Jan. 13, 2021Print | PDF
Well before the COVID-19 pandemic upturned our economy, and social distancing forced us to move interactions to a virtual environment, society was experiencing the opportunities and challenges that technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, nanotechnology, robotics and 3-D printing present. We are fortunate to live, work and learn in Waterloo Region, a community poised to adapt and lead in a world where the changing nature of work and learning will be one of the defining characteristics of the century.
What are the trends we are seeing related to the nature of work? According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, 54 per cent of employees will need new skills by 2022 and 30 per cent of the skills that employees use today, they did not have a year ago. Think about the tools many employees and students have added to their toolbox in the last 12 months alone: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and a plethora of other project and learning management software to name a few. Indeed, the pandemic has added urgency to the need for people to learn new skills and upgrade existing skills as schools, post-secondary institutions and entire industries have significantly shifted the way they work and do business — and not just for the short term.
In a post-pandemic world, universities, as hubs of knowledge creation and dissemination, are in a unique position to meet the growing demand for advanced education. The pandemic, and the spotlight on issues of racism and racial inequity in 2020, have provided us an opportunity for a reset. We now have the opportunity to reimagine how we address the pressing challenges of our time – climate change, poverty, and equity, to name a few—as they intersect with the future of work and learning.
The university sector has an important role to play in creating this new world as we prepare citizens who think deeply about complex issues, problem solve, and use ethics and theoretical lenses when approaching their work. By instilling this knowledge and skill in people, universities are supporting resilience in the face of rapid technological and social change.
I am certain that the fundamentals of a university education will remain the same, and arguably, become more important, as we navigate the rise of artificial intelligence, enhanced robotics and smart cities. We will need computer programmers who consider equity and accessibility, business leaders who embrace social and environmental concerns as much as they do profits, and citizens who are engaged and aware of their obligations, rights and freedoms.
Typically, university graduates have acquired these ‘soft’ or ‘enduring’ skills through four-year undergraduate degrees, and then further develop them through graduate work. This kind of education has historically happened in a very linear fashion. However, as workers are displaced by technology and people require new skills for mid-career shifts, universities need to reconsider if this pattern of educational attainment truly fits the needs of modern learners.
As universities broaden their reach and become accessible to more people from different backgrounds, they need to create opportunities for learners to access education in ways that fit with their personal and professional lives. In response to these evolving learning needs, Wilfrid Laurier University is focusing on credential innovation as part of our institution’s five-year (2019-2024) strategic plan.
Already, Laurier has launched a number of smaller credential offerings for mid-career workers, which leverage our faculty expertise and offer an opportunity to develop the enduring skills typically acquired at universities. The Digital Literacy and Emerging Technologies certificate offers introductory courses in bitcoin and blockchain, cybercrime, and biometrics, to name a few. The program is aimed at professionals looking to fill knowledge gaps in technology shifts. As another example, Laurier has recently launched a series of courses called the Gladue Principles: Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian Criminal Justice System, which are targeted at people who work in the legal, social and public safety sectors to provide historical context on Indigenous law and the inter-generational impact of colonization.
In a post-pandemic world, universities, as hubs of knowledge creation and dissemination, are in a unique position to meet the growing demand for advanced education.
In an exciting initiative, Laurier and Communitech have launched, in collaboration with local partners, a program that develops in-demand skills in mid-career workers in our region. Right now, 40 local employees are participating in the program, first engaging in workshops in sales and communications offered through Communitech Academy, followed by intensive immersion learning, taught by Laurier faculty, in which a semester-long for-credit course has been condensed into six weeks.
As part of pandemic recovery and to meet the accelerating need for education and skills development, post-secondary institutions have an opportunity to work with the business community to identify knowledge gaps and collaboratively develop programming to meet these needs. Through the recently launched Future of Work and Learning Coalition, Laurier, the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College are collaborating with Communitech, government, community, and business to develop a number of innovative training and education programs that will ensure Waterloo Region’s citizens remain resilient in a rapidly changing world.
As we continue to consider how a university education might be acquired in different ways, the pandemic has demonstrated that university learning can happen in many forums. In-person, hybrid models blending in-person and virtual learning, and fully online programs can all be very effective.
Indeed, the rapid expansion of virtual learning during COVID is making university education accessible in a way that it has never been before. It is now possible for students around the world to have broad access to the many course and degree offerings that were previously only available to those who lived in university communities or had the privilege of being able to afford living away from home. At the same time, this move to a virtual world has magnified the inequities of connectivity for those living in communities without adequate internet or cellular services. With provincial and federal governments accelerating connectivity strategies to bring high-speed internet to the most remote areas of Canada, I am hopeful that these inequities will soon be resolved.
In this Canada of the near future, where everyone has access to broadband, universities will have the opportunity to imagine both fully virtual and truly hybrid options of learning, where students could spend part of their program in-person or virtually and the rest in their communities where they might engage in work-integrated learning opportunities such as co-op or community service learning. Giving highly skilled and educated people the opportunity to be more mobile and to work and learn in more remote areas has the potential to be a catalyst for regional economic equity, especially in a country as dispersed as ours.
These are exciting times with much potential for innovation and imaginative thinking. While there is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant hardships, we have risen to these challenges and come together to find ways to continue to work and learn. With a vaccine on the horizon, soon we will be able to again gather in offices, classrooms, and boardrooms. At the same time, we will be able to learn from elements of our experiences in 2020 and apply them to enhance our society.
As we look ahead to a pandemic recovery and post-pandemic world, post-secondary institutions, governments, communities and businesses must collaborate to meet the needs of our citizens. Conventional wisdom has held that education is a great equalizer. As universities re-imagine ways to meet the needs of a growing diverse body of learners, we have an opportunity to truly reach all those in need of skills and knowledge development. Making this new world of work and learning as equitable as possible is a priority for Laurier. I am confident that with the input and expertise of our community partners, our ambitious plans in this area will be realized.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 edition of the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce Advocate publication.
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