Connecting Universities to Communities With a PSE Portal

Alberta is stronger when everyone works together to find a solution. That was the message the NDP gave today when they announced their Alberta’s Future initiative. The goal of this project was to reach out to all Albertans regardless of their political leanings to formulate a plan that anyone in the government could implement. In short, they aim to find out what Albertans really want and use this to build a strategy to get Alberta out of this mess.

In response to that, I would like to propose a digital community & post-secondary education portal that would get the businesses the expertise they need, students’ experience they’re desperate for, and universities the additional opportunities to help all Albertans succeed.

The Current Intersection Between PSE and Alberta Communities

It is no longer good enough to “just get a degree.” To secure a job, students today MUST have:

  • Volunteer hours.
  • A proven track record in leadership.
  • Real-world experience.
  • Research (and sometimes published papers).

Currently, when you enroll in a post-secondary institution, you gain access to what is essentially a job board. In it, companies post positions available — some pay, some are for course credit. Many of these are internships that require you to be a 3rd- or 4th-year student. Usually, large companies and government jobs dominate these listings. And up until recently, many of them were supported by the STEP program. 

Another option that connects students with community groups and businesses is research-based programs that allow students to work on a project or perform a task for school credit. This system is highly underutilized. Why? There is a lack of awareness in both the student population and area businesses., The red tape seems to over-complicate even the most simple of interactions.

The third option businesses and groups have to connect with students is contacting a specific department or someone they know. They can explain what they need, and the onus is then on the department to identify a program, path, or student who can meet those needs.

In all of these systems, the university acts as an intermediary between companies and students. They connect people to great jobs or volunteer opportunities, and they have significant, positive outcomes when they work. However, there are problems with this:

  • not accessible by many Alberta businesses and groups
  •  lack of knowledge and awareness about the system
  •  limited in what they offer
  •  doesn’t seem to be friendly to short-term needs and is structured toward traditional types of internships and jobs
  • a large portion of students are left out
  • Bias is built-in
    • Discrimination can and does happen to businesses seeking help and students seeking jobs.
    • You must be well-connected, have money, or be a large institution to reach out to students.
  • It’s fragmented. Post-secondary students and institutions must maintain a multitude of systems to provide all of these services.
  • Businesses, charities, and other groups must have the money to hire students or pay for help and expertise.
  • Students must perform this work in addition to going to school full time, working part or full time, and fulfilling their research and other extra requirements.

The Solution: A Community-PSE Portal

Imagine if all Albertans could get tutoring help, business advice, childcare, business services, student employees, and access other resources just by logging into a website. How successful would our families and businesses be?

Imagine what would happen if students could learn from businesses, gain experience, solve problems, and fill the resumes that will help them secure a job in the future. Many post-secondary students dream of opportunities like these. Imagine if they could earn course credit or pay for that work, build relationships with potential employers, and get feedback?

I propose Alberta create a centralized, online portal that Alberta’s businesses, charities, and community groups could access to communicate with Alberta’s post-secondary students. All Albertans could search for and get the support they need to do amazing things. There wouldn’t be long processes to go through each time, no need to commit to expensive contracts, or have to meet strict requirements to get a few minutes of expertise. Here’s how it would work:

For Students:

When a student enters a post-secondary institution, they gain access to the portal. Here, they fill out things like their resume and decide which types of projects interest them. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, their student number pulls up their courses, major, and the number of credit hours they have. This information would then filter requests from the community to display a list of projects, jobs, and help requests from across the province. Some might be for pay. Supervisors or the system can also assign a percentage of points for each task, which students would accumulate until they had enough to earn course credit. (This method of credit would work in a similar way that many work program courses do now). The job could be for an hour, or it could be a long-term project or position.

The student would answer questions, take on a project, or work with their chosen group. They would collect any money owed to them via a government-like escrow system, and they could now add that experience to their resume.

For Businesses, Community Groups, and Charities

As a business owner, I would register with the portal when I received my business license. While I was setting up my business, I discover that I needed some marketing materials. So, I log into the portal, explain what I need, and post an amount I’m willing to pay for it. Soon, a first-year graphic design student contacts me, so we chat, agree on the scope, and the student completes the work. I provide feedback and release the pay, which I’d put in escrow earlier.

Let’s say business is going well. Now, I need someone to help keep everything organized and maybe write a report on the pros and cons of expanding. I log in and see a business student with an impressive resume who is looking for work. By offering a work program contract, I can do what I need to, and I can check their work once a week to make sure there are no errors. The student, in turn, gets a course credit for that work just as they would now through experience-based course credit programs.

Now, let’s say there is an error. Neither of us knows what it is. The student can take their work to their supervisor. This expert would identify the problem quickly and direct the student to the materials they need to learn more about it. Or, if it’s a big problem, I can hire a professional or a more senior student. I would provide feedback on the student and grant them the credit.

