Northern Lakes College’s specialization in distance learning gives it an advantage in pandemic times.
Glenn Mitchell, the new president of Northern Lakes College since Sept. 1, has been getting congratulatory messages. But the one that meant the most to him, he says, came from someone who told him it was nice that the position went “to a home-town boy.”
“That was really nice,” Mitchell says. “This is my home and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Mitchell with his wife Michelle and their two daughters have actually lived in Slave Lake 22 years, having come here as schoolteachers. He spent nine years at St. Mary of the Lake School – first as a teacher and then as vice-principal. Since then he’s held a variety of positions with NLC, including most recently as VP of Academics.
And now that he’s the boss?
“It’s an exciting time,” Mitchell says.
One thing that’s exciting – not to mention plain old interesting – is how widespread the student body of the college is. Long gone are the days when its students came only from communities in north central Alberta. Mitchell has maps that show where students taking NLC online courses are from. It’s quite the eye-opener, with pockets of them scattered over the whole province. That’s the first map; then he hands you a second one, of Canada. Same thing – people in B.C. NT, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia were all enrolled in NLC courses in the 2019/20 year.
Now take a look at this one, says Mitchell, sliding over a map of the world. It does show much territory yet to be conquered, but apparently there are people taking NLC courses on every continent but Australia and Antarctica and Europe. And maybe even those, because the map shows the location of 82 students as ‘unknown.’
So how does it work?
“Students have to find a way to get the practical components,” Mitchell says. In other words, hands-on stuff in labs and such. There are different ways that can be done. In the more remote locations it may be up to the student to arrange it.
Closer to home, they can come to an NLC campus. The college can and does help out. As an example, Mitchell mentions a paramedic course the college offers.
Students enrolled in it from Newfoundland and Labrador aren’t able to come to Slave Lake, he says, “but we sent someone there.”
It’s another example of what the college has long called ‘supported distance learning.’ It’s a far cry from old school correspondence, Mitchell says. Another example he offers is a four-year education degree through an arrangement with the University of Calgary. Students can do the great majority of it without leaving their home communities. There are just two, two-week summer sessions in Calgary that are part of it.
“My daughter is taking that course,” Mitchell says, adding that so are others, in remoter locations.
That’s the NLC model; support students so they can learn from home, as much as possible. It’s not for everyone, but leaving home to go to the city is also obviously not something everyone can do.
One month into the job, Mitchell says he’s feeling things out with regard to who to talk to and developing the vision for the college over the next decade. That will be influenced by three main forces.
One is the needs of the communities the college serves – via the Community Education Committees. Another is the requirements of industry. The third is the provincial government, which Mitchell says has launched a study of post-secondary educational needs, called ‘Alberta 2030.’
The idea is to anticipate the demand for skills in a decade from now and make plans to meet it.
“It’s a challenge,” Mitchell says, “but exciting.”