Cascadia Report is excited to introduce a special feature article this week, as Roy Hart and Dr. Tom Roemer joined us from The British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). We had a long and thoughtful discussion around what the future of learning looks like, and what that might mean for institutions, employers, and students. We also delved into some of the innovative work they have been involved in, and found out what really makes them tick!
Roy Hart joined BCIT in February 2018, after spending over 25 years in enterprise IT, strategy, and leadership across multiple sectors, including education, health, social services, justice, transportation, and infrastructure. Roy is an active member of the Canadian Chief Information Officer community and, among other committees, serves on the BCNET board.
As Chief Information Officer, Roy is responsible for the administration of the technology footprint at BCIT, including cybersecurity and ensuring that all of the labs are equipped with the right equipment and technologies needed to support the academic programs and administrative systems.
Dr. Tom Roemer is Vice President of Academic and is responsible for providing academic vision at the Institute and leadership in the educational, international, Indigenous and applied research portfolios. Previously, he developed production control software and data solutions for corporate clients. Tom holds a master’s degree in astrophysics, a doctorate in educational leadership, is an adjunct professor status at Simon Fraser University, and specializes in global technical-vocational education frameworks.
As Vice-President of Academic at BCIT his role encompasses all the educational portfolios, as well as applied research international and indigenous programming. An astrophysicist by trade, he has a long career in IT and database programming and then went through various positions in the post-secondary systems before taking a position at BCIT in 2016. He is a passionate advocate of the idea of Polytechnic institutes and their applied focus that sits somewhere between a university and a college.
BCIT has taught and trained experts, professionals, and innovators across BC and around the world since it was founded in 1964. BCIT has five main campuses, close to 50,000 students enrolled annually, and 2,400 staff and faculty. BCIT aims to provide its students with technical skills and the real-world experience needed to embrace complexity and lead innovation in a rapidly changing workforce. The schools at BCIT cover subjects as diverse as applied and natural sciences, business and media, computing and IT, engineering, health sciences and trades.
BCIT has a number of exciting and innovative programs happening at any one time, and one in particular that has garnered attention from around the world is the SMART initiative. Spearheaded by Dr. Hassan Farhangi, the concept of has spawned a range of projects tackling wide-ranging problems such as climate change, mass electrification, and aging infrastructure.
The SMART Campus was founded on the basis of the SMART Microgrid, a smart grid built on campus as BCIT integrating the required components of a grid under an open architecture, allowing technology providers to demonstrate their solutions & prove their technologies to their end customers and partners. It provides a programmable topology of a real power system, enabling utilities to test & verify new architectures & components in real settings & applications.
One of the more high-profile elements of the SMART Microgrid is the Energy OASIS which was completed in 2014. It's been a huge success and I won the Eco Community Impact Award in February. I was curious to find out what impact this has had for BCIT and what learning opportunities it has presented.
Tom Romer (TR) OASIS was the starting point for a very broad and very deep investment into renewable energies at BCIT. The original thought was to create a platform into which research and other departments can plug into, because that's often the problem with research. A lot of it happens behind closed doors or is small in scale and as such it does not portray the reality properly, or it is difficult for other departments to access. Not so with the Oasis project. It was built in conjunction with Siemens and BC Hydro, and many other large providers. It was conceived as a visible-on campus presence for the generation of electrical energy, the storage of electrical energy, and then the distribution of it in particular by feeding the energy into an EV charging station.
The project has since then matured into many different avenues. One example is the cybersecurity aspect of Smart Microgrids. We now have cybersecurity labs specifically dedicated to the grid and the Microgrid in particular. It has spawned other projects as well about data analytics or the internet of things, how they tie into Microgrids’ entire sensor arrays and so forth. So it's a typical example where one seed funding can kick off an entire flurry of activity. That's what Roy and I often refer to as our creative platform. Even though you might not know at that moment, what all comes out of it, it usually begets a lot of activity. It’s a bit like a ‘if you build it, they will come' approach. But it usually works out like this.
It has been very successful with the Digital Supercluster, with the Federal Government and within the Province of BC. One signature activity we rolled out about a year and a half ago, is a smart microgrid system for a First Nations band in the Northwest Territories. That is the practical application of bringing renewable energies into the remote villages, making them more independent and getting them off the usual diesel generator that they would run up there.
