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Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Algonquin’s support lab of the future

In Features, Technology on March 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

“Some of you have been around long enough to remember 1996, the famous 1996,” Algonquin College President Robert Gillett recollected at the annual President’s Breakfast at the start of the year. “Where we made a decision at a time when two levels of government made major cut-backs, we had a $20 million deficit… and we decided to invest heavily in information technology…. Today we enter phase two of that plan.”

Director of the Learning Resource Centre Tammy Thorton

The College is transitioning towards a fresher, more technologically savvy school and from the student support lab under renovations in room C102, which opened January 6, the College is banking heavily on students bringing their own technology, such as cell-phones and laptops to use as learning tools.

The first of its kind in Ontario, the fresh and excitingly new $500,000 study area’s successes and failures will largely determine how the college shapes its spending and innovation strategy moving forward.

The lab is expected to accommodate 80 to 90 students and will feature “four distinct learning spaces”. These include an informal couch seating area, a more formal area for group and private study, five group collaboration stations, which are small, semi-private rooms with long tables and computer chair seating that include a big screen television students can hook their computers up to for presentations and “dirt walls”; semi-translucent blockades that can be written on and finally, the more public group work stations.

The centre is also employing library technicians to help students navigate Algonquin’s e-library, which features books, journals databases and a collection of other resources students can use for reference.

“The lab does not have fixed computers,” Director of Learning and Teaching Services Glenn Macdougall said. “Rather, each desk will have wireless and wired connectivity [to the internet].”

This all leads to the big picture: the school’s plan to go fully mobile by 2013. According to officials, this means that all students will need some sort of mobile device that can connect to the internet by that year.

Even though a good per cent of students already have smart phones or other internet capable devices, what if not all students can afford such technology? The plan could alienate potential students and brings questions of academic fairness into play.

“All mobile, I think that’s a bad idea because what if the network goes down?” Small and Medium Enterprise Management student Ibrahim Elmi, 26, said. “There should always be a pen and paper alternative because we’re paying tuition.”

However, manager of the centre, Tammy Thornton is touting the redesign a success and early results appear to be good. Since its opening, the lab is seeing around 1000 students enter each day between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. when users are counted.

The College is also encouraging students to take a survey on their website to provide feedback on the new area.

Passing by the lab, it always appears to be full of people, but then again, so was the old lab, when it only had hardwired PCs with print capabilities. Because of this, it’s hard to say the lab is having an immediately recognizable benefit right now. The new place certainly looks nice: it’s all fresh, green-paint and curvy couches, and it is certainly very cool that you can write on walls and host group presentations on big screen TVs. But in a school where most programs are hands-on, technology and trade oriented, how much benefit can a wireless lab have for the average Algonquin student’s education?

At the very least, it seems to be giving students an outlet. Rules are more relaxed in the newly designed lab; students can bring laptops and chat as well as work together. The e-library acts as a great reference area for those looking to brush up on their learning.

Perhaps the best way to view the new lab is as a marker to a fundamental change of thought when it comes to administering post-secondary education. The learning environment seems to be moving away from the formal teacher-gives-assignments-students-do-assignments ethos and towards individual, self-directed learning. We’re seeing the institutionalisation of the user-directed learning brought to us by the internet.

We’ll have to see how the College’s enrolment and dropout rates change in the future to know for sure how effective in improving education the new lab is.


Tipping towards a recommendation

In Arts on March 4, 2011 at 7:29 am

The Tipping Point book review

Through his books, (Blink, What the Dog Saw) and columns in the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell is part of a growing number of academics and researchers releasing popular, critically acclaimed books that are turning our traditional ideas of everything from economics to social psychology on their heads.

Gladwell’s novel The Tipping Point can best be summed up as an idea: What if style changes, crime trends, the phenomena of word of mouth and say, rises in teenage smoking are best understood when we view them as epidemics, much like a virus.

thetippingpointThe idea is abstract, and even through his examples, hard to fully comprehend. Gladwell invites us to imagine that very small changes in attitude or behaviour in a small group of individuals can have a profound effect on the behaviour of others.

The Tipping Point sheds light on interesting experiments in social psychology and answers questions like how much does our environment really affect behaviour? It also calls to attention many cases of our failure to account for changes in socio-economic behaviour. What really did account for a Baltimore syphilis epidemic and why did Hush Puppies shoes sky-rocket in popularity after showing a flat-line in sales for so long?

