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The Myth of COGS

When Jonathan Murphy mentioned to me ‘the myth of COGS’ as a topic of conversation in Ottawa I agreed to research the subject.

First of all one must consider the term “myth” and one definition forwarded to me by Marlin Gould that I have included is “a story about superhuman beings of an earlier age taken by preliterate society to be a true account”.

While Jonathan was interested in the myth, in order to substantiate it, we must describe reality. And it should be said, that every educational institution has its own ‘myths’ or stories. The stories from COGS involve interactions with local folk in a rural Nova Scotia community, late nights hiding in washrooms and under sinks, and late night recreation in the empty building. There are also the stories of speed at which people got multiple job offers before completion of the program and opportunities. To put all this in context, many of these myths relate to activities that occurred before the availability of the Internet, and students were indeed finished when they left the building each night. There was no access to the network once you left the building. But did these myths continue to occur with new graduates?COGS

To get to the bottom of the myth, my approach was three fold:

  1. If the stories about student life at COGS were true, then one of the obvious sources for validation would be the maintenance staff. I arranged to interview Gary Gaul on staff at Lawrencetown since 1984 and known to many as one of the late-night janitors.
  1. What was the perspective of the instructors ? I assembled a brains trust from the 1980’s, representing Computer programs: Bill Power, Marlin Gould, Roger Mosher, David Colville. Selected because each of them had been a student at NSLSI before the changeover to COGS. What did COGS represent to them, as students and as instructors? Were the myths real? ? What has happened since the days of the intensive fifty-week diploma programs?
  1. Finally, I approached Val Thomas. She was a student in the late 90’s, known to me because of our collaboration on the Masters program in Indonesia. Subsequently, she started an academic career, and is presently at Virginia Tech. Was the myth valid in the later 90’s ?

By having these conversations, my hope was to gain insight into the process of teaching technical subjects. My sense is that some of the lessons we learned at COGS remain relevant today.

The preliminary results of my quest are as follows:

  1. the view from maintenance

When you operate an educational institution in a rural setting, and you encourage intensive learning then there is a high probability that students will put in long hours to master the technical skills. There are few local distractions and few students had cars so certainly in the 1980’s, students would attempt to hide in the building after 11:00 pm closing time so that they could return to their computer terminals for long late night sessions. Some were not averse to take basketball breaks. Gary can recall numerous tricks that were used to remain overnight. Different strategies tended to be passed on from year to year and each year there would be new surprises. While students were caught on occasion, there seemed to be little disciplinary action and no vandalism occurred. Many students became friends with the maintenance staff some keeping in contact with the staff long after they left the campus.

Roger Mosher, when a student, recalls being unable to sleep on the couch in the cafeteria because the Remote Sensing students were still working in the DIPIX room at 1 am in the morning.

  1. the view from the instructors

First a couple of context observations, in the 1980’s leading up to the naming of COGS, the instructors were creating new programs almost every year: Scientific Computer Programming (SCP) to Business Computer Programming to Computer Graphics to GIS. Many of the students were adult learners who honed their programming skills in the intensive, three semester, fifty week SCP program. They all completed co-operative projects with industry or government in their final semester. They all passed a computer programming aptitude test to enter the program. Many students were working on projects with specialization in application software development, focused on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Image Analysis Systems (IAS). We developed strong ties to Esri and Esri Canada for GIS, and DIPIX, PCI for Image Analysis.

The learning environment was one of colleagues (students and instructors) solving problems together. As the instructors understood the functionality and application of these systems, they shared their knowledge with the students, and vice versa. Mechanisms were developed for instructors to keep on the leading edge of the specialist technology. Bill Power tells the story of the day he received a phone call from Florida because a client of the PRIME Medusa system had been given his name as a technical resource. Where was technical support? He had supervised a co-op project with a couple of students on this system.

In the case of GIS, as Esri Canada sold systems, the customer would hire a COGS graduate to provide technical support and administration of the system. That is the real basis of the ‘myth of COGS’. It was a unique learning environment within a semi-autonomous learning institution with a direct pipeline to available jobs.

  1. the view from a student

There were a few notable aspects of COGS in the 90’s that fed into its remarkable success as an educational experience. The first was the isolated location in the Annapolis Valley, in the very small town of Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia. This was coupled with a unique concentration of highly qualified and enthusiastic instructional faculty who garnered the respect and admiration of the cohort of students. Very quickly, we realized we were part of something special. At a time when the job prospects for university graduates seemed discouraging, the COGs cohort had a sense of optimism and confidence that new rewarding careers were just beyond the horizon. This led to a sense of camaraderie amongst the students, and the motivation to put extra effort into the tasks put before us. The many success stories of the students from prior years fueled our passion to absorb as much remote sensing and GIS knowledge as we could from our instructors during our brief stay with them. Finally, the style of instruction was unlike anything most of us had ever been exposed to. This was not a prepackaged program with canned solutions and straight-forward learning objectives. Rather, every student in the program got their hands dirty with real geospatial problems and data. In many cases, solutions were not evident. Rather than showing us a solution, the instructors guided us with keen observations and sage advice – and we found a solution together. This approach trained students to troubleshoot, and led to a sense of confidence amongst the students that we could handle any technical difficulty we were likely to encounter in the ‘real world’. In my career, I have not encountered the equivalent of the COGs program, but its model has much to offer.