Roy Hart (RH) Tom has given a great overview there! I can only echo his view that we should view the Microgrid as a platform. As we look to the future, my view on it is that the Microgrid platform is one of potentially many that should be part of what the campus has available for both operational and academic purposes.
Alongside the public-facing Energy OASIS, there are a number of other renewable projects on campus that have not made headlines, necessarily, but which have provided valuable learning points for the industry, researchers, and students alike. Renewable energy sources such as the PV Tower, the Wind Time, and the Net Zero Home featuring IoT appliances. I asked our guests what learning opportunities have arisen from those projects and what the potential benefits they see for the wider community.
TR: Our IoT involvement comes from a broader vision. In 2019, as a result of our education plan we came to the realization that - like in any large institution - a lot of our research is siloed. It groups around one particular individual or might be located in only one school, though the applicability would straddle another school. We came up with the concept of a Interdisciplinary Centre of Competence (ICC), the idea being that if you were an industry partner such as Trankslink, you could come to us with a question about electrification of the bus fleet. There's more than just electrification around that. There's the generation, distribution, the sensor network, security elements, the data that's being generated by it, there's construction involved, you name it.
The idea of ICC’s would be to have a one-stop-shop point of contact. You speak with BCIT, and then we can take it internally and we can deal at it. One of the key elements of this was the centre for IoT. It was spearheaded by Johny Bassan who has been an entrepreneur and a researcher for many years, and a bit of an educator as well so he took this on. There's almost no limit to the applicability of it. It is a go-to place for instructors who need a connected device or a sensor.
How does it work? There's a bit of internal consulting, but the IoT center also works externally. An industry might approach the IoT centre directly with a particular question about one device, or if they need IoT in a broader realm. For the students, in an environmental monitoring program, they might be interested in salmon migration counts. They would come to the IoT Centre and ask how to build a sensor that would be immersed in the water to count the number of spawning salmon going up the creek. Immediately there, you have that connection of completely dissimilar disciplines that use IoT as a means to pursue their own research interests. I like to think the best description of it is an internal consulting office.
RH: I like that description of internal consulting. When we take all of these different disparate systems and technologies that are necessary to do the research or enable the learning or run the operations, one of the things that we have learned over the past few years is the value of internal consulting. Many of my team work on cybersecurity but also on network design - how do we store all that data and technical details, and make it available? The experts who know how to do this and do it for a living have to be flexible and nimble in supporting the different academic demands. The interdisciplinary approach is a completely different way of thinking and it's more reflective of the real world. It means that many different parts of the institution have to work together in tight unison to deliver that experience for our students.
What Tom was talking about is really what we're leveraging, all of those things and to connect them in a meaningful way so it's organized and orchestrated to deliver particular outcomes. The goal is that we teach thousands of people, so we need to have something that is repeatable and smooth or it's simply not scalable enough.
Microgrid security is a key touchpoint for the SMART initiative, culminating in a dedicated grid security facility on the BCIT Campus which was completed in February, 2020. As a relatively new facility which is yet to be fully utilised in-person, I asked our guests what problems that facility looks to solve, how BCIT students have been involved in the project, and what the future of the facility looks like.
TR: It’s aim is to solve the vulnerability of our power grids in a couple of ways. It creates a self-contained facility and at the same time, it looks at connecting this facility to a larger grid. Movies like Die Hard remind you of that vulnerability or it can be news reports about grids and facilities being hacked almost on a daily basis. Our society is so dependent on an uninterrupted power supply that it would be criminal to leave that open to attack. The grid is not a clearly engineered system, it's a combination of many dissimilar systems and there's bridging and translating and interpreting happening - each of which provides a vulnerability and an access point for malicious activity. The Federal Government realized that early on, and has put a lot of money into trying to secure the grid. This facility has been chosen as one of the key projects to experiment with vulnerability, to do controlled hacking, learn from the data and then try to create more intrusion proof systems than what we have right now.
It's being done in various ways. Our Industrial Network and Cybersecurity Program creates so-called cyber ranges. A cyber range is the simulation of a larger facility such as a water purification plant or an aviation hub. The idea is to have the students work with life scenarios and understand what would happen if you ran an intrusion detection program and you find that there's somebody in the system that's trying to access the grid. They’re some very famous examples out there like the destruction of the Iranian uranium processing plant in 2011. Nobody ever figured out 100% who was behind it, but that's a typical example where you could have a foreign power intruding complex systems and bringing everything to a grinding halt.
