Polytechnics are future-proofing our work force with technology and innovation

To help manage the influx of new business spurred by the pandemic, Skip the Dishes called Red River College Polytechnic (RRC Polytech) in Winnipeg and asked for help at the start of the year. The food delivery network requested a set of courses be designed to train the Winnipeg-based company’s work force as they grew and brought in a wave of new hires.

“[Industries] are looking at polytechnics for the expertise, flexibility and nimbleness that we’re really well-known for and that allows us to solve today’s problems,” says Dr. Christine Watson, RRC Polytech’s VP Academic and Research.

Notably, Manitoba’s largest college recently rebranded to embrace its identity as a polytechnic by bringing that word into its name as Red River College Polytechnic, or RRC Polytech.

“It’s really a great time to change our name to better reflect the breadth of the contributions we make,” says Dr. Watson. “We continually hear from employers that they are being disrupted… and they need a partner like us to support their evolution and growth.”

RRC Polytech doesn’t need to catch up to their new brand as a polytechnic institute. They’ve been delivering a diverse work force and flexible options for skill improvement for years.

For over a decade, RRC Polytech’s Mobile Training Labs have been providing classroom-based learning to rural and northern Manitoba communities. Competencies range from automotive, carpentry, electrical, machining, pipe fitting, plumbing, welding, and industrial mechanics to full-time programs and corporate training.

“We’re [always] looking far into the horizon… not only do we have the technological solutions but here’s the work force, here’s the kind of skills [industries] will need and here’s the diversity of that work force,” adds Dr. Watson. “That’s an exciting position for us to be in.”

To assist Skip The Dishes, RRC Polytech developed courses with micro credentials, which are part of a larger model of education called an agile learning framework.

“The marketplace is changing, and we better pay attention to what is up and coming,” adds Dr. Tom Roemer. The vice-president of academic at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) introduced micro credentials to the school this year. “We [created] an open multidisciplinary credential… [it’s like] an à la carte education with a custom set of skills,” he explains.

“We are just in the process of a micro credential pilot that was financed in part by the B.C. government to see if the concept is valuable or not,” he adds. “We counted on about 150 students, and we ended up with 750… we are on to something.”

What does a micro credential look like in practise?

BCIT often works with the lumber industry and introduced training for workers who can earn badges in mass timber construction. Dr. Roemer explains a badge is offered for a skill that is proven and assessed, and a series of badges accumulates into micro credentials that can be used towards a certificate or diploma.

The upside to this program is the flexibility to learn the skills you need now instead of committing to program that takes years to complete.

Dr. Hassan Farhangi, the director of research at BCIT, lists the democratization of experiential learning as another advantage of polytechnics. “We bring individuals to a physical space that is populated with tech and tools in an environment in which those individuals can get firsthand exposure,” he explains.

And delivering that real-time experience – equitably – is top of mind.

Recently, Dr. Farhanghi and the BCIT’s Smart Microgrid Applied Research Team were commissioned by Natural Resources Canada to investigate building a clean energy microgrid on the banks of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The power source would serve the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation and lessen the community’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“Initially, our assumption was to bring community members to our Burnaby campus to be trained on BCIT’s Smart Microgrid. However, with the onslaught of COVID-19, we had to pivot towards a remote training program based on virtualized platforms,” Dr. Farhangi adds.

Despite the pandemic, training for this community continues and due to BCIT’s success in building sustainable energy models, it announced a new part-time program offering a masters of engineering in smart grid systems and technologies.

This excellence in research demonstrates yet another benefit polytechnics offer.

Seneca College operates a Data Analytics Research Centre, Open Source Technology for Emerging Platforms program, and the Seneca Centre for Innovation in Life Sciences, which are overseen by an applied research department.

Government funders for these centres include the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Mitacs and the Ontario Centre of Innovation.

Ben Rogers, dean of Seneca Innovation, says experiential learning is a key factor in their research success. “It’s an opportunity for students to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in the classroom to a real-world experience or challenge where they can multiply skills and develop new ones,” he adds.

The advantages of the polytechnic research experience include the opportunity for undergraduate students to access industry-partnered research programs usually reserved for masters and Ph.D. students, Mr. Rogers says. Seneca’s research administration, and other polytechnics, also provides project management services for students and faculty working on research projects, which isn’t standard at universities.

Beyond building a leading research division, Seneca has also expanded its options for course delivery. Now, students from anywhere can enjoy an in-class experience thanks to a new flexible option that was launched in response to the pandemic.

Using auto-tracking cameras that follow professors as they teach students in a classroom, Seneca can broadcast sessions to students online, who can engage in classroom discussions and activities in real time.

To simulate real-life clinical experiences for those learning remotely, Seneca’s School of Nursing has also integrated virtual reality that allows nursing students to practise medical and emergency scenarios.

While technology is key to the success of many polytechnics, Dr. Watson still believes in the power of connection to deliver progress. “We really have an opportunity to bring technical training and human [interpersonal] skills together into a beautiful marriage as we prepare the future work force,” she says.

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