What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges? Part 1

Ubi Soft, a very large video game company from the People’s Republic of French, is opening a studio in Ontario. A year before i heard the announcement, i attended an interactiveontario event called GameON: Finance, which focuses on the money stuff in the video game industry. The conference was attended by reps from the various Ontario colleges that ran, or planned to run, video game curriculum. Numerous times during the conference, i heard the same ego stroke: Ontario has such wonderful colleges and such an amazing output of students ready to work in the industry.

“Wank”, indeed.

Hearing this made me feel icky – kinda like when you play with your belly button too much. My own personal experience, in the Ontario college system as a student, around the Ontario college system as an employer, and through the Ontario college system as an industry advisor, is that the system is not good. A little bird told me that as they were planning to come to Ontario, Ubi Soft conducted a study to determine the quality of Ontario education as it pertains to the video game industry. Their findings? Also not good. It’s nice to be vindicated, if only through hearsay.

Briefly, these are my Monet-like impressions from my various flirtations with Ontario academia:

As a Student

i took a compressed, shotgun course in 3D art and animation in a windowless strip mall in North York, a Toronto suburb. Entrance requirements were a laugh (something about drawing that turtle or the pirate from the As-Seen-on-TV cartooning course.) Plagiarism was rampant, and the instructors were too careless/clueless to mete out the appropriate punishment. The school had a co-op placement program, but only enough connections to place three students – the rest of us were on our own. One girl took a placement at her uncle’s trucking company. i took my placement at an elementary school.

A week after my placement ended, i returned to the campus to use the editing equipment to cut my demo reel so that i could apply for work. i had plane tickets to Florida to attend the SIGGraph convention the following week; rumour had it there was a 3D animation job fair at the show. Halfway through my edit, the school kicked me out of the editing room because i was no longer a student. i remember tearfully begging the campus president to let me finish the reel, which she begrudgingly allowed.

That marked the last time i shed a tear for THAT place.

As an Employer

While i was working at a broadcaster as a video game developer (more through pure luck than ability, in the early days), it became apparent from around 2003 onward that Flash developers were in high demand. i watched as the managers tried,and failed, to find well-qualified vector artists and Actionscript programmers to fill full-time positions in the Interactive department. Job searches would go on for months, and would incorporate job sites like Monster, as well as headhunters large and small.

When i started my own company, Untold Entertainment, many years later, the situation hadn’t changed. The question was raised: why aren’t Ontario colleges pumping out any grads who are able to use Flash in a production environment?

As an Advisor

i happily accepted various invitations to sit on the advisory panels for colleges who were either currently running, or thinking about running, video game-related programs. There is a government mandate stating that colleges and Universities must receive the blessings and buy-in of a certain number of industry representatives before they can create, or continue, a program. i have advised Sherry & Dan’s College, Purim College, Blunder College and the Hervé Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, some more intimately and actively than others.

“Intimate and Active 4”, my new DVD, is coming out this fall

Most of these colleges are running art-centric courses where the students learn to use 2D and 3D software to create game assets. Some schools teach level design. Many use Unreal Engine. Most schools have, as the final program output, an Unreal Engine walk-through of a first-person shooter level. All of these levels look exactly the same. They all take place in a dank dungeon, and the character always holds an implausible gun.

Is it just me, or is anyone else getting unbelievably tired of this gritty industrial aesthetic? (level by Simon Halliday)

If Flash is on any curriculum in this province, you’ll find it in one of these art-centric programs. Flash is being taught in one or two courses to primarily console- and first-person shooter-obsessed high school grads who aren’t interested in programming, and who just want to model robo-babes with huge bazookas in 3D Studio MAX. The trouble is that there is a marked scarcity of robo-babe-modelling jobs in this province, or in any other. By my count, Ontario is pumping out a few hundred grads from these programs every four months.

Artists and Code Seldom Mix

Artists don’t take kindly to learning code. People who want to code go into Computer Science programs and take programming courses. And since Flash is largely derided in “real” programming circles as being a baby program, or not a “serious” programming pursuit, by and large it’s not being taught to programmers. It’s taught to artists in one or two courses, and they could care less about it. They mostly just want to survive the Flash course with a passing mark and move on to the fun visual stuff.