Our students work in teams and have competitions where they try to hack into each other's systems. There are instructor-led activities, activities that come with industry-leading consulting partners such as Cisco and Fortinet. It's generating ideas and spotting potential areas where people might get in. There is no such thing as a database in the sense that there are a number of exact ways to hack into the system - there are always more being found. We created that activity and left it to the imagination of the students of how they might attack, and from that you can actually learn and you can track that data and then hopefully secure the systems better than before.
RH: Just to add to that, the data that's generated from these student and instructor activities actually has significant commercial value because it shows different fingerprints or different patterns of activity against specific targets. There would be a number of security products to help guard against those attacks, to Tom's point about the known ways of doing it, they can then incorporate that back into their artificial intelligence intrusion detection solutions. We have conversations with vendors in that space all the time, because of the significant value of that data. It's an interesting scenario - you're trying things and testing things out in a way that students are learning, but in the process of doing that they're also generating new knowledge and new information. It's quite a unique sort of a scenario.
With the brand new facility freshly finished, Tom points to their frustration that they have so far been unable to ‘flip the switch’ and make best use of the multi-million dollar lab that BCIT built with their commercial partners. Students have begun the process of online training and experimenting with simulations, but they are looking forward to returning to in-person lessons in September. But what do they anticipate the output of the new lab the cyber-ranges to be once they are up and running?
TR: These grids, EV fleets, and large manufacturing companies produce data at an absolutely exorbitant rate. A terabyte is nothing anymore - we're in the petabyte per day range now for data being generated. To find the needle in the haystack in there, or to find patterns is where the true value of these programs sit. There's the IoT element of collecting and creating the data and somewhere in that circle is the secure propagation of the data into some kind of a database, a server element. But then comes the big data element. Data is the new oil, that's well established, and all the big corporations out there that put billions of dollars of research in there just to tackle the sheer amount of what we have in there.
We just got a call from a research association for electric vehicles asking if we would be interested in doing a data analytics program with them. They don't know yet what data this fleet will produce because you have an assembly of dis-similar sensors and it's just all coming at you. It’s like a tidal wave and you're trying to swim. But no doubt it’s exciting.
It's a very prescient point for many businesses as they pursue digital transformation and seek to understand all of the data being generated in the process.
Instructors and students alike can make great use of this data - both in terms of learning opportunities but also deriving valuable learning outcomes from it. I wanted to learn more about how BCIT as an organisation dealing with the data analytics and visualization of it, and what they hope can be achieved once the ‘tidal wave’ of data is brought under control.
RH: As an enterprise though we've been wrestling with data analytics for some time - to be completely honest, it is not a solved problem. We do have a roadmap that's getting us there. We do have better sets of tools. Technical debt is the plague of every organization and we all have it, but we are eliminating it and getting to a place where we can visualize data more readily and let people do their own.
One challenge that we have found with data visualization is connecting two or three or more pieces of information together that are actually not related and then drawing false conclusions. There's a whole lot of education and curation that goes along with it, and we’re still early days in that journey. People's attention span to it often means that they expect to click a button and get what they need. That's simply never the case when it comes to data analysis.
That's one of the challenges we're going to have to deal with. We have got so much data from all these different sensors but how much of it are we going to collect and actually put to good use, and how much are we going to throw on the floor and never use? We haven't answered that question yet.
TR: A wearable device generated 28 petabytes a day in 2020. These numbers don't mean anything anymore it's just a unit, for us old farts where a megabyte was something. You could visualise a million characters, you kind of knew what that was, but that has all long gone out the window now. They don't care if it's Peta, Tera it's just a prefix to them.
So, what do you teach the students? Sometimes you have got to be careful that you don't teach them too much, that you don't box them in. You have to give them a lot of leeway to discover their own world, because as an instructor you can be very quickly outdated. You have to strike a balance between teaching the concepts, which will never go by the wayside and not emphasizing elements that you know will be outdated by tomorrow. Instructors in this field are very different from political science, for example. Democracy will always be democracy and it evolves, but not at a pace like what we see in the technical world.”