Much like the Freakonomics series, it’s perhaps best to approach Gladwell’s work as an introduction to macro-economics. Books like these are blurring the traditional lines between academia and traditional observation – the textbook and the novel. The Tipping Point features interesting character studies, like one of a salesman that would traditionally be left to novelists to portray but studies their behaviour in such an acute and precise way you feel as if you are observing them as a scientist or researcher would.

At times, you may find some of Gladwell’s categorizations overly pedantic. Like when Gladwell profiles and classes some people as connectors, who are great at bringing people together, or mavens, who he calls brokers of information. I think, in all fairness, we all act as connectors, mavens and even salesmen at points in our lives and to classify individuals as one or another seems short-sighted.

In any case, The Tipping Point is certainly an interesting read and it along with the Freakonomics series may be the most fascinating new ideas I’ve read about in years.

The Tipping Point is an easily recommendable book to any open-minded individual looking for a better understanding into why people act the way they do.

GoTechGirl introduces female students to trades

In Technology on March 4, 2011 at 7:26 am

A special day-camp intended to attract prospective female students to technology and engineering programs offered at the college was held Nov. 6.

Around 20 grade eight to 12 female students attended Algonquin’s GoTechGirl day-camp.

“We’re running [the day camp] because we want to increase the enrolment of women in our technology programs,” electronics technology professor Kathryn Reilander said.

Algonquin has 33 full-time programs in the school of Advanced Trades, but the day-camp focused on Algonquin’s electrical engineering and civil engineering technology programs.

The day began with a presentation on technology programs at Algonquin and a speech from a guest speaker from Skills Canada.

The attendees then split into three groups, with some taking a guided tour of the college, others going to an electrical lab, where they worked on completing a light-bulb circuit, and the third group performing tensile tests to determine the strength of materials like dental floss and pasta, in a construction classroom.

With a little guidance, the students succeeded in the experiments.

“It’s going really well,” professor of electrical trades Laurie Anne Renwick said. “Everyone’s switch has worked.”

Students seemed happy with their experience at GoTechGirl.

“It’s hands on – my type of thing. And [Algonquin College] has everything,” Grade 12 student Kerenah Lubienga said.

According to marketing officer for the faculty of technology and trades Glenn MacDonald, it is likely the college will host a similar event around the same time next year.

The University of Ottawa and Carleton University hold similar events under the name GoEngGirl.

Renting a room? Here what to look for

In Features on March 4, 2011 at 7:24 am

I was greeted at the door of the sixth room I visited that day. I hoped this one would be different.

I had come up to Ottawa a month early from my hometown London to look for a room to rent for the upcoming school year.

“Please come in,” the owner said.

After touring the expensive Woodroffe condo we got into the gritty details. And for about the fifth or sixth time that day I heard the same thing:

No friends, no overnight visitors, no laundry between certain hours. Eat, sleep, study and go to school.

This is the life many landlords, who listed rooms to rent on the Algonquin SA website, expect a student to lead while paying rent to live in their home.

Thankfully, after making two Greyhound bus trips down to Ottawa, I managed to find a fair landlord who treated his tenants like human beings and not escaped convicts.

Unfortunately, not all landlords have this view.

I have a list of rules that I usually give them,” Ottawa area landlord Jim Westaway said. Tenants must keep their area clean, stick to doing laundry between certain hours, cannot have overnight guests and the living room — that’s off limits.

“I live here also,” Westaway said. “it’s my place; if you leave (the rules) too open, they abuse it. I don’t want people doing their laundry at 11 p.m. and making a racket.

When asked if the same rules apply to him, Westaway said: “The rules do not apply to me, not as an owner, I don’t think they should. I should have at least more privileges than they do.”

“But I do respect them.”

Does this seem a bit harsh? Over-protective? How could the trust inherently needed in a rental agreement sink so low?

Another landlord, Maryanne M., (who did not want her full name identified), offered one explanation.

Maryanne placed an ad on the SA website looking to rent out a room in her house. She received an email from someone claiming to be from out of town. They didn’t know the city well, they said. They also proposed a deal: they’d send her a cheque for $5000, she could take off the first and last month’s rent and mail back the remaining money through Western Union.