“Math,” quoth Barbie, “is hard.”

My recommendation to Ontario colleges is to teach more Flash – to seriously teach it, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought or relegating it an anomalous blip in the program. Granted as a veteran Flash developer, i’m biased, but my rationale is sound:

  • If you teach kids to be a cog in a wheel, there need to be enough wheels to support that. Since there simply aren’t enough wheels – console studios – to go around in Ontario (or in the entire country for that matter), the fundamental fabric of these college programs is flawed.
  • Upon leaving school, wheel cogs require a large-ish organization of specially-skilled practitioners in order to function. A 3D modeler can’t do much with his 3D models unless there’s a group of skilled C++ or C# programmers and lighters and riggers and texture artists and producers and project managers to utilize his work.
  • People trained properly in a high-level program like Flash, which combines artwork, animation, sound and code, can operate and even thrive as a 1- or 2-man operation. They can complete projects, take contracts, and earn money.
  • Currently, there is a high demand for Flash developers. This demand has only increased with the popularity of social games on Facebook, which are most often built in Flash. The demand for Flash developers has seldom cooled in the ten years i’ve been making games in this industry. If Ontario colleges had tapped into that vein, they would have been pumping out useful graduates for a decade or more by now.
  • Flash is food. That’s the message i repeat time and again to Ontario colleges. But they don’t listen.

Know Your Place

i sat on a Purim College advisory panel discussion, laying out this case for them. i pleaded with them to increase the prevalence of Flash in their program, and even suggested it become a separate stream (so that they could compare the vocational viability of 3D grads vs. Flash/rich media grads). The response from Purim, and other colleges, was that since Flash accounts for such a small segment of the video game industry, their Flash offering would likewise be proportionately small.

But here’s the deal, Ontario: you do not represent the whole of the video game industry. Like Flash and the 2D web game/rich media scene, you too represent a small portion of the industry. We do not have the investor culture of Silicon Valley, so it’s quite difficult to raise the capital required to build huge-budget console games here. It’s not nearly as difficult to turn Ontario into the go-to province for Flash-based social gaming. We could truly train people in programs like Flash and pump out focused, skilled developers. We could turn the ship around in a matter of a few years, and have a much higher success rate for our grads. Will Flash still be viable in a few years? i think so. And if not Flash, other high-level software will be – software that combines art, animation, sound and code. Programs like Scratch, GameMaker, and Unity3D might fit the bill.

Teaching college students to be a cog in a wheel that doesn’t exist in your province is begging poor outcomes for Ontario: under/unemployment, brain drain, and bubble-bursting due to market saturation. How much longer will Ontario colleges be able to lure people to video game programs as the province fills up with unemployed would-be 3D game artists?

Ontario’s colleges are teaching students how to operate the engines in the lower deck of a large commercial fishing boat that brings in net-fulls of tuna with each million-dollar catch. Instead. they should be giving students a fishing rod. Flash is that fishing rod.

Prof Like Me

In the next chapter of this saga, i go undercover as a college instructor to find out what’s wrong with the Ontario college system from the inside. Get excited: i’ll probably be wearing a fake moustache.

38 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges? Part 1

  1. Paul

    Thank god there are still people like you around. I took a digital media arts course, and quickly learned that I wasn’t really learning anything. I ended up learning in my spare time and freelancing during class time.

    Flash isn’t the only dissapointig section of the Ontario education system, web design and development is also trailing far behind. I’m hoping to go back and be able to change a bit of that, and teach them something useful. As apposed to making them plagerize for a grade.

    Good on you sir. I can’t wait to read what you’re up to next.

    1. Ryan

      Thanks, Paul.

      Teaching a Flash course at the college level has been very eye-opening. i learned that colleges alone aren’t to blame – the roots run deep. More on that soon.