One of the key aims for SMART is rural electrification. In 2019 BCIT partnered with both public and private sector organisations, on a government funded renewable energy project in the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation community. Bringing the SMART Microgrid to remote communities offers a range of potential benefits, though also carries with it a number of significant challenges. I asked Tom and Roy how the project had been progressing, and what the broader objectives of the project are for BCIT and their partners.
TR: The fun part is I used to live there [in the Northwest Territories] so I can tell you what it all looks like. It's on one of the arms of Great Slave Lake and it's a First Nations reserve, fairly small, and incredibly isolated. The only way to get there is from Hay River on the South of Great Slave Lake, and you're crossing the 10th largest Lake in the world so you can imagine how difficult it is to get diesel up there. The idea was to create a self-contained assembly of different forms of energy generation and to connect with the First Nations in order to provide them - especially these isolated bands - a reliable energy source.
This was the first practical implementation of many attempts. We had talked to India, for example, India is way ahead in trying to put Smart Grids into their remote villages and we have some partnerships there. But you need some of these sample installations to learn to get some feeling of what works and what doesn't.
It’s going extremely well. We're pulling a lot of data out of it and we have had no major breakdowns of anything so far. Siemens is the key partner and they're in the same boat. It's not about selling equipment, it's about learning how these things perform. The environment is very harsh up there, it's fairly wet because it's right at the Lake shore there and can get to minus 40 degrees in the winter. So it is a great environment to learn how the technology can withstand inclement weather and adverse environments. The next step is to train local personnel, because you cannot just drop it off and then hope that it all goes well, if something needs to be fixed you want to do it on the site.
We hope that this will be a prototype for many First Nations communities where they identify a few individuals to be trained in certain elements of it. We are in discussions about how this would look if this were installed in 20 communities and each of them has half a dozen key personnel. Then out of that cadre, you could have two or three key people who would become a Chief Engineer, so to speak and who can then work for the First Nation.
We're pursuing multiple topics with it. One is economic independence and self-sustainability on the part of the First Nations and on the other hand also environmentally sustainable systems that can be rolled out there. The idea is eventually to cut down the shipping of diesel by over 90%, so that it's really only the last resort, if everything else should fail.
Closer to home, BCIT has rolled out a huge number of initiatives on campus including The Smart BCIT masterplan, which looks to increase efficiencies and better serve students as they navigate facilities. The Burnaby campus in particular has seen an overhaul which has leveraged the power of technology. I was eager to learn more about what had been achieved to date, and what the future of the campus facilities may look like.
RH: We're in the early stages of Smart Campus, it is a brand new initiative. The idea is to build on the work that Tom has done on the academic side in setting up centres of competence, and in particular, The Center for Digital Transformation. From an operations perspective, our facilities folks have been moving ahead in this direction for a number of years, and they have already put in place sophisticated building information management systems from a couple of different providers that are in two of our campuses. We have around 20,000 sensors already deployed and the academic programs in place that touch on many of these elements.
What we're seeking to do now, is to collect all of these different disparate pieces and bring them all together into a unified model that can become a bigger picture platform for the Institute as a whole. We're looking at digital twin technology as being that core platform capability which we can connect all of these other different disparate systems to in a well understood way, a way that's repeatable and scalable and that we can grow over time. That's really the core of it. From that, we can bring in partners to do research projects and generate new experiences on campus. Once we have that integration of data, we know a lot more about the environment, we know about people who are moving around within the environment, and we can tailor experiences to those individuals. One of those experiences is the Living Labs.
TR: This brings us back again to the whole platform idea. You cannot create an opportunity or a living lab if you have to always start from scratch. To put it another way, you cannot invent a new car if you don't have a kilometer of paved road. If you pave the road and you have no cars, everybody looks at you and says, ‘why are you spending all that money? There's no use for it.’ Roy and I are passionate about the idea that you have to build the infrastructure first and trust that there will be endless opportunity to use it.
It's actually the imagination of the students that put this to good use. The living lab idea comes in so many shapes and forms, whether it's a green screen, or salmon spawning monitoring, it’s always based around the idea that students learn best by applying their knowledge right away, by gaining knowledge through application and applying theoretical knowledge. It also covers one of the topics that industry tells us the most that modern universities are short on - communication and soft skills. It's generally recognized that a lot of graduates don't communicate well and that it takes a long time to integrate them into the system.
