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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Athabascu U. at the digital frontier

By Nick Candiotto
Toronto Sun

Created by the government of Alberta in 1970, Athabasca University has become Canada's leading distance education and online university -- offering more than 550 courses and more than 60 graduate and undergraduate programs.

The school has offered computer science courses since the 1970s; however, the faculty has grown exponentially since. In 1988, the Faculty of Arts and Science included 12 computer science courses in its BA in information systems program. In 1994, the Faculty of Science began offering the BSc in information systems.

In September 1995, Athabasca University established its Centre for Computing and Information Systems (CCIS) to offer up-to-date education at the time and place convenient for every student.

A member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the CCIS is authorized to grant degrees, ranging from certificate to graduate, for their seven different programs through the Universities Act.

"We offer a variety of credentials," says Dr. Mohamed Ally, CCIS director. "Our post-diploma programs, where students can be granted up to 60 credits for their prior education, are very attractive to college students."

In fact, through the CCIS' agreements with a number of colleges, students can complete a four-year undergraduate program in five years -- all while studying part-time. Graduate programs can be completed in just three years -- which has proven to be a very attractive timeline.

"There has been significant growth in our graduate program," Ally notes. "In fact, we currently have 187 students enrolled in our masters of science in information systems program."

Programs commence 12 times throughout the year at the start of every month -- a unique feature of the school.

"Our programs are very beneficial for students who are currently working or already studying," Ally adds. "The most unique feature of the school is that our students can study anywhere, anytime. Some of the materials are online, some are sent by the instructor via mail, but there is no need for face-to-face meetings."

This flexibility and accessibility is what makes the Athabasca program so desirable to those wishing to continue their education without sacrificing a paycheque.

"Our students are older than average university students because the majority of them are already working, " Ally notes. "They are still in the work force, but want to upgrade their skills."

The need to upgrade is not unique to Athabasca's CCIS students. Because of constant innovations in the computing field, the centre's curriculum is updated frequently, while instructors also maintain and hone their own skills.

"We believe courses should be reviewed and revised at least every three years," Ally says. "But in our industry, we have to do it every year -- we're constantly retiring courses and starting up new courses.

"Full-time faculty members are involved with the course design and revision and are required to do research to keep up to date," Ally adds. "The process of applying for grants, reading journals, taking courses and doing the work itself keeps them very current."

The school's reputation has been cemented with a number of awards. In 2002, Athabasca University was honoured with the Commonwealth of Learning Award of Excellence for Institutional Achievement, and in a 2001 government survey, more than 90% of the university's students expressed satisfaction with their learning experience.

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