Category Archives: enthusiasm

Waiting for Other Touch Devices?

Though I’m interpreting Apple’s current back-to-school special to imply that we might not see radically new iPod touch models until September, I’m still hoping that there will be a variety of touch devices available in the not-so-distant future, whether or not Apple makes them.

Turns out, the rumour mill has some items related to my wish, including this one:

AppleInsider | Larger Apple multi-touch devices move beyond prototype stage

This could be excellent news for the device category as a whole and for Apple itself. As explained before, I’m especially enthusiastic about touch devices in educational contexts.

I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since it was announced. I sincerely think that an iPod touch will significantly enhance my life. As strange as it may sound, especially given the fact I’m no gadget freak, I think frequently about the iPod touch. Think Wayne, in Wayne’s World 2, going to a music store to try a guitar (and being denied the privilege to play Stairway to Heaven). That’s almost me and the iPod touch. When I go to an Apple Store, I spend precious minutes with a touch.

Given my current pattern of computer use, the fact that I have no access to a laptop at this point, and the availability of WiFi connections at some interesting spots, I think an iPod touch will enable me to spend much less time in front of this desktop, spend much more time outside, and focus on my general well-being.

One important feature the touch has, which can have a significant effect on my life, is instant-on. My desktop still takes minutes to wake up from “Stand by.” Several times during the day, the main reason I wake my desktop is to make sure I haven’t received important email messages. (I don’t have push email.) For a number of reasons, what starts out as simple email-checking frequently ends up being a more elaborate browsing session. An iPod touch would greatly reduce the need for those extended sessions and let me “do other things with my life.”

Another reason a touch would be important in my life at this point is that I no longer have access to a working MP3 player. While I don’t technically need any portable media player to be happy, getting my first iPod just a few years ago was an important change in my life. I’ll still miss my late iRiver‘s recording capabilities, but it’s now possible to get microphone input on the iPod touch. Eventually, the iPod touch could become a very attractive tool for fieldwork recordings. Or for podcasting. Given my audio orientation, a recording-capable iPod touch could be quite useful. Even more so than iPod Classic with recording capabilities.

There are a number of other things which should make the iPod touch very useful in my life. A set of them have to do with expected features and applications. One is Omni Group’s intention to release their OmniFocus task management software through the iPhone SDK. As an enthusiastic user of OmniOutliner for most of the time I’ve spent on Mac OS X laptops, I can just imagine how useful OmniFocus could be on an iPod touch. Getting Things Done, the handheld version. It could help me streamline my whole workflow, the way OO used to do. In other words: OF on an iPod touch could be this fieldworker’s dream come true.

There are also applications to be released for Apple’s Touch devices which may be less “utilitarian” but still quite exciting. Including the Trism game. In terms of both “appropriate use of the platform” and pricing, Trism scores high on my list. I see it as an excellent example of what casual gaming can be like. One practical aspect of casual gaming, especially on such a flexible device as the iPod touch, is that it can greatly decrease stress levels by giving users “something to do while they wait.” I’ve had that experience with other handhelds. Whether it’s riding the bus or waiting for a computer to wake up from stand by, having something to do with your hands makes the situation just a tad bit more pleasant.

I’m also expecting some new features to eventually be released through software, including some advanced podcatching features like wireless synchronization of podcasts and, one can dream, a way to interact directly with podcast content. Despite having been an avid podcast listener for years, I think podcasts aren’t nearly “interactive” enough. Software on a touch device could solve this. But that part is wishful thinking. I tend to do a lot of wishlists. Sometimes, my daydreams become realities.

The cool thing is, it looks as though I’ll be able to get my own touch device in the near future. w00t! 😀

Even if Apple does release new Touch devices, the device I’m most likely to get is an iPod touch. Chances are that I might be able to get a used 8MB touch for a decent price. Especially if, as is expected for next Monday, Apple officially announces the iPhone for Canada (possibly with a very attractive data plan) As a friend was telling me, once Canadians are able to get their hands on an iPhone directly in Canada, there’ll likely be a number of used iPod touches for sale. With a larger supply of used iPod touches and a presumably lower demand for the same, we ca
n expect a lower price.

Another reason I might get an iPod touch is that a friend of mine has been talking about helping me with this purchase. Though I feel a bit awkward about accepting this kind of help, I’m very enthusiastic at the prospect.