Why is that? Most modern classes consist of sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a professor. BCIT has always taken that one step further and had a lot of lab-based classes and teamwork-based classes. But the epitome of all of this is what we call a living lab, where the students can walk into an environment for two hours in a week and then work on something, but it is also where they experience it, where it happens all the time. They can walk by at 8 o'clock in the morning or 10 o'clock at night. And they can say, ‘I'm working with this.’ It could be a building sensor to monitor the energy efficiency of the building, or it could be looking at the Smart Grid energy production, and how it's being used across the campus. From that come new ideas and new student projects that they can use to go further. And that's exactly what we're trying to put together right now.
Speaking to Tom and Roy, there is a recurring theme in their work that they have a clear vision of the platform they want to create, but they are very deliberate about not putting clear definitions or specific objectives for it. As students learn the programs and systems evolve with them, creating a feedback loop which informs both sides of the relationship, and builds on the learning at every step.
RH: It has to operate that way. The benefit of the digital twin is that it takes the scarce physical assets that we have, and creates that high fidelity replica of it or whichever fidelity is appropriate. You can then duplicate that as often as you would like for the purpose of academic instruction and experimentation, or learning objectives, informed by data that is really happening. That's what Tom is talking about there - if we're able to scale it, then we can maximize our return on the investment of the capital asset. Students can still see and experience the physical asset, but they can spend a lot more time learning about the physical asset in the digital copy of it.
We do it today in many different ways with AR and VR technology and simulations. We've been doing it for years. People spend time learning how to use an excavator sitting in a simulator, the same with ships and all kinds of different applications. What we're talking about now is taking that to this living lab concept where that digital twin becomes a critical element of facilitating living labs at scale. So it becomes a very different thing than what we have today. As Tom mentioned, we don't know what cars are going to ride on a paved road, but we know that there's demand and we know that there’s opportunity.
BCIT has invested in a huge number of smart learning spaces to make use of these developments and they have been designed to include a wide range of technologies with the aim of enriching the learning experience. As we spoke on Zoom and an in-person visit to the campus was off the cards for now I asked Tom and Roy what these spaces actually look like, and what they foresee being the impact for students at BCIT.
TR: It's a very broad question because it's different for every school and for every discipline, but I'll pick health as an example. Health training has changed dramatically from just 10 years ago. 10 years ago we had the first mannequins arrive on the system. The stimulated people that lie on a bed, and then you can put a few conditions onto them and that's it. They have become incredibly sophisticated and the instructor can program a condition behind the scenes into them, and then the students need to figure out. So the person has a temperature and is coughing and so where do we go about this? This is all based on the recognition that learning from a book is not learning. That is really just learning by heart and acknowledging that this book tells me something. Whereas here you have what we call experiential learning, and that is what you will need in your job.
That mannequin element has moved into augmented reality now. The problem with the mannequin is that it's a little bit limited in what it can do because it's a physical body, but it also uses a lot of space and you have to be physically in the classroom. We have created a massive learning framework called virtual pulse. It allows students to put on augmented reality goggles and see a person lying there. The instructor can create the conditions and the students can take tools from the wall and interact with that person and give them the thermometer etc. The beauty of that is these students don't need to be all in one room. They could technically be dispersed across the planet if you want, they still see each other standing around and yet they're not all physically in one room. That is the beauty of modern technology teaching, it takes away the constraints of space and time. You can learn anywhere at any time, and then you can learn it through any level you like.
The nice thing about simulation of course, is if you don't catch it the first time you just replay it and you can do it over and over again. In our automotive program, they need to learn how clutch assemblies work in cars. We need a donation every three years or so because you can only take a clutch apart so many times. If you do that 400 times this thing is done. That doesn't apply anymore because they do it with a virtual clutch and it works just as well. They have a virtual screwdriver in their hand, they do exactly the same mechanical steps. When the clutch is open, you press a button and it all falls back together and we can try it again. That is the beauty of modern technical training and we're trying to roll this out now into pretty much all of our disciplines. We have a core group we call it, PRISM, which stands for Polytechnic Research Institute for Simulation and Multimedia. Their job is to create these scenarios, to create all the tools and everything that students can use. We’re not quite there yet, it's still very much a work in progress, but we have more and more of them now so we can see where the world is going with that.