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  3. Bwakathaboom

    The elephant in the room is that the “booming game industry” in Ontario is largely an extension of the Mexicans With Toques phenomenon that gave us a “booming auto industry” a few decades ago. It’s big because it’s cheaper to do it here than in the countries where these companies are actually headquartered. As long as that’s true we’ll have a healthy “industry”. When the dollar hits parity or the economy turns…suddenly hundreds of people are cleaning out their desks and taking jobs at Starbucks (*cough* EA Vancouver *cough*).

    It’s the “jobs at any and all costs” policy in this country that drives me nuts. These aren’t even *good* jobs. They pay less than what skilled labourers make (or at least used to make), they’re non union, lots of unpaid overtime, designed to grind up young people and spit them out as bitter and jaded 30-year-olds with few real career prospects. Then the jaded 30-year-olds go and start their own console development company to grind up the next batch of college grads. It’s like a pyramid scheme of misery.

    I don’t worry about people who look down their noses at Flash anymore. I usually respond with “Yeah, I’d love to work on Prince of Persia 4 but I can’t afford the PAY CUT!”

    FYI – that works on snobs in the visual effects industry too.

  4. robertson

    Yay for the console pyramid scheme of misery!

    Build the pyramid from flash instead!! yaaayy!!

    now …

    let’s make some games !! yaaya!!

    oh wait.

    it’s still a pyramid scheme of misery, but now it runs on 99% of computers.
    Liking your highly niche industry is called cognitive dissonance.

    Why are film people generally assh*les?
    cuz pain is temporary and film is forever.

    Why are developers generally assh*les?
    cuz development is painful and takes forever.

    do what you love or don’t do it, there is room for everyone.

    Wanna be a game developer> OPenCoursewareMIT is free, gamedev.net is free
    you don’t even need to buy flash, you can use
    http://www.flashdevelop.org/wikidocs/index.php?title=Main_Page or whatever.
    cartoonsmart.com is cheap enough.

    Schools are about community.

    Why, the first time my Frat brothers and I destroyed an Amiga with bats high out of our minds on bytecode, that was some learnin’

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  7. Michelle

    Why are our Colleges so focused on the “sexiness” of console development anyways? I would guess that for young people it is far more aspirational – and likely drives better enrollment (what do kids really know about any industry right-out-of high school anyways?) I suppose the real challenge for our system is to strike the balance; we need to educate young people so that they have marketable skills and specializations that will get them work but at the same time afford them the flexibility to craft their own career paths as they move forward. Students must also take the onus upon themselves to look towards continual learning and consider their career goals and paths – and to react accordingly.

    What really scares me about the console gaming scenario: over-dependence on a highly specialized and under-diversified (in Toronto) industry. I can recall a time when classical animators were being pumped out of Sheridan like nobody’s business…and then Disney pulled out of Toronto…

    1. Ryan

      Michelle – the difference i see is that the schools were pumping out animation grads when there were jobs in animation. These guys are pumping out grads into a non-existent industry. There aren’t nearly enough game jobs of the type the colleges are training people in to justify so many programs and so many grads.

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  10. Chris Harshman

    I completely agree, comming from being enrolled @ Centennial Collage, I am actually lobbying for more improvements to our game courses, including gather industry partners who develop in flash based social network gaming, there a quite a few, and with this developing more flash based courses, and making a distinction between Software Engineering and Game Development.

    Currently the Game Development only differs by 6 courses from the Software Engineering Stream. We currently have courses teach not 1 or 2 technologies, but 20-30 technologies throughout the program.

    ALso looking forward to TOJam, first year I will be going, looking forward to being Missing.

    1. Ryan

      Chris – i’m always really happy to hear that people are trying to fix things that are broken, instead of throwing their hands up.

      How can you possibly *learn* those 20-30 technologies? Sounds more like a summary program like the CFC, rather than a program where you can actually digest knowledge and learn how to use the software.

      With technology changing so quickly, i understand why colleges are reticent to building courses around specific tools … but at some point, it becomes necessary. Flash is 10-15 years old at this point. When you take bus-driving lessons, you’re not taught to operate a variety of passenger vehicles including trains and hovercrafts. You learn how to drive a damned bus.

