This series is called “What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges?” A number of you have pointed out, on Twitter and elsewhere, that what i’m describing is what’s wrong with all colleges. But now, i want to shine the spotlight on perhaps an unexpected target, and suggest that not only are colleges flawed, but so too are their customers.
Part 2: The Students
In order to discover why Ontario colleges can’t seem to produce workplace-ready graduates for the casual games/rich media content industry, i went deep undercover as a fledgling teacher at a Toronto college that shall remain nameless: Hernando Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined.
i went to … oh, damn. i just said the name, didn’t i? Unfortunately, the backspace key on my keyboard has been rigged to issue a low-grade electrical shock every time i press it, so i have no choice but to speak to you about this frankly and honestly.
So i completed 200 one-armed push-ups on my knuckles, and then accepted a part-time position at the school. i’m teaching a second-semester Flash course. Owing to my sense of self-preservation, i won’t identify any one student. There’s enough trouble to go around for me to treat the entire student body as one collective asspain. Game Development is the type of program that attracts a certain type of person, and the blame for that is shared by both the institution and its customers.
Everyone Can Get a Job Making Games
Colleges are businesses first and foremost. They need to offer desirable products. The perception is that purchasing their product will provide you with sufficient training to seek and (hopefully) land a position in that field. This is not the stated goal of all colleges, mind you – i remember clearly that when i recommended to Purim College as a member of their advisory panel that they increase their Flash offering to improve their students’ employability, the school’s teacher rep said “oh – we’re not here to get the students jobs. We’re here to facilitate their exploration of their art, of their chosen pursuit.” Yes – that actually happened.
Get out of my education system, you fekkin’ hippies.
But Hernando Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined is a different story. They proudly proclaim in their literature that 90% of their grads get jobs within the first six months of graduating. Note that they don’t say 90% of their grads get jobs in the industry for which HVSD trained them. They just claim that the students were employed within six months. Now, really, since we all need to get a job doing something, this is actually an alarming stat: Hernando Velasquez is tacitly admitting that 6 months after graduating, 10% of their graduates are either unemployed or dead.
(i suppose a few could be idle rich, but it takes the bite out of my punchline.)
So the college is under pressure to put together an attractive offering in its course calendar. Nothing’s hotter than a job in the oft-heralded video game industry, so colleges across the province (country, world) are now purporting to train students in the video game industry.
Now, let’s assemble a profile of the average teenaged male in high school to whom this offering might appeal. He’s tall. He’s gawky. He plays video games all the time. He masturbates to the underwear pages in the Sears fliers. He’s not bright enough to be a doctor, or he’d apply for in pre-med. He’s not bright enough to go to University at all, in fact. Ontario high schools are usually streamed, and it’s generally accepted that kids in the upper stream go on to University, and kids who take the lower general-level courses wind up in either college or prison. This is not by rule, but by reputation.
ima make gaymezzors when iz grow’d up!!
So this college-bound gamer has two options to him: he can enroll in the college’s programming course, or he can take their video game development program. Programming likely has grade 12 math prerequisites, and he’s not nearly smart enough for that. The video game program is an art program. So is this guy a fabulous artist? Probably not, or else he’d be taking a fine arts program somewhere. So he’s a gawky, hairy-palmed male gamer with perhaps no remarkable drawing skills and no great ambitions to use his grey matter in post-secondary education. This – THIS is the student who enrolls in the game development course at XYZ college. And THIS is the only type of kid who gets a shot at learning Flash, because we’re not teaching Flash very much in University, and we’re likely glossing over it in college-level programming.
And THIS explains why most of the Flash shops i know are trying to hire, with no luck. As i mentioned in the previous post, it’s a ten-year-old problem.
The No-Fail Generation
There’s another important thing to understand about our game dev program applicant. He hearkens from a generation of kids who, as of the late 1990’s, were unable to fail. It’s true: changes to the high school curriculum brought about by the Ministry of Education forbade teachers from flunking grade nine students. No matter how truant, lazy, or downright dumb a student was, he would sail on straight through the ninth grade. In my experience working as a part-time youth pastor at my church, i found there are even more cracks for these kids to slip through. i’ve known more than a few kids who should be failing, should be held back, but are repeatedly promoted to the next grade by an education system that doesn’t want to bruise their egos. Anecdotally, my friend who works at a major Canadian chain of retailers for young people tells me that when these kids get part-time jobs, screw up, and get fired, it’s an absolute shock to the system. They’ve never failed.
Me fail Burger King? That’s unpossible!
i was invited by colleagues of mine to lecture at a game development program at Blunder College here in Ontario. The course outcome was to complete a Flash game. The class was divided into two groups of about eight students. The students had four months to collectively complete a flip n’ match memory game in Flash. And they were struggling.
Let me just punctuate that for you: it wasn’t one game per student. It was eight students working as a team to complete one game.
They were taking the typical college-level token Flash Actionscript 3 course along side their game dev course, and were swearing a blue streak at what they called an impossible task. A game, they said? A full game in four months with only eight people?? They told me it couldn’t be done.
i told them that for an experienced solo Flash developer, a flip n’ match memory game was the work of a single afternoon. They didn’t believe me. So for the next three hours, i sat down and walked them through the process of building the game from scratch. Along the way, i pointed out all kinds of programming shortcuts they could take, dropped sparkling gems of advice that would speed up their workflow, and built a functioning flip n’ match game before their very eyes.