Watch this space for more on my touch life. 😉

Educational Touch: Handhelds in Schools

The more I think about it, the more Touch-style handhelds seem to make sense in educational and academic contexts. They don’t need to be made by Apple. But Apple’s devices are inspiring in this respect.

Here’s a thought, which would be a deal-maker for many an instructor: automatically turn off all student cellphones. A kind of “classroom mode,” similar to the “airplane mode” already on the iPhone. And it could apply to non-phone devices (i.e., the iPod touch and future models in those Touch lines). An instructor could turn off all audio out from the all the handheld devices in the room. Or turn them all on, if needed. This could even be location-based, if the devices have sufficiently precise positioning systems.
To go even further, one might imagine some control over what apps may be used during class. Turning off games, for instance. Or chat. Or limit browsing to the LAN. Not “always off,” mind you. But selectively opting out of some of the handhelds’ features. Temporarily.

In most situations, such controls seem overly restrictive to me. Apart from preventing cellphones from ringing during lecture, I typically want to let students as free as possible. But I do know that many of my colleagues (not just admins) would just love it if they could limit some of the things students can do during class with such devices.

One obvious context for such limits is an in-class exam. If they could easily prevent students from using non-allowed materials during an exam, many teachers would likely appreciate the convenience of exams on handhelds. Just imagine: automatic grading and grade reporting, easy transfer of answers, access to rich multimedia content, seamless interface…
As was obvious to me during the Apple event yesterday, Touch-style handhelds could be excellent tools for “distance education.” Learners and teachers could be anywhere and the handhelds could make for more direct collaboration than large lectures. Advantages of handhelds over laptops are less obvious here than in classroom contexts but it’s easy to think of fieldwork situations in which learners could collaborate with experts from just about anywhere there is a wireless connection. Immediate access to learning materials at almost any moment.

And podcasting. While podcasting got a big boost when iTunes began podcast support, there’s a lot which could be done to improve podcasting and podcast management. As iPod media devices, Touch handhelds have good playback features already. But there could be so much more in terms of interacting with (multimedia) content. Transcripts, tags, associated slides, audio comments, fast-speed playback, text notes, video responses, links, cross-references, playback statistics, waveform-based navigation…

Podcasting can still become big.  It’s now a “household concept” but it’s not as mainstream nor as life-changing as many hoped it’d become, back in 2005. I’m not really forecasting anything but I can envision contexts in which enhance podcasting feautres could make our lives easier. Especially in schools.

Education in general (and university education in particular) may be the context where podcasting’s potential is most likely to be realized. Though the technological basis for podcasting is quite general in scope (RSS enclosures, podcatching software, etc.), podcasting often feels like an educational solution, first and foremost.

A lot has been said about educational uses of podcasting. Early reports showed some promising results with those teachers who were willing to think creatively about the technology. I personally enjoyed a number of advantages of podcasting in my own courses, including several imponderables. Software packages meant for lecturecasts (podcast lectures) already exist. Apple’s own iTunes U is specifically geared toward university education using podcasts.

But there’s still something missing. Not just for podcasts. For handheld “educational technology.”
Momentum? Possibly. Where would it come from, though?

Killer devices? Apple already pushes its own devices (including the iPod touch) for “Mobile Learning.”

Cool apps? Haven’t really looked at the Web apps but it seems likely that some of them can already lead to epiphanies and “teaching moments.” Not to mention that tons of excellent learning software will surely come out of Cocoa Touch development.

Funding? My feeling is that apart from providing financial support for user-driven and development projects, “educational technology” monies are often spent unwisely. The idea isn’t to spend money but to “unleash the potential” of learners and teachers.

Motivation? Many learners and teachers are ready and it would be absurd to force anyone to become enthusiastic about a specific tool or technology.

My guess is that the main thing we need to make “mobile learning” a reality is to take a step back and look at what is already possible. Then look at what can become possible. And just start playing around with ideas and tools.

Learning is a component of playfulness.

Confessions of a Naïve Tech Enthusiast (Old Draft)

I’m doing a bit of housecleaning. This is an old post I had in my drafts. Moved to Austin in the meantime, blogged about other things…

Dunno that I’ll finish this one. Should have REROed. In a way, it’s the prelude to my ultimate handheld post.

