College piloting high-tech counselling program
Having received a portion of the $27 million the province has invested over three years to provide new services and supports to post-secondary students as part of a comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, Confederation College, in partnership with three other northern colleges, has initiated a program called “Bridging the Distance.”
“‘Bridging the Distance’ was one of the first three proposals that were approved last January,” noted Jim Lees, co-ordinator of counselling services for Confederation College.
“We’re trying to improve access to counselling services and student services at all of our regional campuses.”
Lees said mental health and addictions issues at the post-secondary level have been on the government’s agenda for the past few years.
“We’re looking at one-in-four students in the college system are going to have a mental health issue serious enough to affect their functioning while they are with us in school,” he remarked, adding this is evident across Canada and North America.
He noted reasons for this have been speculated.
“Some of the reasons are that we have a generation of students that aren’t as resilient as their parents and grandparents were,” Lees said.
“And as a matter of fact, Maclean’s [magazine], in an article last fall, had a cover article called ‘The Broken Generation,’” he recalled.
“They described the overwhelming demand on counselling departments [and] student services with students that have complicated, complex needs often related to mental health.”
Lees said that in response to pressures, the government funded 10 projects at colleges and universities in Ontario to support services for mental health and addictions.
Four colleges are participating in the “Bridging the Distance” project—Cambrian College in Sudbury, Canadore College in North Bay, Northern College in Timmins, and Confederation College, based out of Thunder Bay.
“We all got together to develop the proposal and each of the pillars of the proposal are different,” Lees explained.
For instance, Canadore is working on creating better staff resources in relation to mental health, Northern is working on strengthening peer networks, and Cambrian is developing a web portal.
“But ours is the most interesting,” Lees grinned. “What we’ve done is we’re trying to improve access to counselling services and student services at all of our regional campuses.”
There are nine regional campuses associated with Confederation College, with the largest being in Fort Frances, Kenora, Dryden, and Sioux Lookout.
Lees said while there are student services available at each of these sites, most of the specialized services are in Thunder Bay.
“Our proposal is that we will start to utilize technology more effectively,” he remarked, adding he’s already participated in a research study regarding counselling services with a professor from the University of Toronto.
“We looked at all the counselling services at all 24 colleges in Ontario and one of the questions we asked was how do you actually deliver services?” he noted.
“Is it face-to-face, video, the Internet, social media?
“We were astounded that about 99 percent of the counselling delivered in the province of Ontario is face-to-face, one-on-one in an office, which blew our minds,” he said.
“In 2013, one would think that there would be a little more of an uptake in terms of technology—and by technology, I even mean the phone.”
Because of the geography in the north, such as the distances between communities, the regional campuses of Confederation College already utilize and rely on technology for learning.
But the idea behind their part of “Bridging the Distance” was how could they leverage those resources to do a better job at delivering services.
Lees noted they used some of the money to install video units at the regional campuses—Fort Frances, Kenora, and Dryden are fully-equipped so far, with Sioux Lookout expected to be up and running by the end of the year.
“And we created a social service network of people,” he explained, citing the staff in Thunder Bay all have webcams on their computers.
“So if a student needs a service, then Thunder Bay isn’t four hours away—Thunder Bay is eight seconds away,” Lees reasoned.
There is a small room at the local campus dedicated especially to the technology-based service, complete with comfortable chairs and a video screen.
The network uses a point-to-point system, connecting through IP addresses instead of telephone numbers.
And it is behind the firewall, which means the connections are secure so students can communicate and be confident in the privacy.
Lees used an example of a student who might be having difficulties preparing for tests, who could benefit by sitting down with Chris Pace, the college’s learning strategist based in Thunder Bay.
“They can come in here, close the door, and they can talk to him,” he noted. “Chris sees them, he connects with them.”
Offering a demonstration, Lees punched in Pace’s IP address and with seconds his face appeared on the screen.
“I work with students with different learning disabilities,” Pace explained via the video system.
“If new to the college, they’ll meet with me,” he explained. “We set them up with an accommodation plan and offer various strategies; for instance, time management, organization, study skills, and how to write tests.
“So we can communicate through these means and try to help them sort their way through college,” he said.
Having already assisted students here using the video system, Pace seemed pleased with the new way of delivering services.
“So far I’ve spoken to a number of students and it’s been a great experience,” he enthused. “The students seem to enjoy the experience and it went well from my end.
“I can see and hear perfectly. It’s almost in real time,” he added.
“I think it’s been very well-received.”
“Normally students will make an appointment, they won’t even have to do the calling,” stressed Anne Renaud, director of the Fort Frances campus.
“They’ll come into the room, if it’s their first time someone will make sure the TV is on—once they get used to it, they can do it on their own,” she noted.
“We book the meeting both with the person in Thunder Bay and the room to make sure everything is available at the same time.
“They just sit down and the person calls in,” Renaud said. “It’s really, really simple for the students.”
She added prior to this, it wasn’t as easy to book an appointment.
“Only a couple people in Thunder Bay had webcams, so we had to book them to another room,” Renaud said. “We didn’t have this room, so students were coming into my office.
“It was a lot harder.
“This way it is seamless and more confidential,” she remarked.
So what Lees is doing is promoting “Bridging the Distance” and the new way students can access services.
“What we are trying to do is boost the uptake of this,” he stressed, noting there are nine different professionals in Thunder Bay offering student services that Fort Frances students now can access easily—from a financial aid officer and accessibility counsellor to a student advisor and several counsellors.
“We’re trying to make a seamless system across the north,” Lees said. “Whether you are in Sioux Lookout or Fort Frances, you have easy access.
“They’ve always had access to these people, but we’re trying to get people thinking that they are not four hours away, they are eight seconds away and that we can use these people.”
In addition to utilizing the technology to deliver student services to regional campuses, Lees also is doing a research study to measure what students think of technology.
“So if students meet with a counsellor, then they are asked to fill out a survey online if they want to,” he noted.
“There are a bunch of psychological instruments that ask questions related to what they thought of the process, do they feel the counsellor knew what they were talking about, did they feel listened to—there are a whole bunch of questions.
“When they finish that, it goes into a database and we’re going to be collecting this information for two years,” Lees explained.
As an incentive, students who participate will receive a $5 gift card to Tim Hortons and will be able to enter their name into a draw for $100.
Lees said they will be measuring the following:
•Is using the technology just as good as face-to-face, worse or better?
•Does it make a difference if the student meets a counsellor first and then follows up with video sessions?
•Is that different than if they’ve never met them and just start a session via video technology?
•Does the comfort with technology increase, decrease, or stay stable over time.
Lees hopes at the end of the research study, they’ll have a better picture of how well student services can be delivered using technology.
“I am one of the few counsellors in the college system across the province who has used video the last few years and I believe in it very strongly,” he stressed.
“I believe it is a great way to go, but there isn’t a lot of data out there to measure it,” he conceded.
He added some professors have indicated to him that it is a bit cutting edge.
“It’s a really neat project,” Lees enthused, noting they have the funding to work on the project until 2015.
“And the next step is to develop a tool kit so any college [that] wants to do this has a step-by-step way of getting it off the ground and promoting it,” he explained.
“We just want to make counselling services accessible through technology so students, regardless of where they live, can utilize the specialized services that are available,” he reasoned.