As a millennial that grew up seeing home computers become a reality, and only having access to a mobile phone as an adult, it seems like science fiction to imagine school students working on virtual bodies and clutches from all over the world. It only seems like a few years ago we were talking about what 3D printers and VR could do and now they are learning tools. But BCIT isn’t stopping there.
TR: 3D printers are a very good example because when they first came out they were $20,000 units where you needed a capital purchase to bring them in, and they didn't work all that well. Nowadays the students have them on the side of their desk. You can buy one for a few hundred dollars. Another example is LIDAR which is used for three dimensional reading up space in full color. It used to cost $75,000 for a LIDAR unit and now it's in an iPhone.
RH: That really puts it into perspective. That's just one of the technologies that really enables the type of learning experience that Tom is talking about, and it's all getting so small, cheap, and readily accessible that it's almost inexcusable not to use it.
TR: The generation that's going into the workforce now - usually referred to as Gen z - is the first generation that always had the internet.That brings with it a completely different approach to life and to acquisition of knowledge. There is no acceptance anymore that knowledge might not be immediately available, if I have a question I have it answered no problem. Modern students say ‘you wanted me to solve that question, I solved it, I googled it, there was an answer; there it is’. And they are right, in their world they’re right, and for us a little bit older generation we have to accept this, that this is a valid form.
If I was an engineer who had to build a bridge and there is a proven model on the internet why would I do all the calculations myself with a potential of infusing an error when I know this works? It’s a philosophical discussion but it’s a change in the approach of the world.
On the broader topic of digital transformation and how BCIT has approached the topic in their educational programming they have recently launched a micro credential in digital transformation among other topics. I was curious to find out how micro credentials work, and how the program had been received by students.
TR: Most university programs are a minimum of four years long. And 30 years ago, the diploma was invented where we didn't need the breadth of a degree, we only needed two years of subject matter expertise. BCIT recognised that a lot of people coming from industry are not really pursuing a new degree or a new certificate they need to upgrade their knowledge. So, we created a category, which we call ‘part time studies’ where you come in and take that spot course. Let's say you have been a programmer and you would like to know how to program an app that you have just heard about. Come in, we’ll teach you that.
Taking this one step further, even the part time studies programs were two or three months long. What if I'm only interested in one particular skill? That is where the micro credentials come in, they are not based on a certain number of hours spent, they are based on a particular skill. Some people might have that competency achieved in three hours, and others after 30 hours. But at the end, they have achieved exactly the same. It’s not the same as the old credit model where it's based on the number of hours you spend in the classroom.
When the digital transformation came about, we realised that we cannot have a program on digital transformation. Nobody is going to go to school now for three years to learn how the world is changing. I might want an intro into cybersecurity, I don't want to be a cybersecurity expert. I don't understand the words ‘intrusion detection’, just give me an overview of it. Another example is construction - we are seeing more buildings with engineered lumber, with mass lumber construction. I don't need to be an architect, I just want to know what it all means. ‘Engineered beams, laminated beams?’ That's what a micro credential does.
We created an umbrella of digital transformation micro credentials, and within it you have a whole bunch of topics of interest. You get a micro credential in digital transformation but you and I might actually attend two completely different courses - it might be blockchain or IoT for example. So we both have a bit of an intro into digital transformation but it's two different fields that we're taking with it.
As a natural educator, Dr Roemer speaks with a great passion about the educational programming at BCIT and was keen to give Cascadia Report a scoop on the latest developments that they are particularly excited about.
TR: We haven’t advertised it yet, but we have just introduced the Open Multidisciplinary Credential. It pays homage to the old problem that knowledge is usually only acknowledged if it's a specialist knowledge such as an accountant, engineer, or programmer, but it is often not recognized that the world also needs generalists. They don't need to be experts in each field but they need to have that ground level knowledge and bring two and two together. So, we created the Open Multidisciplinary Credential, and we can link it back to micro credentials. If you are taking five or six micro credentials, and they all are in different fields, you have a knowledge base that a lot of other people wouldn’t have.