I keep dreaming of different devices which would enhance my personal and professional experience. Not that I’m really a gadget geek. But technology has, to a large extent, been part of improvements in my life.

Though I would hesitate to call “addictive” my relation to computer technology, I certainly tend to depend on it quite a bit.

Some context.

Ok, ok! A lot of context.

Let’s go back. Waaaaay back. To the summer of 1993. I was 21, then, and had already been a Mac-head for more than six years. Without being a complete fanboy of Apple Computers, I guess I was easily impressed by many of its products. During a trip to Cape Cod that summer, I got to read an issue of USA Today. In that issue, I read a review of a new class of computers, the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). I still remember how I felt. It might not have been my first “tech-induced epiphany” but it was one of the most intense. I not only started drifting off (which was easy enough to do, as I was in the back seat of my mother’s car), I actually started perceiving what my life could be with one of those devices.

Of course, I could afford any of them. Even when it became possible for me to purchase such a device, it remained financially irrational for me to spend that money on a single device, no matter how life-changing it might have been.

Shortly after discovering the existence of PDAs, and still during the summer of 1993, I discovered the existence of the Internet. Actually, it’s all a bit blurry at this point and it’s possible that I may have heard of the Internet before reading that epiphany-inducing USA Today article. Point is, though, that the Internet, not the PDA, changed my life at that point.

Whatever my computing experience had been until that point is hard to remember because the ‘Net changed everything. I know about specific computers I had been using until that point (from a ViC20 to an SE/30). I do remember long evenings spent typing from my handwritten notes taken during lectures. I still get a weird feeling thinking about a few sleepless nights spent playing simple strategy and card games on my father’s old Mac Plus. But I just can’t remember I could live without the ‘Net. I wasn’t thinking the same way.

Not too long after getting my first email account (on Université de Montréal’s Mistral server, running IRIX), the ‘Net helped me land my first real job: research assistant at a speech synthesis lab in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In late 1993 or early 1994, I had sent an email to a prominent ethnomusicologist about applying to the graduate program where she was and mentioned something about computer-based acoustic analysis, having taken a few courses in acoustics. She told me about Signalyze, a demo version of which was available through a Gopher server for that Swiss lab. While looking at that Gopher server, I became interested in the lab’s research projects and contacted Eric Keller, head of that lab and the main developer for Signalyze. I was already planning on spending that summer in Switzerland, working at my father’s cousin’s crêperie, so I thought spending some time in Lausanne interacting with members of Keller’s lab was a good idea. I was just finishing my bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Université de Montréal (with a focus on linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology). So I was interested in doing something related to sound analysis in musical or speech contexts. Keller asked for my résumé and offered me paid work at his lab for the summer. I ended up spending both that summer and the whole 1994-1995 academic year working at this lab, being paid more than some of my mentors in Montreal.

Technologically-speaking, my life in Switzerland was rather intense. I was spending 15 hours a day in front of a computer, doing acoustic analysis of speech sounds. This computer was a Mac IIvx which had once belonged to UQÀM. A very funny coincidence is that the Mac IIvx I was using had become the source of part of the funding for a fellowship at UQÀM. After I met the incredible woman who became my wife, she received that fellowship.

As this computer had a fast connection to the Internet, I became used to constantly having online access. I was mostly using it to send and receive emails, including messages to and from mailing-lists, but I also got to dabble in HTML a bit and did spend some time on the still burgeoning World Wide Web. I also used a few instant messaging systems but I was still focused on email. In fact, I started using email messages to schedule quick coffee breaks with a friend of mine who was working one floor below me.

This 15-months stay in Switzerland is also when I first got a chance to use a laptop. A friend of my father had lent me his laptop so I could work on a translation contract during weekends. Though this laptop (a PowerBook 170, IIRC) wasn’t very powerful, it did give me a vague idea of what mobile computing might be like.

Coming back to Quebec about my Swiss experience, I began my master’s degree in linguistic anthropology. After looking at different options, I bought a PowerMac 7200 through a friend of mine. That 7200 (and the PowerMac 7300 which followed it) greatly enhanced my stationary computing experience. I probably wasn’t thinking about mobile and handheld devices that much, at that time, but I was still interested in mobile computing.

