Coming home to new faces. Thinking about blocksSunday, October 14, 2012 by: Darren Taylor
When Algoma University alumni celebrate Homecoming 2012 October 19 and 20 in Sault Ste. Marie, some who graduated many years ago may be surprised at how the face of the student body has changed recently.
As SooToday.com reported earlier, the ‘global village’ concept is alive and well and constantly growing at Algoma University.
Algoma University President Dr. Richard Myers told SooToday.com the number of international students now at the institution is important in a number of ways.
“Its important in terms of helping the university grow, we have a large number of international students as part of our Algoma family now, driving the very substantial enrollment growth that we have experienced in the last few years,” he said. "More importantly, it is very important for us to diversify the learning environment for our students."
Dr. Myers, pictured above with Chinese students Hailin Wu, Yushi Bu and Chan Kim Fai, has lived in Paris, Italy, Germany, China, Japan and New York City.
"I had the great privilege as a student and a professor to live and study abroad," said Myers. "It taught me early on that there’s probably nothing more helpful in one’s education than having that experience of living in a different culture, and seeing how things look to other people.”
While finances, family obligations and other factors mean it isn't possible for every student in the world to spend time in other countries or cultures, Algoma University does the next best thing by bringing the world to its students.
“Algoma University is a very attractive destination for international students, I think a lot of them correctly perceive that you’re going to get a better sense of Canada in a smaller community where people are more open," Myers said. "A lot of them are very concerned about safety issues and I think if you’re an 18-year-old student from Japan for example, probably your parents are very concerned where you’re going to study. Sault Ste. Marie has a reputation as a safe community.”
One country that is sending a fast-growing number of students to Algoma is Saudi Arabia.
"We’re becoming a favourite of theirs because they have heard Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma University are friendly and accommodating, and that is serving us well,” he said.
Dr. Myers estimates there are currently about 175 Saudi Arabian students at Algoma.
For Dr. Myers, who has enjoyed a great deal of study abroad and who speaks several languages (French, German, Italian and Greek, well-read in Spanish, and a good knowledge of Russian, Chinese and Japanese), witnessing the growth of Algoma’s international student body is gratifying.
“It's good for Sault Ste. Marie," he said. "This is a community that experienced a significant demographic decline."
Myers said the university hopes to attract more students from other parts of the world and convince some of these bright young people to stay in the Sault and contribute positively to its citizens' quality of life.
On a different topic, Dr. Myers explained and discussed the “Block Plan” curriculum, currently being implemented at one of Algoma’s satellite campuses in St. Thomas, Ontario.
“There are practical reasons for using the Block Plan in St. Thomas but there are also educational reasons,” Myers said.
When you are delivering programming in a small community the challenge is where does a university find qualified instructors with a doctorate in psychology, a doctorate in history, and so on.
"We could of course send people there, but it doesn’t make sense to send a person to a community far away for a 15-week semester to teach one class," he said.
The Block Plan sees students complete each course in the semester one at a time, intently immersed in and focused on the subject matter.
"I can’t persuade someone to go to St. Thomas for what we pay someone to teach one course and have them live there for 15 weeks to make that amount of money," he said. "But I have no trouble finding people happy to go there for three weeks and make that amount of money, so there is a logistical reason why the Block Plan is ideal for that kind of off site work in a smaller community like St. Thomas.”
Educational benefits to the Block Plan include an opportunity for students to concentrate on courses one at a time.
The students in St. Thomas had already completed their first history course by the end of September and as of the first week of October, completed their first psychology course.
The school year is of the same length, but instead of carrying five courses at once they’re doing one at a time, through two-and-a-half weeks of intensive instruction then they write their exam and are done that course before moving on to the next course.
“I think you if you can concentrate on one thing at a time, its easier to master," said Myers. "It's also nice in that it regulates the workload a student has."
In the traditional model of Canadian universities, students end up in several serious crunches throughout the school year.
All of their course work in the regular curriculum is all due in the same two weeks of the semester.
Everything is due at the last week of November and early December, or in the case of the second semester, in late March.
The Block Plan work is distributed evenly across the semester so its easier for the students to manage it.
“Finally, we also see an advantage in the fact both the students and the instructor are actually free to move outside the classroom, away from the school, said Myers. "If I, for example, was teaching an English course in Shakespeare, Ontario has arguably the world’s greatest Shakespeare festival down in Stratford, I could take my students down there for a week under the Block Program, but under the regular curriculum, as an instructor I would be teaching other courses, the students would be taking other courses at the same time, and of course they can’t miss those.”
Will the Block Plan be implemented at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie?
Originally, the faculty at Algoma looked at the Block Program and there was considerable interest in it, Myers said.
"It would have been a very radical change for people here," he said. "There was an agreement ahead of time that a radical change would not be made unless there was overwhelming consensus in favour of it, and we didn’t have that level of consensus.”
Still, Myers is enthused about what he sees in St. Thomas.
“This is the first year that we’ve done this, so we’re watching it carefully, but the reaction of the students of ours is ‘this is wonderful.’"
Pictured: Left to right, Hailin Wu, Yushi Bu, Dr. Richard Myers, and Chan Kim Fai.