students will focus on using detailed numerical measurements to guide software iterations, just like developers do on thousands of existing Facebook applications.

They’ll be graded based on how many Facebook users they can get actively using their applications.

I wish I had been able to take classes like that when I was in university.

It’s important to learn about hard technology problems, such as searching, but I think it’s equally important to study the technology that people use every day, like Facebook. Kudos to the CS faculty at Stanford for taking a chance on Facebook and venturing into the relatively new area of Human Computer Interaction.

Read: VentureBeat

Graduation Day at the U of A

After six long years, I finally walked across the stage today at the Jubilee Auditorium to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta. I am now the proud holder of a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematical Sciences (Minor in Economics).

For me, graduating from university is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. I’ve done my fair share of complaining over the last few years, at times wondering if completing my degree was even worth it. I stuck with it though, and I guess time will tell if it pays off. I am guessing it’ll be many years from now when I finally recognize some of the things I learned during my time at the U of A. I think the best things in life are usually like that.

The ceremony itself was rather long. The first hour contained speech after speech, while the second hour involved over 700 graduates walking across the stage. The honorary degree was presented to Dr. Maria Klawe, who gave a very interesting (if slightly long) convocation address. In her remarks, Dr. Klawe mentioned three pieces of advice:

  1. Fail openly, and fail often.
  2. Avoid jerky behaviour.
  3. Endeavor to become good at something you find difficult.

The highlight for me was when Dr. Klawe explained how she came up with #2. Back in 1990 she had the pleasure (or displeasure it sounds like) of meeting Steve Jobs. She was quick to point out that she admires his many impressive accomplishments, but at the end of the day, she remembers that he acted like a jerk. As a result she vowed to always treat others with respect, no matter how wealthy or famous she became.

There are a lot of people who supported me throughout university, but I have to say thanks to Mom and Dad, first and foremost. My parents have always been there to support me in everything I’ve done, and I really appreciate it. Unfortunately my Mom couldn’t come today, but I know she would have if she could have! Extra thanks to my Dad for pulling double duty as my photographer this afternoon (I’ll post more photos tomorrow).

Thanks also to everyone else who helped me get to this point – you know who you are. I appreciate both the encouragement and constructive criticism.

Finally I am done with school! Huzzah! Now I can focus on my career and, um, repaying my student loans.