  11. Chris Harshman

    Thats exactly my argument, I am gaining ground quite nicely though, and we might actually have a flash based program with flash based courses, that might seem a bit funny, but when I started I was told I would learn flash, never did in that program, even now only had 4 weeks of flash, 8 hours.

    Reading the second article now, funny I was stilling in class, learning cloud computing in a Game Development program and was checking on TOJam and the site was down for like 1 minutes for me and just a few google results down I see something Tojam and somethings missing, which lead me to that article then second section a link to this article. Talk about chance.

    You can learn those courses, but really it isn’t useful.

    SQL Server
    Cloud Computing
    .Net Remoting

    This list is in no sorted order and contains only a sample of what my program covered, there are some overlaps in programming languages, but the use was different.

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  14. Anonymous Reader

    Great blog. I happened to stumble upon it from Google. I read through many of your blog posts.

    I have to say I strong disagree with the general sentiment expressed in this article. You are blaming colleges for not teaching certain technologies for which there is demand (e.g. flash) and for teaching certain technologies for which there is no demand locally (e.g. 3D modelling software or game engines).

    I think both of those situations are the problem.

    It is obvious that colleges are increasingly driven by market demand. They are not asking themselves how to train future professionals. They are asking themselves what is it that kids think they want to learn. Kids are lured by sexy AAA game titles. Colleges are just blindly giving them what they want. They’ll teach them how to use 3DS Max or Unreal Engine. This is doing a disservice to those kids and to the industry.

    Colleges need to take responsibility. If kids want to get into the video game industry, colleges should educate them that computer science or art or animation, are the ways to go. They shouldn’t be creating these fluffy video game programs that teach superficial skills.

    Whether you teach students how to use Unreal Engine or Flash, those students are not being prepared for industry. The ways in which these technologies are taught are technology-specific. Students are taught to follow some order of steps to achieve some expected result. Students need to be taught how to invent the order steps to achieve some expected result instead. Because when the technology changes, without an understanding of the principles underneath it, and without an ability to be innovative, these students will be of no use to anyone. Furthermore, technology moves fast, so even if you teach them programming using Flash, by the time they graduate, Flash could be dead… it happened to Cobol… why not Flash? If they don’t understand the principles of programming, they may have to return to school just to pick up a new set of technologies.

    Colleges need to teach foundations.. and foundations take years to learn. Programmers need to learn math, physics, logic, grammar and syntax, algorithm design and analysis, etc. Not sexy stuff, but necessary stuff. Artists need to perspective, color theory, anatomy, etc. Again, not sexy stuff, but necessary stuff. Teach this… and these students can discover what they want to do and learn the tools to do it in no time flat. Maybe in their final year, introduce some practical courses, like Flash programming. But teaching people new to programming how to make a game in Flash or Unreal Engine isn’t doing anyone a favour. Likewise, teaching some new to being an artist how to do a cool 3D model in some fancy software isn’t doing anyone a favour either.

    To sum up my diatribe… most new students don’t know what they want to learn… and industry doesn’t know what they want them to learn either (unless they can faithfully predict the future 3-4 years from now). So give the students a solid foundation of knowledge… then those students can figure out what they want to do… and if at the end of the day, they want to be an independent flash game developer… than that is their choice. Or if at the end of the day, they want to be a cog in the wheel at a AAA studio and move away from Ontario to get that job… that too is their choice. Because all though I didn’t touch on this much, education is a personal journey of self-discovery. Schools shouldn’t be trying to satisfy industry either (local or afar). They should be giving students a well rounded education so that a student can choose their own destiny, whatever that may be, regardless if anyone here in Ontario thinks its useful.

    1. Ryan

      Anonymous – thanks for your thoughtful response! We’re tackling this thing from opposite angles. Let me clarify what i mean when i say that academia serves (or should serve) industry.

      In Canada, we generally have two post-secondary institutions: University and college. The US equivalent, i think, is college and community college. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s generally expected that colleges teach trades, while Universities teach what you’re talking about: theory, foundation, understanding, empathy … middle-management bullshit. If you want to be a plumber, you go to college, take a program called “plumbing”, intern, get your ticket, and become a plumber. There are a few exceptions, like teaching, but no one goes to University to become a political scientist. You take polisci to be in that realm of study, and get a job related to polisci. But you go to college and you definitely DO take a program called “i wanna be a electrician” and then you intern and then you write your ticket, and then you become a electrician and do electrician stuff.