You might have a micro credential in Block-chain, one in road construction, and you have one in Fitbits etc. You might suddenly realise that because of those links you have a unique idea what we could do with that. That's what this is trying to trigger, it's trying to pay recognition to the fact that many cool things happen at the interface of two fields, and it’s the application of the knowledge there that allows for that. So that's the container, where you can take your micro credentials and BCIT will give you a certificate or a diploma, and possibly one day, a degree in interdisciplinary studies.
RH: All I’ll add to that is, Tom mentioned the idea of generating innovation and ideas where different fields meet. We are interested in pushing that agenda because it has the potential for significant economic impact to BC. Those new ideas generate new economies, respond to new needs in the economy, and are entirely industry driven. The Mass Timber micro credential has had such significant interest that it's unbelievable. I don't remember the numbers but there has been huge interest and there was no marketing of it, it was just through industry connections. That's how connected BCIT is. And I think that's an important point to mention that we're doing it because it's in the best interest of BC.
With a view to working with and for the future prosperity of the Province, BCIT has a long history of supporting the community and creating a valuable pool of talent for the local businesses.
More recently, it has been working with the Digital Supercluster on a number of projects with a view to building capacity into Canada's technology labor market. Programs such as Athena Pathways and Hyper Talent have attracted much attention within BC and beyond. I asked Tom and Roy about the role that BCIT has in addressing the talent shortage in BC, and the Cascadia innovation corridor as a whole.
TR: We just won another contract with the Digital Supercluster and we are proud to be the second most funded institution with Digital Supercluster after UBC [University of British Columbia], so that tells you a little bit about the applicability.
We need to acknowledge that more evaluation will be done through artificial intelligence systems in the future. When your kids go to a career advisor and they try to find out what their interests may be, this will be an automated process soon, and often is already. You will be able to enter your resume to a machine and it will recommend where you should go. Or you can tell the machine ‘I like dogs, and I would like to rid the ocean of plastic, I'm interested in astronomy, and I like to ride my bike’ and out of that an AI system would be able to distill a portfolio of courses that you want to take. In my opinion, education will become more and more customizable, and more and more aimed at the immediate need of the person.
It will be much more outcome based and people will not go to a university for four years just to get letters behind their names. Of course, there will always be people who should have a degree, but there will also be a lot who will just accumulate knowledge. It’s programs like Athena Pathways that allow us to get more into the subject matter. Bringing it back to data sets, it's working with the population to understand what makes them tick, so there's psychology and sociology involved, and that needs to be translated into an algorithm.
A few years ago, we had a call from the Immigrant Employment Council of BC [IECBC], explaining that they would like to bring skilled workers over from abroad, in this case they were marine welders from the Philippines. The problem was figuring out what they should be taking here if they can live up to our standards. It’s unfair to invite them here, just to tell them everything they learned is not applicable so they have to start from scratch. We should do a gap analysis while they're still in their home countries. We developed online programs called, FAST, [Facilitated Access to Skilled Trades], where they can access an interactive screen to document their experience, and the program tells them their equivalent level of knowledge here in BC and what courses they have to take. That touches on the way Athena works as well, the experience that we have with that.
The system works perfectly but we haven't achieved the penetration on the immigrant side that we would like, where we would say, ‘how can we catch you while you're still in India or Indonesia, or Vietnam?’ It's more of a marketing issue than a technology issue, but with additional funding and expanding the program we hope that eventually we'll be able to get this out.
As BCIT continues to innovate both on campus and beyond, there are a number of different ways that the innovations and programs can transform the learning process. Having already touched on the idea of digital twins and the process of taking something real and creating a digital duplicate to simulate and do predictive analysis I wanted to understand more about the possible applications that the team at BCIT have in mind, and what benefits they see for the learning space of the future.
RH: That's a really interesting question because the field is still relatively new. There have been many different advancements over the years that we can look back to as predictors of the future. There's jet engine technology, where using data collected from sensors in jet engines, they were able to significantly reduce the amount of maintenance time and cost of servicing. I think we'll see digital twins being used on less expensive equipment and services, but at greater scale, and generating more efficient and effective use of all of our equipment, tools, and systems. Taking a scarce physical asset and creating the digital duplicate of it and then using that to do all your trials, testing, different scenarios and analysis, before you pick one to go and try on the real thing. You're not impacting the time that that equipment is in service, and you're doing things with a much higher probability of successful outcomes. We are seeing that in a number of industries now.
