RSU fights new DMZ optimization

Students looking to impress a dragon in the Dragons’ Den can now perfect their proposal, pitch and prototype in the newly approved optional specialization program, now being offered in conjunction with Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ).

Aspiring entrepreneurs will soon be able to apply to an optional specialization for credit by presenting a well-developed business plan. If accepted, they will be given access to office space and an expert advisory board that includes business and finance strategists, legal consultants and marketing agents, all to help establish their own company.

But not all approve of the dragon-eat-dragon design of the program.

Following the course’s senate approval in June, Ryerson’s Students’ Union (RSU) issued a letter criticizing the school for encouraging courses that are privately funded and capital-oriented.

The letter stated that its framework “prioritizes private interests over curiosity-driven research” and “reliance on corporate dollars for the sake of operational revenue is ethically wrong.”
Roshelle Lawrence, vice-president of education, stands by the letter.

“Institutions should be public and shouldn’t have to depend on private companies in order to carry on research from the students.”

She later said the RSU’s main concern is the privatization and commercialization of learning.

According to Chris Evans, vice-provost academic, funds for the new program will come from course fees, government grants and scholarships, as well as private sector investments.

Ryerson’s academic standards committee stresses that while entrepreneurship is most often associated with for-profit businesses, the foundation of the entrepreneurial approach can be applied to the not-for-profit sector and government.

In fact, five of the 103 startups at the DMZ are non-profit.

“They’re thinking of the worst possible versions of corporate enterprises” and applying those principles to everything else while forgetting about philanthropic opportunities, said Randy Boyagoda, English professor and new director of zone learning.

Still, the RSU questions the quality and legitimacy of education with zone learning.

The credits from optional specialization do not count towards a degree. Instead, they are supplementary credits similar to a minor.

Assessment is based on a pass/fail grading system, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy course for students.

First, an admissions committee judges applicants based on their individual CVs and academic transcripts, as well as their overall business model or prototype.

Upon acceptance, student groups go through stages of preparation, development, application and commercialization, all of which are evaluated by peers, Ryerson faculty and industry experts.

For Amanda Parker, Ryerson alumna and entrepreneur at the DMZ since 2010, the learning approach and support from the incubator has not only helped her two consulting companies thrive, but her growth as a business owner.

“You face harsh criticism in business, but you have to be prepared for it,” she said. “Competition is key. You have to get the best of the best.”

Parker said the DMZ has given her a significant leg up, as it’s allowed her to network with industry mentors and other entrepreneurs who keep her inspired. It’s another benefit that optional specialization students can take advantage of. Parker’s latest company, Innohub, a design and development startup which boasts big-name clients such as Pepsi and Indigo, was co-founded by a colleague she met at the DMZ.

“We’d love it if everyone here turned into Mark Zuckerberg, but that’s not the focus of zone learning,” said Boyagoda.

Another ongoing concern for the RSU is only certain students can benefit from optional specialization. It creates an inaccessible, selective learning environment if private companies are able to decide whose research gets accredited and whose doesn’t, said Lawrence.

The RSU memorandum also argues that students won’t be able to take advantage of the program if an idea isn’t commercially profitable.

But for some, it’s just the reality of the trade.

“I think you learn through having goals,” said Parker. “People have to pay bills and rent, unfortunately.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on September 18, 2013.

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