U of C Confidential

By Robert Granger

On Nov. 19, the University of Calgary announced the opening of a Workplace Learning Research Unit. The WLRU is one of three such research units in the world, and is the first in Canada. Australia and England are home to others.

The WLRU’s mission statement is "to create, critique, and disseminate knowledge that will advance our understanding of workplace learning and increase the quality and effectiveness of learning in the workplace."

"It is becoming more accepted that organizations must make a commitment to learning in order to sustain a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace. The WLRU will help organizations to achieve this. There are very few researchers in the world looking at how learning in the workplace benefits companies," said U of C President Terry White. "Life-long learning has become a powerful business force in the 1990s. The U of C now has a core group of professors building a greater understanding of the value of continuing education in the workplace."

According to WLRU Director John Bratton, the concept isn’t new.

"The concept isn’t all that new, you can actually trace it back to the late ’50s and ’60s when there used to be a lot of debates around investing in education in order to get economic growth," said Bratton. "So, that debate is really being applied from a kind of macro level to a more micro level in the workplace. The basic premise is that if organizations invest in workplace learning, there will be positive outcomes for individuals and, therefore, for the organization."

The WLRU is composed of eight professors: Bratton, Blane Harvey, Mary Hammond, Dr. Susan Hutton, Dr. Thomas Keenan, Dr. Timothy Pyrch, Iwan Saunders, and Dr. Faye Weisenberg. It’s interested in conducting workplace learning research within profit and non-profit organizations, as well as providing consulting services for companies that want to become learning organizations. All research will be done at a cost recovery basis.

"It builds on the tradition that has developed in the Faculty of Continuing Education," said Bratton. "Traditionally the Faculty has had strong ties with the community. It tends to be more market driven… and what we have asked companies to do is invite us into their workplace, for us to discuss what are some of the challenges, what are the issues as far as workplace learning, and for them to be a part of the research project itself."

One of the first companies to take the challenge is PanCanadian Petroleum Ltd.

"PanCanadian is keen to capitalize on the knowledge gleaned from this determined group of researchers and educators," said PanCanadian’s Vice-president Human Resources and Corporate Services Terry Lawrence. "We look forward to providing a workplace laboratory for primary research into how learning improves our daily competitiveness and performance."

PanCanadian has also provided a two-year $15,000 grant that will be used to redesign the Master of Continuing Education in Workplace Learning Degree offered through the Faculty of Continuing Education. The curriculum will depart from the traditional professorial lecture format in favour of a multimedia delivery form that will operate via video, cd-ROM and the Internet. The success of the current Masters program was partially responsible for the development of the WLRU.

"The WLRU is the logical evolution from [the Masters program]," said Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education Dr. Thomas Keenan. "Here we have a Masters Degree, and someone said we should really study this stuff. And we should draw not just from our faculty, but from the rest of the university and the rest of the world as well."

Students in the Masters of Workplace Learning will play a very important role in the WLRU.

"We see them as playing a very important role in terms of doing the research. As part of the final element in their program, they have to do a workplace project," said Bratton. "The contacts that we make in industry will be used to help the students identify projects… so our approach is one of actually working with our graduate students, working with them and learning from them. Basically, some kind of triangulation-the workplace, the student and the faculty, working together to solve some of the issues, or develop programs around workplace learning."

The WLRU has also announced that it will host a conference in the spring of 1999 involving researchers from Europe, North America and Australia.

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