Things started to change in 1997. At that time, I received a Newton MessagePad 130 through the AECP (Apple Educational Consultant Program). This was a great device. Too big for most pockets. But very nice in almost every other respect. While my handwriting is hard to read by most humans, the Newton’s handwriting did quite a decent job at recognising it. I also became quite adept in Graffiti, Palm Inc.’s handwriting recognition software based on a constructed script from uppercase latin alphabet. I was able to take notes during lectures and conferences. For a while, I carried my Newton anywhere. But it was so bulky that I eventually gave up. I just stopped carrying my Newton around. At one point, I even lent it to a friend who tried it out for a while. But I wasn’t a PDA user anymore. I still needed the perfect PDA. But the Newton wasn’t it.

In early 1998, I went to Mali for the first time. Before I went, I bought a portable cassette recorder to record interviews and some musical performances.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN in September 1998 to do my Ph.D. coursework, I literally had no computer at home. As I had done for a long time during my bachelor’s degree, I spent long hours in computer labs on campus. The computers themselves were quite good (and updated fairly regularly) and IU had one of the best Internet connections available.

In mid-to-late 2001, when rumours of an Apple-branded portable device started surfacing, I was getting ready for my main ethnographic and ethnomusicological fieldwork trip to Mali.

I kept thinking about different tools to use in the field. For some reason, portable equipment for computing and recording was strangely important for me. I still had my Newton MP130. And I was planning on using it in the field. Except if something radically better came along. So I was hoping for the mysterious handheld device Apple was launching to be something of a Newton replacement. Sure, I knew that Steve Jobs had always hated the Newton, apparently for personal reasons. But I secretly hoped that he would come to his senses and allow Apple to revolutionise the handheld market it had spearheaded back in 1993. When I learnt that the device might be related to audio, I thought that it might be both a PDA and an audio device. More importantly for me, I thought that it would have some recording capabilities, making it the ideal field research tool for ethnographers and ethnomusicologists. I was waiting impatiently for the announcement and, like some others, was disappointed by the initial release, especially when I learnt that the iPod didn’t have any recording capabilities. Soon after this, I bought the main devices which would accompany me in my main field trip to Mali: an Apple iBook (Dual USB) laptop with Combo Drive, a HandSpring Visor Deluxe PDA, a Sony MZ-R37 MiniDisc recorder, and a Sony ECM-MS907 microphone. I used all of these extensively throughout my field trip and, though Internet access was spotty, being able to regularly send and receive messages from my iBook was very beneficial for my research practises. I left the MiniDisc recorder and microphone with Yoro Sidibe, the main person with whom I was working in the field, and had to buy other equipment on my way back.

By mid-2004, I bought a used iPod through eBay. I was still living in Montreal but was moving to South Bend, IN, where I was going to spend a year on a teaching fellowship. To make things easier and cheaper, I had the eBay seller send the iPod to my future office in South Bend. When I arrived in South Bend a month or so later, I finally took possession of my first ever iPod. It was an iPod 2G 20GB with FireWire. It came in a rather big box which also included: the original AC adapter, two extra adapters (including a car one), two pouches, the original headphones, and the original remote control.

My iBook (Dual USB) only had a 10GB hard drive so most of my MP3s were on CD-Rs that I had burnt for use with a CD-MP3 player (at the time, a Rio Volt that I had received as a gift a few years prior). I had also brought in my CD collection, in CD Projects (and similar) carrying cases. Hundreds of CDs, a rather heavy and voluminous burden.

I eventually got a good part of my CD collection on the iPod. And I rediscovered music.

Funny to say, for an ethnomusicologist. But pretty realistic. I had lost touch with this type of private music listening. As convenient as it was to use, my Rio Volt didn’t really enable me to connect with music. It merely allowed me to carry some music with me.

Fairly early on, during my first iPod’s career as my main music device, the remote control started acting funny. Sometimes, it would reboot the iPod for no reason. Using the headphones directly (without the remote control), I didn’t have that problem. Though I know very little about electronics, it seemed to me that something was wrong in the connection between the remote control and the jack. I asked the prior owner who said he never had had a problem with the remote control. I resorted to not using the remote control and went on my happy way to iPod happiness for almost two years. Apple was releasing new iPod models and I would have liked to own them, but my finances wouldn’t allow me to purchase one of them and my iPod 2G was still giving me a lot of pleasure.