      Other programs at the college in my home town include sports management (i wanna be a sports manager!), millwrighting (i wanna be a millwright!) etc etc.

      So it’s not completely bizarre to think that you would go to college, take a computer game designer program, and become a computer game designer. That’s the expectation that college customers have: take this, so you can do that. This touchy-feely exploration of education is really more reserved for Universities here. University customers’ incomes are typically higher, and they can spend more time farting around trying to find themselves. For college customers, it’s “i need to have a muh-friggin’ job when these 2/3/4 years are over.”

      i believe that you absolutely can and should tie learning to specific tools. When you train in 3d animation software, you don’t learn general 3d software. You learn Maya. (Or Max, or both). You don’t usually learn ALL 3d programs, and you don’t usually dabble in a bunch of them, because that’s not helping anybody. You learn Maya. Maya’s been around for at least 15 years.

      Despite the course title, you don’t learn non-linear video editing. You learn Final Cut Pro. Prior to that, you may have learned Avid. Then the industry switched over. Avid guys were no longer finding work, so colleges responded and taught what the industry wanted students to learn.

      So i see no problem with colleges identifying the needs of industry and teaching to those needs. i don’t hear ANYONE saying “well, who knows where Maya’s gonna be in five years? Let’s not put all our eggs in one basket here.” But i do hear that about Flash. All the time. It’s long been treated as this baby program that will eventually be supplanted by something better. But i’ve been making a very decent living at it for ten years now. If the colleges had amped up their Flash instruction five years ago, when i started advising on their industry panels, their current crop of grads would be very gainfully employed and we wouldn’t have this dearth of Flash people in the industry. But no … let’s teach them useless animated fly-throughs in Unreal Engine.

      Fun fact: not a single shop i know in Toronto uses Unreal to build their games. Nearly EVERY shop i know in Toronto uses Flash. What the Hell is going on?

      College doesn’t serve industry. And that’s exactly the problem.

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  16. Anonymous

    While I was carefully reading your blogpost and seeing mention of many Ontario colleges, I anxiously awaited to read what your thoughts on Fanshawe College were… Especially since it actually offers everything that you find lacking in the aforementioned Colleges. Fanshawe offers a Multimedia Design & Production Program which is a very flash heavy program. as well as an Advanced 3d Program, and an Advanced Multimedia Program. Here is a link to projects from the people who graduated AMM last year:
    While I agree with your main points about the lack of Flash, which is increasingly in demand, I disagree that all Ontario colleges aren’t pumping out any grads who are able to use flash in a productive environment.


    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Welcome, Anonymous … if that IS your real name. Thanks for commenting. i’ll admit that Fanshawe isn’t really on my radar. i took a very brief look at your link. Your course reminds me very much of Sheridan’s multimedia course, which is a good thing. Grads out of Sheridan programs seem very well prepared to work for broadcasters. It might not be what everyone wants to do, but my thought was always that if you run a community college in a steel town, you should teach students how to work with steel – not how to work in a pulp and paper mill, if the nearest pulp and paper mill is in the next province (or country).

      UOIT is in Oshawa. Oshawa is Canada’s Detroit – a car town. UOIT teaches, among other things, robotics, which is a very logical fit, since many of the manufacturing plants in Oshawa and other nearby cities use robots for assembly. That so many Ontario colleges are supposedly priming students for jobs in video game console shops when those jobs don’t really exist here is where the logic breaks down for me.

