Office of the President

Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor

A new niche for a new university: The creation of distinctive ICT programmes at Simon Fraser University

Dr. Michael Stevenson
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

A presentation to the International Forum for University Presidents on Information Communications Technology Education (IFUP-ICT Education), Beijing, China
October 17, 2005

Computing Science
Interactive Arts and Technology


A cornerstone of SFU’s educational philosophy is an emphasis on interdisciplinary programmes.  That emphasis has guided the creation of distinctive ICT programmes during the forty year history of this new Canadian university. 

SFU’s early computing science programme paid unusual attention to the applied potential of computing in interdisciplinary research.  It also led SFU to be an early adopter of transistorized mainframes, automated library and registration systems and, ultimately, of remote terminals through which faculty and students could access the processing power of the University’s computers.  SFU’s computing science programme further demonstrated the value of taking an applied approach to computing with the introduction in 1975 of one of Canada’s earliest co-operative education programmes.

SFU’s computing science programme was joined in the early 1970s by engineering science programmes.  Significant new programmes in computer, systems, electronics and, recently, biomedical engineering have generated extensive research into areas such as robotics, human-computer interface, applications involving communications and control, and mechatronic systems.

Our new school of interactive arts and technology (SIAT) returns to our institutional roots with programmes that integrate the arts, sciences and information technologies to foster cutting-edge innovations able to respond to and affect the wider social and cultural environment.  SIAT’s concentrations are in performance and media arts, new media environments, and technology in arts and design.

In addition to computing science and engineering, and interactive arts and technology, SFU has developed a distinctive school of communications.  Both SIAT and the school of communications investigate the policies, practices and institutional implications of various media technologies.

As technologies are at once specializing and converging so is the global environment in which we conduct our teaching and research.  As a result global partnerships in ICT education constitute the most important new stage of evolution for SFU’s interests in this area.  Most prominent amongst our new initiatives in the globalization of ICT education has been the introduction of a new dual degree programme in computing science jointly offered by Simon Fraser University and Zhejiang University to cohorts of Chinese and North American students who study together at both institutions during the course of their five-year programme.


In reviewing the list of those attending this impressive forum on ICT education, I recognize that my own institution, Simon Fraser University, is perhaps the youngest of the comprehensive universities represented at this event.  By comprehensive, I refer to universities whose purpose is teaching and research at the undergraduate and graduate levels across a broad range of subjects in the liberal arts and natural sciences as well as in a variety of professional fields like business, education and engineering (to cite the examples at SFU).

Forty years ago Simon Fraser University (SFU) was established as the youngest university in what, from an Asian perspective, is a young country.  SFU’s institutional culture has been profoundly shaped by its birth in the cultural ferment of the mid-1960s, and from the outset there was a vision of SFU as a unique institution:  experimental, flexible, innovative, open, inclusive and deeply engaged in the community.

The timing of SFU’s birth shaped its future: faculty and students from around the world came to SFU seeking an opportunity to shape this new university in ways not possible at older institutions.  They were mostly young and idealistic and they brought their youthful energies, creativity and desire for innovation and built them into the fabric of the university’s institutional culture.  In doing so, they contributed enormously to the boldness and willingness to try new ideas and approaches that still distinguishes this university.

A key element of SFU’s educational philosophy was an emphasis from the outset on interdisciplinarity.  The university’s very architecture was designed to break down traditional barriers between what were perceived to be needlessly isolated disciplines.  As planned by the now internationally-famous architect Arthur Erickson, SFU academic programmes were located within a coherent, interconnected complex of buildings, with classrooms and faculty offices sharing corridors and different programmes located in tight juxtaposition.

In relation to the interests of colleagues at this conference, Simon Fraser University was not conceived as specializing in the applied sciences and, speaking statistically, it does not.  Of SFU’s approximately 25,000 students, only 15% are in programmes directly related to information and communications technology.  But the development of a unique computing science programme was an early product of the university’s youthful innovation.

Computing Science

In the mid-1960s, the few institutions with any but the most rudimentary computing programmes housed them typically within more traditional programmes in physics, math or electrical engineering, where interests in computing were served or shared.   At the beginning, SFU’s first teachers of computing studies were also faculty holding primary appointments in other disciplines with an appreciation for the potential computers offered to assist research in their own fields. 

