I owe a great deal to North Island College. I worked there from 1983 until 2012. That’s quite a stretch. My time there was mostly fruitful (I got paid decently), challenging but exhausting too. It probably didn’t have to be that way, but it’s my nature I guess to never allow a vacuum on time in my life. Whatever time I have seems to be filled and if it isn’t I get to filling it as soon as possible.
I got the job at the college because I was an experienced sociology instructor who had taught a number of sociology courses, but who also taught the history of Québec at Douglas College, I was (am) bilingual, and I had experience with teaching studying techniques. In the context of a unique distance education organization that hired tutors rather than instructors, the president of the college soon realized that I could tutor a large number of course. And I did. Like I wrote in my last post, I tutored students from all over the north island in courses on sociology, anthropology, Canadian history, geography, French, and studying techniques. Eighteen courses in all.
At the time (1983) the college had a lot of what it called learning centres all over the place. Twenty-one in all if I recall. The main ones were in the Comox Valley, Campbell River and Port Alberni, but there were learning centres in Port Hardy, Port Alice, Port McNeill, Sointula, Alert Bay (ironically in the abandoned residential school), Cortes Island, Ucluelet, etc.. Just before my time the college also had mobile units that travelled to Denman and Hornby Islands, and a ship, a converted ocean-going tugboat called the Samarinda, that was supposed to bring education to the remotest places on a wild and wooly coast. That didn’t last long. The Samarinda’s propeller graces the foreshore park in Horseshoe Bay. The rest of the vessel is long gone. Meanwhile, the distance ed. thing rolled right along.
The college expanded into doing telecourses on the Knowledge Network. The first ‘tutor’ to take on the job was Michael Catchpole, a Port Alberni psychologist who did as I did and travelled to Vancouver to the Knowledge Network studios to do his thing at least once a week between September and May. We were followed by a couple of English instructors. We did that until 1992. The college also developed its own internal kind of television network after the Knowledge Network gig went bust. For example, I might be teaching a course in Courtenay which was being broadcast live to Port Alberni. That was a riot…literally. Controlling the remote site was a special challenge but the local students weren’t always thrilled with the arrangement either because they weren’t getting my full attention. I constantly had to remind myself that there were students out there that I couldn’t see in at least one other site, sometimes two other sites. Technically it was a constant challenge because we had no techs that were always available because they had more than one course to deal with themselves and they often worked with marginal equipment off the sides of their desks. Fun and games. But we carried on.
Getting back for a minute to the older days, the end of learning centres was entirely predictable. Small villages like Sointula couldn’t sustain a learning centre for long because once a group of students took a course, that was it. There was no second group ready to go in the next term. When the college finally closed the centre in Sointula I think the hue and cry could be heard from as far away as Port Alberni. In the early 90s, there was a coup at the college. Dennis Wing, the first president and the strongest advocate for distance education anywhere was turfed and Neil Murphy took over with the mandate of transforming the college into a conventional community college. In 1992 the college moved from a number of sites in Courtenay to its current campus on Ryan Road, a new facility was built on Roger Street in Port Alberni and Campbell River got a new campus in the same buildings as Timberline High School. I had to commute there every week to teach on that campus as well as in Courtenay. I even travelled to Port Alberni on occasion to be with my ‘remote’ students. Finally, I was the first instructor at the college to teach an entirely online course for students in the north island. I think I had eight students.
The college’s official history is pretty sparse and doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story. For instance, it says nothing of our union organizing and the establishment of CUPE Local 3479 and The Federation of Post Secondary Educators Local 16 as the North Island College Faculty Association. I was its first president but only lasted a short time in that role because I was burnt out and headed for a health crash for which I had to take months off. That was not my most enjoyable time at the college. As far as I can see there’s one line in the official timeline about NIC and the Knowledge Network. Frankly that is a bit disappointing but the college doesn’t owe me anything. I got well paid and generally very well treated by the administration during the times I had to take time outs for health reasons. Of course, I’ve left out a lot of the juicy bits. Can’t tell all, of course. Lawsuits could ensue. But, mygawd, there’s a lot more to tell.
I should say in conclusion that I was awarded emeritus status at the college as I retired and I received two teaching awards in my time there, one for innovation in teaching and the other for teaching excellence from a group at the University of Texas at Austin dedicated to celebrating such things.