Suspecting rental fraud, Maryanne went to the police. She was right.

“It’s a popular move,” an attendant at Ottawa Police information said. “I’d definitely recommend people to be aware.”

Beyond money transactions, landlords have to be wary of whether students will respect their home.

“I’ve had people just trash the place,” Algonquin Pembroke student and landlord Kristin Bennett said.

Thankfully, there’s a flip-side to the Ottawa room and board scene.

David and Michelle Vesey live on a quiet street in south Ottawa. They call themselves an “empty-nest couple”, having had three sons who have all moved out. This year, for the first time, they rented rooms to two Belgian students, Kathleen Devivier and Anne-Sophie Wijnen in Canada to study international business at Algonquin and improve their English. The two parties communicated over facebook before deciding anything.

“Our vision as corny as it sounds, is this is their home,” Dave Vesey said. “I mean we aren’t mom and dad, but we can be if you want.”

The students have access to the kitchen, living room and the outdoor hot tub and pool.

Of course, the house has rules: drugs aren’t okay, and if you smoke, you must do so outside.

“We wanted to go outside (of Belgium) and learn and see another culture,” Devivier said.

She also said there have been no problems while living in the Devey’s house.

Mitchell Coogan has been around the rental block. Coogan, who works as a real estate financial analyst for the government, has been renting out a room in his house for 12 years.

Like the Vesey’s, he started by renting to foreign students, but grew tired of the communication barriers.

“They were teenagers, but very much on the tab of their parents,” Coogan said. “It was different because it was more integration into the household, not just room and board.”

In 12 years, Coogan has never had to kick a tenant out, and said he has had very few problems.

Coogan sets no particular rules. He finds coordinating shower times useful as there’s only so much hot water to go around, but beyond that, “It’s mostly just respect everyone in the house.”

“The reason I’ve had good experiences is I’m a very straightforward guy,” Coogan said. “I’m not their parent, but it’s not a business enterprise and people get that.”

In his experiences he’s also noticed a trend when people come to view the room.

There’s the early bird who comes a month or two before the school year to look around and see other places. Next are the middle-time-frame people, who often take the place on the spot and finally, the late rushers who frantically make contact before classes begin.

“I get a million calls from all over the world a day or two before school starts,” Coogan said.

So it seems in rental agreements, respect is a two-way street. If you are planning to rent a room in the future, beware of jaded landlords who will impose overly harsh restrictions. Scout out prospects early to avoid the late rush, communicate before signing a rental agreement to fully understand what is expected of you and remember that while you are paying for your room, you are living in someone’s home and need to respect them and their property.

Living away from home is a big step in a person’s life and it can be much better than just eating, sleeping studying and going to school.

Mystery photo found in donated book

In News on March 4, 2011 at 7:22 am


The mystery started with a photograph falling out of a donated book at the Algonquin Read’s book sale on Oct 6.

“A student buying a book said, ‘Look at this photo,’” manager of career and student activities at student support services Joanne McDonald said.

The black and white image shows an older man and woman standing to the side of a wood porch. The only text on it reads, “George and Elizabeth Cooke”.

“It was worth trying [to find the owner] because it’s such a nice old photo and it’s probably a memory for someone,” McDonald said.

She passed the photo on to Helena Merriam, the founder of Algonquin Reads. Merriam began sending out e-mails, hoping to locate the owner.

“What I think is kind of neat is it’s just the joy of books in a way. People tuck notes and pictures into books and you can’t do that on the screen. I heard this and thought, ‘Cool! Another reason why I love books,’” Merriam said.

Meanwhile, over on Perth campus, Dean Linda Cooke was getting some strange messages.

“I just started getting e-mails from many people going, ‘Hey, is this you?’” Cooke said, referring to the text on the picture.

Cooke, who had donated books to the book sale, claimed the photo.

“It’s a photo of my great-grandparents,” Cooke said. “They were farmers who lived on Mississippi Lake near Carleton Place.”

Cooke has dated the photo to 1935 and it appears to depict the couple standing in front of their Mississippi Lake home. She speculates they were testing out a new camera when it was taken.

“My father always told us stories about going to visit his grandparents. It was special because [the photo] was the first time I’d seen them,” Cooke said.