In 1971, a committee formed earlier to recommend the future shape of computing at SFU advised that “the computer science programme should be truly interdisciplinary . . . in that students majoring in other disciplines [must] have access to computer science 'service' courses and, conversely, computer science students will take a significant proportion of their course material from other departments.”  SFU’s development of its unique ICT programmes began from that early decision to focus on the applied aspects of computer technology.  Reflecting on this period in the early 1990s, SFU’s first chair of computing science, Dr. Ted Sterling remarked: “As the 1960s came to an end, universities around the world began developing formal offerings to do with computation and computer design, generally through their departments of mathematics or electrical engineering. This was not the case at SFU.”

I cannot overemphasize the distinct advantages SFU gained by focusing on the applied elements of computing in the early development of its computing programmes.  By 1973, SFU’s computing science programme was amongst the first five such programmes in Canada.  Its distinctive focus was on the use of the computer rather than the computer itself.  Computing studies would be open to students from across the University, and would teach them what they needed to know about computing in order to make practical use of the technology to advance their own disciplines.

Interest was shown, for instance, in applying computer technology in the biological, management and social sciences. Perhaps more surprisingly, students and faculty in the humanities became involved in the adaptation of computing for the purposes of numerical taxonomy, text processing and information retrieval and, in the fine arts, for computerized production of sound and graphics, the development of film and video technology, and digital techniques for composition and choreography.

In 1975, SFU’s practical and applied approach to computing led to the introduction of a co-operative education programme in computing, one of the earliest co-operative education programmes in Canada along with that at the University of Waterloo.  Computing science students possessing extensive direct experience with both hardware and software in applied fields had an obvious advantage in co-operative placements in industry and business, and the success of the co-op programme in this area did much to sell the value of co-operative education to other programmes at SFU.

SFU’s take on computing adopted one other innovative element that had a profound impact on its future: it favoured a hands-on approach to computer hardware.  At the time this was a radical notion, though consistent with the programme’s applied focus.  The result was that SFU was pushed by the interdisciplinary adaptation of computing to maintain leading edge computing facilities throughout the university, to develop an equal strength subsequently in engineering science, focused on computing, and to extend the powers of computing technology into the research culture generally.  SFU soon had the most automated library in North American and this broad access to highly advanced technology stimulated within the university a wider interest in exploring ways of harnessing computer technology in the service of research.


A second development of academic interest in ICT at SFU was the establishment of a School of Communications.  Communications consolidated its teaching and research into three comprehensive areas: communications media, technology and policy.  Whereas computing science intensively addressed the scientific and mathematical theory behind computing technologies, communication studies provided an analysis and critique of the policies, practices and technologies employed in or facilitated by computing and other electronic media.

The School of Communications is home to several research programmes and projects that examine current and emerging information technology use in modern society.  These research programmes include the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology and the Emergency Preparedness Information Exchange, operating an advanced Telematics Research Lab.  One of the newest additions to Communications is ACTION for Health, a research project intended to answer such questions as who uses provincial and federal computer-based health information resources and with what effect; who is included, who is excluded, who benefits and who loses when health sector workplaces are computerized?  Another example of research within the School of Communications is research focused on the emerging wireless information society of cell phones and wireless data networks, exploring questions of how everyday users of these technologies are moving things in unanticipated directions.


SFU took another major step to develop its ICT programmes in 1981 when Dr. Don George arrived as a visiting professor in computing science.  George believed the University needed a distinctive engineering programme designed to produce well-educated, innovative engineers possessing entrepreneurial skills and oriented to emerging technologies.  By 1983, under his energetic direction, SFU had approved a full programme in engineering.

That engineering programme now offers courses in four streams:

  1. Computer engineering focused on the design and engineering of hardware and software including fundamentals of analog and digital electronics, computer architecture, and networks and communications;
  2. Systems engineering, dealing with the fundamentals of mechanical design, electromechanical control and computing, and with emerging applications in robotics and the new field of mechatronics “the synergistic combination of precision mechanical engineering, electronic control and systems thinking in the design of products and manufacturing processes”;
  3. Electronics engineering which concentrates on the design and use of electronic components and microprocessors to develop applications in communications control and computing; and
  4. Bioengineering with a focus on control systems and assistive devices for biomedical purposes.

