Facing deficit, college shifts towards distance learning

Houston’s Northwest Community College will teach fewer classes on-site, shifting instead to courses taken online and by videoconference.

Vice President Dave O’Leary and NWCC campus principal Regina Saimoto speak to Houston council on March 20.

Vice President Dave O’Leary and NWCC campus principal Regina Saimoto speak to Houston council on March 20.

Instructors at Houston’s Northwest Community College will soon teach fewer classes on-site, shifting instead to guiding students through courses they take online and by videoconference.

The move comes as NWCC lays off dozens of instructors at its nine northwest locations to avoid a $1.6-million deficit.

But with just 3.8 full-time equivalent staff and a single full-time instructor, NWCC Vice President Dave O’Leary said changes at the Houston campus will be relatively small.

“You’re not going to see some great big change in Houston,” O’Leary told council last Tuesday. “It’s just not there to be had.”

Explaining the new model, O’Leary said that if a need arose to train two new water technicians, it wouldn’t be cost-effective to run a whole class in Houston.

Instead, O’Leary said NWCC could link up with an Ontario college that offers the training by videoconference, and have Houston’s instructor guide students through the class.

“We’re able, basically, to do more with less, but in a different way,“ he said, noting that he saw the same model work well at Northern Lakes College near Slave Lake, Alberta.

To help NWCC choose what courses to offer, O’Leary said the college would set up a local advisory committee.

Councillor Jonathan Van Barneveld asked O’Leary how many positions would be cut from the Houston campus in the upcoming layoffs.

O’Leary said the college will have exact numbers in a few weeks, but right now they are still negotiating with the instructors’ union. B.C.’s Labour Relations Board will host a Terrace meeting about the cuts on March 27 and 28.

Salaries make up most of NWCC’s budget, O’Leary said, adding that the operations budget has already been cut to the core.

“I think it’s very clear we’re going through a challenging time in our college right now,” he said.

Coun. Van Barneveld also asked if building a new Smithers campus last year is part of what pushed the college into deficit.

Principal Regina Saimoto said no, the $16.7-million Smithers campus was entirely paid for by a provincial and federal stimulus grant that has no ties to the college’s regular funding.

Saimoto also said the college had just installed a new videoconferencing suite in Houston that day, allowing for more night classes and links to business courses at NWCC”s Terrace campus.

Councillor Michalle Jolly asked if that suite could also be used by the public.

O’Leary said that it could, provided it wasn’t being used by college students. NWCC rents the suite on a priority scale, he added, with reduced fees for non-profit groups.

Houston’s campus mainly provides high school upgrading and some basic workforce and literacy skills training.

Some entry-level trades courses are also offered to local high school students, along with a youth-employment program that matches students with temporary local jobs.

As for industry training, the Houston campus offers courses on an as-needs basis.

A spring course offered by NWCC’s School of Exploration and Mining was cancelled due to low enrolment.