When Apple introduced podcast support in mid-2005, I became something of a podcast addict. I subscribed to tons of podcasts and was enjoying the iTunes/iPod integration to its fullest potential. A portion of my music MP3 collection was still taking the largest amount of disk space on my iPod but I was spending more time listening to podcasts than listening to MP3s from my personal collection.

In early 2006, I finally transformed my whole CD collection to MP3s thanks to the large hard drive (160GB) in the refurbished emachines H3070 that I had to buy to replace my then-defunct iBook. The complete collection took over 90GB and it took me quite a while to sort it all out. In fact, large chunks of this MP3 collection remain unexplored to this day. My main “active” collection represents about 15GB, which did fit on my iPod’s 20GB hard drive with enough room for lots of podcasts. So, despite being quite outdated by that time, my iPod 2G was giving a lot of pleasure.

Then, in mid-2006, I started having problems with the headphone jack on this iPod. Come to think of it, I probably had problems with that headphone jack before that time, but it was never enough of a problem to detract me from enjoying my iPod. By mid-2006, however, I was frequently losing sound in one headphone because the jack was moving around. My music- and podcast-listening life wasn’t as happy as it had been. And I started looking elsewhere for audio devices.

Which is how I came to buy an iRiver H120, in July, 2006.

Should follow this post up, at some point

Optimism From OLPC

To say the least, I’ve been ambivalent about the One Laptop Per Child project. And I was not alone in my OLPC discomfort.

But now, I feel optimistic. Not about the OLPC project. But because that project is enabling something important.

Continue reading Optimism From OLPC

Sniff It!

It’s probably the most distinctive sign of the beverage geek: the attentive sniff.

When you see someone taking a long sniff of a beverage (say, a cup of coffee, a pint of beer, or even a glass of milk), you just know that this person is an avid enthusiast of the sensory exploration that drinking can be. Of course, that person may also be wondering about some strange odour coming from that drink. But even that may be a step in the direction of beverage hedonism.  If the sniffer also looks intently at the beverage and takes a long time to concentrate on every sip, you know this person is a true geek. If that person also takes notes or even listens to the beverage, the geek meter should go off the charts.

Sure, much of it sounds really funny. And there’s often social pressure against this type of enjoyment, especially in cultural contexts linked with Calvinism or Puritanism.  Yet, there’s a lot to be said about experiencing a good beverage. Continue reading Sniff It!

Concordia and Open Access Self-Archiving

Fascinating talk:

News@Concordia: Stevan Harnad, Maximizing Concordia University’s Research Impact, April 25

Reactions were varied but some of us were able to have a very good chat after the talk. For one thing, it helped me understand the whole “Green OA” issue in a new light. As an idealist non-tenured faculty, I tend to get dreamy about the possibilities for the next step in the Open Access movement. Including in terms of pedagogy and community outreach. But Harnad’s talk really put the focus on the “knowledge ecology” involved in this world of unlimited resources.

To me, Concordia is an interesting case. So far, the university’s online visibility has been quite low, self-archiving is quite rare among Concordia researchers, and people tend to focus on the logistics. But Concordia seems to be on a mission to redefine itself in the broader frame of “forward-looking institutions of higher learning.” Contrary to McGill (Concordia’s “neighbour”), Concordia focuses on such things as flexibility, diversity, community outreach and, yes, even rebranding (which some people dislike). Sure, much of it might be “corporate-speak” to increase enrollment. But the point is, Concordia seems to truly cherish the diversity of its enrolled students. In fact, it’s not positioning itself as the “so elite, just being admitted is enough to get a job” model typical of certain prestigious institutions in the United States. Some people at Concordia are making sure that the message of “going forward to meet new challenges” is heard.

It’s no secret that I like Concordia. As my second semester there comes to an end and as I reflect on my time there, I tend to see this university as a place where true learning can occur. I may only teach one more semester there before I move to Austin so I will enjoy it to the last drop. And, who knows, I might find as many things to like in Texas once I’m settled there.

If Concordia can increase its visibility by engaging itself on the OA route, I’m all for it.

Defending Quebec's Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.


Yeah, I know. 😉

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! 😉 )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. 😉

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. 🙂