Final Comment

As the SCP instructors gathered in Annapolis Royal, we were able to identify some of the changes over the last twenty five years that may have influenced the type of myths that come from new graduates:

  1. no more aptitude tests, no more federal grants to students
  2. less focus on one or two leading edge specialist technologies
  3. change from three semester to two semester programs
  4. less opportunity for colleague environment
  5. no full semester co-operative projects
  6. more bureaucratic overhead
  7. less interaction with general staff
  8. Internet access from home
  9. students with cars
  10. separation of IT programs (Middleton) from Application programs (GIS,RS) (Lawrencetown)

Could this model, invented in the 1980’s, be replicated today? Regardless of the changes in the technology, education can still be delivered in an holistic way, by maintaining numerous relationships with all the related communities of interest: science, business, government and citizens. The basis parameters are a vision, the flexibility to allow creativity, support for leading edge technical instructors, and an atmosphere of colleagues – students, instructors, maintenance and administration, working together.

The ‘myth of COGS’ may still exist in Ottawa or Redlands, and perhaps elsewhere, because we have been supplying graduates to business and government agencies for the last thirty years. My group of ‘myth busters’ i.e. the four instructors remain engaged in different ways with the potential of these technologies and their role in society. This speaks to a philosophy of life long learning.

‘Myth busters’ is a term coined by Edward Wedler. Edward was also part of the 1980’s instructor team at COGS. He was teaching Remote Sensing, along with Dr. Manou Akhavi.

10 comments on "The Myth of COGS"

  1. Avatar Bernie Connors says:

    I recall late nights at NSLSI/COGS when I was in the Surveying program 1985 to 87. Our trick was to climb in through a window after the building closed at 11 pm. I don’t recall exactly what we were working on during those late nights but in my case I expect it was drafting assignments for Dave Wedlock or astronomy observations and calculation for Phil Milo.

  2. Avatar Edward Wedler says:

    As an instructor in a rapidly-emerging technology it was not unusual to get the strangest, unexpected visits on behalf of students. I recall two in particular. For three years the Canadian military paid a visit to me to conduct background checks on recently-graduated students who entered Canada’s intelligence community. Another was a visit from CSIS (Chinese and Soviet desks) who drilled me for a couple of hours on what I told a visiting Chinese professor, two weeks earlier, about classes I taught. My reply was, basically, “I told the professor everything he wanted to know about how/what I taught students in remote sensing”.

    1. Avatar Robert Maher says:

      Edward:
      These are new stories for me. Even though, we have been collaborating for some time.
      Bob

  3. Avatar Edward Wedler says:

    Bob
    I’d like to add something to your COGS myth.
    What we could do with 80M bytes was amazing; when every bit and byte mattered!
    Can someone tell me what the total disk space capacity was for all of COGS back in those “heady days”? I think that would shock a lot of current students (and staff).
    Edward

  4. Avatar Ron Halliday says:

    I don’t remember anyone from Cartography 95/96 trying to stay past 11 PM – even at that time it was starting to become part of the mythos. At this point some of us had home computers and there was even a dial-up connection to the IRIS printer we used for our final assignments (although transferring a 3MB file was nightmarishly slow).

    Part of our daily routine was the zipping and unzipping (or packing and unpacking) of our projects that spanned a fistful of 1.44MB disks. Dan the IT Man was one of the most feared staff members, routinely cleaning disk space on the computers and wiping out our skillfully hidden backups (which from time to time were essential when the file restore process failed).

    In ’96 I won a student contest to design a logo for the 50th anniversary of COGS. It was used onstage and in the graduation booklets. Spoiler alert: I incorporated cogs into the logo (and I’m still not sure why the school has never adopted a logo using this idea).

  5. Avatar Jon Murphy says:

    I remember from my time at COGS which was not too long ago, around ten years. We were in the labs or playing floor hockey when not in class most of the time. If the building was open we made the most of it. Actually I was pretty happy that the school closed the doors early on Fridays and kicked us out of the labs. Otherwise I would have pretty much never left the school. The weekends were spent there as well. Of course this speaks to the work load that we had. There was always a project to do. I think that now so many students can work off laptops from home the whole team work thing is not there as much.

  6. Avatar Gary Hubbs says:

    I was in the 1985-86 Computer Graphics Programming course and remember this as the most intensive educational experience I have ever experienced, lasting a whole year with a few days off for Christmas – New Year. Never slept in the building, but every waking hour was spent in the classroom or lab before trudging back across the farmer’s fields. Nothing to do in the small “town” consisting of a post office, small restaurant, and grocery. I was hired for a CAD programming job in Saudi a week after graduation, and have been working in mapping/GIS in the Middle East and Asia ever since.

  7. Avatar David Morgan says:

    Where is Dr. Akhavi today?

    1. Avatar Edward Wedler says:

      Manou Akhavi lives in Toronto. His telephone number should be in the Toronto telephone directory.

  8. Avatar Sean Smith says:

    I was at COGS from 1990 to 92, in the Cartography program. The attrition rate was intense, we started with about 20 students in first year, and after 2 years, only four of us graduated. But we had our fun along the way, I recall late night chair races in the hallways, or hiding in the darkroom just to scare the bejeezus out of a colleague. We would play practical jokes, like duct-taping every loose object in someone’s drafting table drawers, or building up a good static charge on the carpeted floor, then sneaking up to zap someone’s exposed elbow from behind. We never had to sneak in at night though, by that time we all had our own 386 computers, and home-made kitchen light tables, so we could work at home into the wee hours, then get up and drag ourselves to class in the morning to start all over again. It was the most intense training I’ve ever known, but I’ve never been a day without a paying job ever since and have had an amazing career.

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