I spoke with a good friend in the automotive business space, who builds simulations for robots to welding and everything else in manufacturing. That area is just getting into using digital twins. So, who knows what the future will be. But when we look at the past and look at what was generated from those dealing with the bigger problems with a much more expensive problems, and we start to apply them to smaller scenarios, create more repeatability on things, I think we're going to see a lot of new ingenious things happen, we're going to see reduced wear and tear on some of our equipment, because we will better be able to maintain and support it. We're also going to see innovation happen, because with a digital twin, you have to worry about breaking it. The impact is huge.
TR: Going back to the clutch example, you can do it at home, you can do it over and over and over. You don't need to ask your instructor to stay late to take the clutch apart, you can do it as often as you'd like from the comfort of your own home. I can do it on my cell phone in some cases, I can do it on the bus. And it's this just in time learning and anytime, anywhere. It's a completely different form of training. There will always be the need for campuses and for personal interactions but you need to run the two tracks complimentary.
RH: At BCIT we have students that come in for several weeks to upskill or they’re working and doing something to get a new credential or whatever the case might be. They come from all over the province. If we're able to facilitate some of the learning remotely then they don't need to come to be physically on campus for as much time. That's one of the things that happened during the pandemic - what's the good reason for not continuing that? Can we continue and then grow the opportunity to have actually more students, let’s see what that looks like.
While I had the great fortune to be with two leaders in the technology education space I asked them to look to the future of what students can expect from attending classes, and how they see the wider vision of the leadership team at BCIT impacting the communities here in the Cascadia corridor, and beyond.
TR: Our competition has become a global one overnight. COVID has broken down the barrier of working remotely. Why would you now take the course from BCIT? You can also take it from Harvard, you can take it from the University of Melbourne or Timbuktu, or anywhere. So quality will become a very big discriminator, you will need to make sure that you offer a solid product with good learning systems behind it that are enjoyable to work with. Uploading course notes won't matter at all anymore. It's an opportunity and a threat at the same time, you're competing for international instructional talent. So I can get the best Professor now, he might be sitting in Johannesburg, and he never has to leave home. In my opinion, the biggest threat will be commercial companies like Google going into training. And when students are not in pursuit of an academic credential anymore, but really just after a competency certificate, then a Google is just as good as a BCIT. When a multi-billion dollar company that has direct access to technology throws their weight around, I would presume that their learning environment will be fantastic.
So the value of the BCITs will lie in the combination of an online environment with the residency on campus as well. Google will never be able to distribute 500 campuses around the world and they will never want to. That's where BCIT can operate. And maybe there's an opportunity for partnership, who knows. We all have our niche strengths and weaknesses and that's well understood. But it's those companies that will change the world.
RH: If you want to learn how to actually do something, you go to BCIT. And if you want to do a variety of interesting work, you come to work for BCIT. Tom mentioned the international nature of our business. We have a service that we use for virtual desktops that we provide. And we can see that every day, we have people teaching and learning from all over the world.
As ever on Cascadia Report, we love to put our guests on the spot and given the breadth of their experience I was fascinated to ask Tom and Roy for three key takeaways.
- Always assume the best of intentions.
- Change requires patience.
- This will soon be over.
TR: I can't be that succinct - I’m going to talk for a half hour!
Learn from the next generation. This has never been more necessary. In the olden days we assumed what worked for us would work for them, then time slowly nudges things forward. That's not the case anymore. As an instructor, you also need to now look at the GEN Z and ask; ‘what does your world look like?’ To understand their world so that we can teach them things that they can apply in their world. It has never been that bi-directional. We have always pretended, but for the most part, instructors always thought they knew best.
Beware the blurring of boundaries. Geographical boundaries, discipline boundaries, territorial boundaries. Just because the world was clearly defined doesn't mean that it will always be like that. Look at Amazon, it was a bookstore at some point. Be flexible, be interdisciplinary, be curious. Which leads me to my third point!
Remain curious. You cannot be brilliant at everything and you shouldn't be either. Out of that curiosity comes recognition that we’ve created a lot of our problems through indiscriminate use of technology, but I also believe the solutions lie in technology. We cannot bring society back to the 1800s and get rid of 5 billion people on this planet. So we need a modern solution. Smarter use of technology, be it climate change, be it extinction of species, everything.
You can find out more about BCIT here: https://www.bcit.ca/