Interactive Arts and Technology

A fourth development in the evolution of new fields linked to ICT at SFU has been the establishment of a new School of Interactive Arts and Technology.  In 2002, SFU took over the former Technical University of British Columbia, creating a new programme which integrates the arts, sciences and information technology to foster cutting edge innovations responding to and affecting the wider social and cultural environment.  In some ways SIAT represents what computing science might have become had it consistently pursued its original interdisciplinary focus.  Its faculty come from diverse academic backgrounds including the performing and visual arts, communications, photography, architecture, psychology, computer science, and interactive design.  Their task is to implement and analyse the social, cultural, economic, esthetic and ethical effects of computer technologies and network systems.  The offerings of this programme concentrate on performance and media arts, including the whole range of digital entertainment, new media environments, and technology in art and design.


Another consequence of SFU’s merger with TechBC was our acquisition of significant intellectual capital invested in web-based, interactive learning systems.  These systems were a key feature of the undergraduate curricula in information technology and interactive arts programmes at TechBC, and their development and on-going maintenance was a product of interaction between faculty specializing in those areas and technical experts hired into a specialized service unit called E-Link.  SFU has maintained that specialized expertise, expanding the mandate of E-Link to serve all programmes throughout the university.  In addition to encouraging the wider application of e-learning technologies through this means, SFU has encouraged further interdisciplinary research on e-learning with major team research projects now underway in the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Applied Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.


In my own time as president of SFU it has been one of my priorities to foster the expansion of information and communications technology programmes at Simon Fraser University, and I have described this area as a new niche for a new university.  Each of the five developments I have discussed has a linked evolution and reaches out into other fields of study.  For example, SFU now offers degree programmes in new fields such as computational linguistics, the management of technology, bio-informatics, and computational criminology, in addition to the major fields already discussed.  Similar linkages extend to a growing concentration of expertise in cognitive and neuroscience and forensic studies, with cross-boundary linkages between faculty in the traditional liberal arts and sciences as well as various ICT programmes.  Finally, research and development in e-learning has moved into new areas including adaptations to business administration, co-op education, and the development of electronic games for primary and secondary school curricula.

Having outlined the evolution at SFU of innovative programmes in computing science, communications, engineering science, interactive arts and technology, and some other emerging fields, let me conclude with an observation about the importance of international partnerships in this area.  In my view, this is the most exciting new stage of the evolution of ICT programmes at SFU, as I believe it will be elsewhere.

Three years ago, for example, we entered into a partnership between the School of Communications at SFU and the Research Centre on Wireless Technology at the National University of Singapore.  The focus of this partnership is the twinning of SFU’s expertise in behavioural research on the adaptation of communications technologies, with the expertise in the development of new wireless technologies at NUS.

A second example is the recent agreement establishing a programme in information technology offered jointly by Simon Fraser University and our highly esteemed partner, Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.  This new programme recognizes the enormous importance of making our students good global citizens with real international experience, as well as combining the technical expertise of leading faculties in Canada and China.  When they graduate five years from now the students in this programme, who will spend half their time in China and half their time in Canada studying a common programme, will earn degrees from both Simon Fraser and Zhejiang Universities.  As important as their acquisition of a technical education will be their deep understanding of two cultures and societies, as well as the acquisition of crucial "soft" skills in intercultural relations.

The model of the joint programme formulated between SFU and Zhejiang University in information technology is being quickly adapted in other fields.  We look forward soon to concluding new partnership agreements to offer such joint programmes in fields like bioinformatics, biomedical engineering, and digital entertainment.

The exciting history of innovation and differentiation which characterizes the growth of new ICT programmes at SFU is no doubt shared at many of the institutions present at this conference.  I hope that it will also be agreed that we can sustain this excitement and continuing evolution in this area looking forward to the very productive development of new areas of research and teaching by a strategic focus on international partnerships between institutions of the kind that I have described.  SFU looks forward to active participation with Chinese colleagues in this new era in the development of information and communications technology education.

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