Or it would have been before their very eyes, if any of them had been watching. For the most part, they futzed around on their computers with other projects, chatted to their friends on Windows Messenger, or surfed the underwear pages of the online Sears catalogue.
One particularly slimy student who had been glued to Facebook for the entire lecture slithered up to me after class and held out his keydrive. Like a greasy lounge lizard trying to pick up a chick in a low-rent bar, he said “Yyyyyeah, uh … do you suppose i could just … put that finished game on my kkkeydrive?”
i had two words for him. The second word was “you”.
He was lucky to escape the room without any poo-flinging.
Playing Games vs. Making Games
This week, i arrived early to teach class. The group has another class before mine in the neighbouring room. That room was blasting with machine gun fire, swearing, and the stench of gym class. All of the students were in there playing games. i wondered where the teacher was. One of the students told me he was a no-show. So, of course, that’s how they decided to spend those three hours – playing games.
Every time there’s the briefest pause during my class when i go to help a flailing student, the monitors light up with Team Fortress 2 and Quake and online web games. So a few weeks ago, i dropped this truth-bomb on them:
Listen, everyone. i know you probably go home to Chatham or Barrie or wherever it is you’re from and brag to your dumb buddies that you play games at school all day, but that’s not why you’re here. You’re in a game development program, not a game playing program. You’re a different breed of person now. You’re behind the scenes, not in front of them. You’re a creator, not a consumer.
It’s like you’re trying to get a job in a cake factory. Cakes are fun and enjoyable and people like to eat them, but a factory job is a factory job like any other. You don’t get a cake factory job to sit around and eat cakes all day. Turn the games off. It’s time to put some blood, sweat and tears into learning how to make cakes.
The cake: with a little actual effort, it’s no lie.
Email: The Insurmountable Challenge
i had to write a mid-term exam for the students. When i asked him to show me the ropes, the guy who teaches the same course to three other classes imparted some advice: the best thing to do, if i want to make sure i get all of their finished tests, is to pass around a keydrive. Whenever a student finishes his exam, you pass him the keydrive and he puts his files on it. i asked why the students couldn’t just email their files. He said that when you ask the students to email their completed exam files to you, there are problems. They type your email address incorrectly, they send you shortcut files as attachments, and they forget to include files.
And my response? Forget it. Not on my watch.
If you can’t competently email an attachment with your name on it, you’re not only going to fail my course, but you’re going to fail life in modern Western civilization. To make sure that everyone knew the score, i told the students in no uncertain terms that i expected a zip file containing their completed exam files with their first initial and last name emailed to me at the correct address. Then i would go down the class list and start checking off names. If i didn’t receive their file, they’d flat-out fail the test.
There’s one exception:
No – i’m just yanking your chain. There are NO exceptions. No email, no mark.
So we actually took 15-20 minutes out of the class to learn how to right-click a folder, add it to a zip file, and attach it to an email. It was embarrassing. i was embarrased.
At break, one of the students piped up to tell me that in another class, their teacher had asked for the same thing – zip files with students’ names on them. He provided a sample naming convention – the teacher’s name was Gord Smith, so he wrote gsmith.zip on the whiteboard as the example.
And what do you think happened? Dear friends, his inbox filled up with multiple files called gsmith.zip.
The Chain of Irresponsibility
i don’t actually blame this all on the students. Somewhere, someone let them down. If these kids don’t know how to use email, it’s not the Colleges’ fault. That burden is squarely on the high schools. So in conclusion, the problem with Ontario Colleges is not the students, but the high schools.
EXCEPT that i recently had dinner with a high school English teacher. She has to administer the grade 10 standardized testing to her class. In order for her school to score highly on the testing (and it does), she is encouraged by her department head to hand out IEPs – Individualized Education Plans – to students left, right and center. It’s a loophole. With an IEP, any student who wants an extra hour on the standardized test, gets an extra hour on the standardized test. (Make no mistake – the department head can and should be fired for this.)
So the English teacher is no longer able to teach high school English. She has to teach to the standardized test. If you’ve seen the excellent HBO series The Wire, the same shenanigans went down in that show. The burden of standardized testing put on the high schools is the Ministry’s fault.
So the problem with Ontario Colleges, conclusively, is the Ministry of Education.
Please direct all calls and emails to Minister of Education Leona Dombrowsky.
BUT … what about the fact that these teachers are at the mercy of the students’ parents? Everyone in high school gets a passing grade these days, and that’s largely because if you try to give a student less than a passing grade, you find yourself on the phone having to justify your decision to the kid’s parent. i have many friends who are teachers, and the stories they tell about parental interference could curdle your milk. The CBC recently ran a documentary about these people called Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids. You can watch it on their site for free. It talks about, among other things, parents who call up their kids’ places of employment to negotiate their pay raises.
The problem is clearly soccer moms.
In … Conclusion?
i’ve traced the problem with Ontario Colleges through the institution to the students, back to the high schools, up to the Ministry of Education, and back around to the kids’ parents, who demand it be that way in the first place. These parents, to have teenaged kids, were likely born some time in the 60’s. So my penultimate conclusion is that the problem with Ontario Colleges is children of the 60’s.
Because i’m a lousy researcher, the trail runs cold there. If you want to take up the torch, i welcome you to it. Here’s where we left off: what the Hell is wrong with children of the 60’s, and are THEY the reason that nobody in Toronto knows how to make games in Flash?