Daycares could hire early childhood development students. Schools could have advanced college students come into the classroom to cover the loss of their educational assistants. A local documentary filmmaker could hire music students to compose a score. Then, pay local audio engineers to mix and produce it. The possibilities are endless.

Some departments could even offer services to the community at large. They could run the appropriate police checks (which students would require anyway) and add students to a database willing to tutor, for example. Parents could hire a tutor for their child, who is struggling with Calculus. Or, Grade 9 teachers could then work with a few students to set up an after-school study session for children who are struggling.

Advanced Students and Faculty

Supervisors and faculty members can benefit from this centralized system, too. Let’s say I’m a master’s student or professor looking for a research project. I look in the portal, and I find that the local parks committee is looking for an advisor and a report. I have some time available, so I take the job.

Maybe a community north of Fort MacMurray is seeking advice on an infrastructure project. Or, I could be doing a study on a specific type of eldercare program. I reach out to a company offering this type of care and discuss a partnership. (This is easy because I’m connected immediately to the business, and they can see my credentials and know I’m not a fake.) I agree to share my findings and help them find solutions to any problems in exchange for gathering data or gaining insights. We run everything through the ethics committee as we do now, and we get started. Again, there are endless possibilities.

Supervisors would play a role here, too. As with the current systems, they must review and sign off or grade the student’s work. (Unless the position posted is more like a job posting than a project.) They would help oversee the project, at least to a minimal degree, and help address any serious issues.

They’d also be talking to local businesses, which would help show the community the value of the post-secondary institution. They’d build priceless bonds while strengthening communities. (The system would use an algorithm to determine what type of supervisor to assign to a specific job.)

The Pros of an Online Community-PSE Portal

  • Eliminating duplication and save the province money. As mentioned previously, some of these programs already exist, but they’re fragmented. Everything could be run in unison by the same system.
  • Rural Albertans who commute to post-secondary institutions or recently graduated could experience and work virtually by taking small projects (like small contracts). And because the government runs the portal, there is less risk than other alternatives currently offered online.
  • The system could hide the names of students and business owners to protect their race, ability, and gender to improve diversity.
  •  Rural businesses and communities could access resources they otherwise wouldn’t have.
  •  Students get the experience they need to get good jobs, while businesses, charities, and communities find help. Supervisors can access jobs, resources, and networking. Post-secondary facilities can regularly show the value they provide while strengthening their communities.
  •  Businesses currently avoid expert help even when they need it due to cost and accessibility. This aversion leads to costly mistakes and waste. The community portal would eliminate that issue by allowing businesses several options regardless of where they are in the province.
  • Students would build bonds with their communities. It would be easier for them to find jobs and increase the likelihood of staying in the province after graduation.
  • Governments would have an easy way for businesses and groups to access the many grants and financial incentives for hiring students. It would be entirely self-contained, and the data collected could help identify issues and inform decisions about investments and cuts. (For example, which areas Alberta businesses need help in, financial programs that don’t work. the information necessary to understand shortcomings, etc.) Once set up, the government could also add services such as the government job board.
  • Much of the software and programming needed for a system of this nature already exists, so it would only require integration.
  • A low upfront investment compared to similar programs, but still create jobs to build the portal, maintain, administration, etc.
  • Costs could be offset by advertising, training programs, conferences, commissions, and other resources if necessary. There are options to monetize and support Alberta businesses (and share news items and information) if the need arises. This option means that the government could sell the entire system to recoup some of the investment if Alberta’s needs change or the system isn’t viable. (Not its data or users, but the software and concept.) 
  • It’s flexible, customizable, and can be adapted as the province’s needs change. The government can add new services or sources quickly and with little investment, and it can be refined or expanded as necessary.
  • It removes many of the barriers both businesses and students encounter in the current set of systems.
  • Post-secondary institutions and faculty would still have control over what constitutes a job worth a course credit, the same as they do now. They could continue to use the same paperwork.

The Cons of a Digital Portal for Communities and Post-Secondary Students

  • It would require a commitment to get everyone enrolled and promote the program.
  • There are upfront costs associated with creating the system and maintaining it.
  • It is a new way to work and seek help. It might take time to get people used to the idea.
  • It would mean programs currently in place would become redundant as the portal goes online.
  • Staff with expertise and experience may be required to help manage some disciplines. The government could offset the costs of these new staff positions by giving them “career counselling” or “entrepreneur counselling” type duties. They could follow up on projects and help guide businesses or students to resources.
  • The instability of government programs like these means that these programs often get cut. It would mean getting everyone on board only to see the system abandoned in four years when the government changes.


The online portal solution I propose here is merely one possible solution. In the end, I hope that Alberta increases its use of post-secondary institutions. And, if we can convince more of these students to stay in the province, our province will be all the better for it.

Featured Image – Commfreak (Pixabay)

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