WatSPEED – the next generation of lifelong learning

WatSPEED – the next generation of lifelong learning

We sat down with Sanjeev Gill, Associate Vice-President, Innovation, and Executive Director, WatSPEED to talk about the University of Waterloo’s latest platform launch, a program that will provide professional educational for industry professionals, allowing them to keep up with the evolving work world.

At their cores, all universities share the same mission – the transfer of knowledge. Universities do this through different methods – one of the most recognized being undergraduate and postgrad degree programs.

As one of the most innovative universities in Canada, the University of Waterloo has constantly worked to evolve existing programs and create new opportunities to transfer knowledge. Businesses across the country and the world can tap into the total capacity of the University’s research and programs with the Gateway for Enterprises to Discover Innovation (GEDI) program. Students on co-operative education work terms can learn from leading businesses to advance their careers before they graduate. Businesses like yours can co-locate in David Johnston Research + Technology Park and be surrounded with cutting-edge research and exceptional students.

Sanjeev Gill, Associate Vice-President, Innovation, and Executive Director, WatSPEED

But what about professionals looking to update their skills or acquire new skills as the future of work continues to evolve? Over the last year, Sanjeev Gill, Associate Vice-President, Innovation, and Executive Director, WatSPEED, has led teams across the University on a mission to develop the next generation of lifelong learning programming. This summer, those efforts culminated with the launch of WatSPEED – a new unit that allows organizations to retain, upskill, and prepare their workforce and helps professionals reskill and reimagine their careers in a society that increasingly requires continuous learning.

We sat down with Gill to learn more about WatSPEED, how the pandemic accelerated the University’s plans, and how they’ve designed the program with the full support of UWaterloo’s six faculties.

Thanks for taking some time for us. We’re excited to see the launch of WatSPEED. One aspect that sets the program apart from other lifelong learning and professional development programs is the level of integration with the University. Can you talk a little about that?

We needed to make sure we were set up to have a very robust offering in professional education, corporate education, and executive education—one that takes advantage of everything that Waterloo has to offer and that makes us unique.

All six of our Faculties are integral to WatSPEED Most of them have assigned an Associate Dean of Lifelong Learning. Those Associate Deans are charged with working with WatSPEED to curate opportunities, promote those opportunities to faculty, identify interested professors , and more. It is a unique, integrated model with the university and with our professors. It also ensures strong governance of course content in line with UW academic standards.

We’ve talked before about the rapid changes to the ways we work and learn. These were changes discussed as part of the Future of Work and Learning – changes that were accelerated due to COVID-19.

We had the intent to build a lifelong learning business unit in the University’s five-year strategic plan. Around May of last year, we pulled in some of Canada’s top CEOs, and we asked two questions. The first was: how they felt they were going to fare through the pandemic. The second question was: what should the University of Waterloo be doing to support them through the pandemic and beyond?

Virtually every CEO said Waterloo could support the upskilling and retraining of their workforces. They said that Waterloo has a unique value proposition from a technology perspective and we needed to support them on upskilling. Prior to this, we knew that lifelong learning was going to be a high priority for the university. After that meeting, then UWaterloo President Feridun Hamdullahpur said, let’s get moving. The conversation served as a catalyst, and the pandemic gave us the gas to get moving.

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With the need to move work and learning online for a large percentage of the population, online learning is now a topic talked about daily. How did that affect your plans?

We entirely shifted our thinking; while we know we will eventually need to have a hybrid model that includes classroom training, the pandemic forced us to to have an online-first mentality. Online is a different experience for professional learners. You have to think about the fact that they’re jammed between their work responsibilities, and possibly family responsibilities. Professional learners have less time. The big question is, can you just produce online education the way we’ve been doing it for undergrad students? You can’t. You have to think differently. You have to think about how to create more immersive experiences for professional learners in their mid-career who have limited time, and consider the fact that less time also means we have to deliver education in innovative new ways that help professional learners consume and retain knowledge with experiential components that enable them to have immediate impact in their job.

Are you focused more on delivering programming to individuals or businesses?

We originally thought we were going to go to market in two formats: business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C). B2B being where you build customized programming corporate partner, and they want you to do, let’s say, a program on cybersecurity education for their employees. Then there’s B2C that is focused on open learning available to anyone. We always thought that we would lead withB2C, and then build out our B2B offerings. Based on initial interest from industry, we had to quickly pivot to prioritizing B2B.

The interest from professional associations to engage with WatSPEED to develop custom programs for their members has been simply astonishing. Our inaugural program is with the Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario (CPA Ontario).

What does that program with the CPA Ontario look like?

Our initial conversations with them were about continuing education with Waterloo’s School of Accounting and Finance that would be targeted at professional accountants to to help them increase their impact within their company and more broadly, help amplify the CPA profession at the intersection of technology.

Professional associations have a solid understanding of the skills gaps and training needs of their members, and so partnering with them allows WatSPEED to develop courses that will have impact to their careers. CPAO had identifed that an area of interest to their members that could help them elevate their careers was predictive analytics. We are launching a program called the Digital Certificate in Predictive Analytics for CPAs – that also can be leveraged for anyone in the financial space.

Are there other industries or professional groups that you’re working with?

Yes. Right on the heels of that, we have a number of other discussions happening with health care, aviation, engineering, the public sector, and more. Again, most of these are in partnership with industry professional associations who bring a wealth of insights regarding the educational needs of their constituents. This helps WatSPEED accelerate offerings that will have immediate impact to their careers.

What has the internal response been from the University’s professors?

What’s interesting is that we have a number of professors who have said they’ve always wanted to do this, to develop the content, but they had no mechanism to take it to market. Now they have an avenue that handles design, delivery, registrations, payments, marketing, and the like, so all they have to focus on is content development, and WatSPEED takes care of the rest.

It’s surprising to see where the interest is coming from within the university. The Faculty of Environment, for example, is one area that’s getting a lot of traction. Educating professionals on environmental aspects, especially in government, is an important part of what the Faculty of Environment already does, including education on climate change. They’ve been doing this on a small scale. WatSPEED gives them a platform to scale their offerings to reach a broader audience.

It sounds like WatSPEED could almost be described as a platform.

It is very much that. It’s intended to be a platform – and not just for our faculty members. It’s also a platform for the external world. It’s a platform that professional associations and companies can leverage to help their members and staff upskill quickly to keep pace with technology and increasing societal changes in the workplace.

Thank you again for making time for us!

To learn more about WatSPEED offerings, visit uwaterloo.ca/watspeed/.