Bloess wins in landslide

In News on March 4, 2011 at 6:58 am


Written for the Ottawa Sun

Incumbent Rainer Bloess was re-elected as councillor of Ward two: Innes in yesterday’s municipal elections.

The now four-term councillor beat second place Keith Jansa by a large margin, with Christopher Fraser and Roger Furmanczyk finishing well behind.

Bloess led right from the start when election results started coming in around 8:00 p.m.

“The voters re-elected me with 70 some-odd per cent tonight, so I think that’s a form of recognition that what I’m doing out here is the right thing,” Bloess said.

One of the first things he hopes to accomplish is to accelerate the light rail transit development plan.

“The time frames that we have on the table right now are far to stretched out and I think we have to challenge our staff to make it happen quicker,” Bloess said. “And I think to make it come to the east end quicker. Yes, Blair is the first stop, but it’s got to go beyond that and certainly we intend to push hard for that.”

When asked about working with newly elected mayor Jim Watson, Bloess said, “I think he has a conciliatory style. I think he understands what our needs are in the east end and I look forward to working with him.”

The mood was jubilant in the rented room at the Hornet’s Nest sport complex that played host to Bloess’ election party.

“He looks after his ward well,” campaign supporter Li Wong said. “It is like he knows and cares about everybody.”

Speaking from a local resident’s house, runner-up Keith Jansa sounded disappointed in defeat.

“It was a great run, all efforts were made,” Jansa said. “I definitely want to send out thanks to my wife and campaign supporters. I know that running against an incumbent is always an uphill battle.”

Asked if he would run again, Jansa said: “I haven’t made the decision yet; it’s four years away, so I’ll give it some thought and take it from there.”

After this term, will the re-elected Bloess run again?

“Ask me in a week, ask me tomorrow morning,” Bloess said. “I need a good night’s rest.”

Ottawa’s libraries changing with technology

In Features on March 4, 2011 at 6:27 am

Feature written for

Twenty years ago, if you took a book out from the library, a date was stamped on a card by a librarian and put in an envelope at the back of the book. All borrowing was catalogued on cards this way.

Now digital databases hold that data. Librarians can see which books have been checked out, when they’re due back and which branches hold a certain book a patron is looking for. All of this can be done at home by the public, too, saving visitors a wasted trip to the library in search of books or information.

As the age of the internet continues to change the way we live our lives, the older public database of knowledge, the library, is finding it must evolve to keep up.

At a cursory glance, it’s hard to give libraries a fighting chance in remaining relevant in a society permeated by immediately available information.

E-readers are making headway in local markets. Devices like the Kindle, and Sony E-Reader allow users to download virtual copies of books onto electronic devices they carry around with them. Hundreds of books can be stored on one device, meaning you don’t have to lug around hardcopies of reading material. The literature can be downloaded from online stores which have ever increasing catalogues that span from classic to modern works.

Smart phones are a big innovation for mobile phones. No longer do you need to be hardwired to a network to be able to access universal information. Cell-phones are less about making phone-calls than about tapping into information. Games, news reports, weather, websites, and social networks are all available on mobile phones.

Google, the world’s most used internet search engine, took in around US$6.50 billion in 2009. The site catalogues literally billions of internet web pages. Site visitors punch in key words for their search and Google lists the most relevant webpages in return. The site features services such as Google books, Google maps, the email service Gmail, and more, allowing users to consume lifetime’s worth of data.

Google has a completely transparent philosophy when it comes to information. They are known supporters of network neutrality, which is the idea that internet providers should not in any way influence the type of sites users should be able to access. The other side is that Google believes that privacy is a thing of the past. The company has faced numerous accusations of storing private search information of its users.

Is our traditional economic model of dollars and cents turning into bits and bytes?

“One of the big questions is: if all this [information] is online, why do we need libraries?” Professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa Mary Cavanagh said.

Cavanagh has been around libraries. She spent 15 years working in them in places like Kingston, Ottawa, Regina and Gatineau before taking a position at the University. Cavanagh has seen first-hand the changes that have shaped, and continue to shape Ottawa’s library system.

She describes herself as looking like a librarian, and she fits her self-description well, if perhaps a modernist version of one. She wears glasses and a scarf and her hair is mid-length and graying.  Upon talking with her she seems to both be able to keep up quick, frivolous banter while retaining a capacity for deeper conversation.