      1. Anonymous

        Companies like Red Jade, Tall Tree Gaming, Digital Extremes, and Big Blue Bubble just to name a few are right here in London. As well, from the beginning of the program our prof’s have made us very aware of the industry around us, and it’s limitations. They provide us with contacts and opportunities for employment not only here in London but all over North America. As I’ve been in the Multimedia Program for the last two years and am now embarking on my third I’m not really sure I follow your thoughts on Broadcasting… Would we be able to go into Broadcasting.. Sure. But what we are taught focuses on client-side web technologies, with an emphasis on Javascript, which are essential tools in modern web and mobile app development. Server-side technologies focusing on open source solutions for dynamic web apps. We learn how to implement PHP – mySQL technologies in depth to create complex dynamic web sites and apps. We have also focused heavily on the Flash Framework… not only scripting and coding for Actionscript, but also the integration of server-based scripting techniques and relational database management systems to create powerful and flexible web and mobile apps. Don’t get me wrong, in our first two years we are also taught about motion graphics, and 3d modeling.. but after those initial years we have to choose which route to go into for our third…

        I hope this sheds a little more light on at least one of the Ontario Colleges that is pumping out grads ready to work in a production environment. I have classmates from all over the world, Many from outside of Canada one as far away as Russia and another The Cayman Islands. Which leads me to believe that just because a college is in a city where say the “automotive industry” is the biggest employer, doesn’t mean that the college should decide not to offer programs outside of the automotive industry… And, if the college program is a good one, people will come from all over the world to take it. From a students point of view the professors and coordinators of a program are the ones who make or break the program. At Fanshawe, at least in the Multimedia, Advanced Interactive Multimedia, and Advanced 3d programs we just happen to be lucky enough to have the best around…


        1. Ryan Henson Creighton

          All of the broadcasters have websites, and those sites all use the technologies you describe. There’s a lot going on with the kids’ teevee broadcasters – that’s where i got my start. In addition to the advergames, toy demos and kids’ virtual worlds we built, we also developed an online loyalty program for the site. The front-end was Flash. It integrated with the database on the server through ASP. It was tied into the site’s membership system. The app was a collecting/trading game that took place across all of the pages on the website, and the system had to make numerous calls back and forth to the server to facilitate item trading and communication between the players.

          Go check out Teletoon, YTV, TVOKids and CBCkids before cocking your eyebrow at me … their sites are packed with Flash games and bleeding-edge web content. A little bit of Googling can save a lot of face.

          i think it’s fine for a community college in Ontario to offer a program in scuba diving. There are some applications here in Ontario – you can join the marine unit of the police or the RCMP, you can be an instructor to people going on vacation to sunnier, more ocean-y locales – that type of thing. But it would be very suspicious if every community college and every University in Ontario were to suddenly offer a diving program, once diving became the “in” thing.

          1. Anonymous

            No need to be defensive, there isn’t any “eyebrow cocking” going on here… You mentioned that Fanshawe wasn’t on your radar. I’m just trying to put it on your radar as Fanshawe Grads have a lot to offer. I’m not trying to defend the Ontario Colleges either, as I mentioned earlier I agree with most of what you are saying. I have only heard second hand about many of the other schools you mentioned. (None of which was praise). In my opinion though, when an industry is fun and exciting and growing there is going to be a demand for learning aimed at that industry.. If students looked further into the programs they apply for, and the grads that come out of them, then maybe the schools with substandard programs wouldn’t be pumping out so many unfit grads. After all they are the ones paying for it.

  17. Ryan Henson Creighton

    It’s funny – that’s the step that so many students-to-be miss. They may go as far as asking current students what they think of the program, but what good is that? They usually don’t track down graduates of the program to find out where they’re working, which i think is a much more valuable measure of the strength of the program. Our world-famous Sheridan College has regular recruiting days where Disney, ILM and the like hire their students weeks before graduation – sometimes earlier. That school is clearly doing something correctly that directly meets the needs of industry.

    And that’s the question to ask when you’re auditioning a program: does it meet the needs of industry? (Meaning the employers who hire people) Forget whether or not the program seems “fun”.

  18. Matthew Fabb

    Sheridan does have it’s Interactive Multimedia that while not focusing solely on games, does teach ActionScript and in general teach web programming. Although, I do think that the course doesn’t need to be a post-graduate course and taught over more than 1 year to give more depth to what they are teaching. However, I do agree that there needs to more course like this teaching web programming and Flash, as there always seems to be a demand that colleges are not doing enough to fill.

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