“The definition of library may be changing. Maybe it’s not about books it’s a place you can go and plug-in and ask experts,” Cavanagh said.

Libraries now have services where you can reserve books from home online, pick them up, and use an automated check-out machine. You may never have to consult a librarian again.

Libraries also house an expanding e-book selection. Due to registration limitations, visitors are allowed to check-out 10 e-books at a time.

We’re also seeing them transition into social spaces, Cavanagh explained.

Libraries in Ottawa are setting up teen spaces.  These are places where youth can go use the internet, listen to music and hang-out. In what seems contrary to traditional library culture, talking is allowed in these areas. Where has the “shhshing” librarian gone?

They seem to be changing, too. Quickly, library employees need to become experts. Patrons often have much of their research already done at home, through internet searches, and come to libraries searching for more obscure answers or material.

The trend towards expert services is taking a bizarre turn in the coming rent-an-expert service, in plans for Ottawa libraries. Visitors can come into a library branch and check-out an expert in a field and perhaps go and talk with them over a coffee. Cavanagh gives the example of a practicing Christian coming in and renting an expert on Islam for the afternoon.

However, in terms of competing resources of information, present day libraries haven’t faced this kind of competition before.

“It’s a revolution,” Cavanagh said.

So what if libraries lose in this race to provide information? There are certainly advocates for reducing the funding public libraries get.  In the midst of recession, libraries in developed countries are facing tight budgets and are relying on foundations or private support to get by. Cavanagh cites library closures in the U.K. as an example.

Will we see a return to the privately funded libraries of the past? Will they disappear completely?

When asked to imagine what she would do in a world without libraries, Cavanagh imagines herself starting informal book services.

“I would start bringing books to coffee shops and setting up stands saying, ‘can we put books here?’”

“I’d hack databases, trying to get at information,” Cavanagh said.

Vanessa Menor is a librarian at the Nepean Centrepointe library in Ottawa. The library, located by Baseline station and near Algonquin College, is known as a district branch; it holds one of the largest collections of books and biggest range of services in the city. The branch in particular holds one of the biggest amount of Asian material in Ottawa.

Menor has been a librarian for 10 years, so she wasn’t around to see the transition from stamped cards to computer database catalogues, but she said she has still seen changes.

“[Librarians] are not interacting with people as much as we used to, which is a shame because we’re good resources,” Menor said.

During our interview an older man came up and asked about a cook book he had made an inquiry about earlier. Menor adeptly searched the computer at the library’s info desk, they had previously planned to have the book transferred from another library, to Centrepointe. The man claimed to not need the book anymore as his wife’s sister had a copy and he was going to borrow it from her instead. The entire searching process took about 30 seconds.

Menor runs senior’s programs at the library, including a senior’s internet learning course she will be teaching that afternoon.

However, it’s the youth that Menor says the library has a hard time attacting.

“[Teenagers and early adults] we’re completely losing,” she said. Once they hit that age, there’s nothing here for them.”

“We find we get more interest in the technology programs,” she said. “We also have someone coming in to talk about social networking – Facebook and Twitter.”

Outfront of Nepean Centrepointe, library patron Bill Paul has nothing but praise for the services offered at Ottawa libraries.

“I think it’s very well run and we’re lucky to have it,” Paul said.

Paul has been coming here since he was a kid and said he will use the library for years to come.

He claimed he comes mainly for fiction books.

Even the youth demographic Menor claims to have lost still represent a portion of the library’s visitors. A group of high school students  in the back were hanging out in the teen zone of the library checking Facebook messages, surfing the internet, and listening to music.

The senior’s course is attended by around a dozen people in the library’s basement.

The lesson begins with teachings on how to enable the auto save feature in Microsoft Word, followed by how to put attachments on emails. To anyone who considers themselves even remotely knowledgeable with modern technology, this would seem like very basic stuff.

The lessons proceed at a stop-and-go pace, the seniors (students) often need help navigating the computer menus.

“We just got our first computer,” student Dorothy Turner explained.  Dorothy is here with her husband, Carman. At the time, the pair were trying to figure out how to use Google.

“We’re coming in next week for a meeting with a technician at the library to go over more advanced stuff.”