Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 55: Lifelong Learning: Building Digital Skills through Continuing Education

Episode 55 guest speaker Dr. Sheila LeBlanc

Lifelong Learning: Digital Skills in Continuing Education

with Dr. Sheila LeBlanc

Dr. Sheila LeBlanc is the Associate Vice President for Continuing Education at the University of Calgary. She explores the role of digital skills in lifelong learning and how using data can improve student success.

Episode summary

Dr. Sheila LeBlanc is the Associate Vice President for Continuing Education at the University of Calgary. She explores the role of digital skills in lifelong learning, how demands from students and local businesses are changing, and ways in which using data can improve student success.

Why digital is at the heart of Continuing Education in Calgary

Host Olivia Neal meets Dr. Sheila LeBlanc, Associate Vice President for Continuing Education at the University of Calgary. They explore the role of lifelong learning, how demands from students and local businesses are changing, and ways in which using data can improve student success.

Continuing Education at the university level

“I get excited when I think about Continuing Education, because we have what I consider to be the most interesting role in the academy. We cross over the depth and breadth of a student body on their lifelong learning journey.”

Dr. Sheila LeBlanc is the Associate Vice President for Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, Canada.

LeBlanc explained “We’re a research-intensive university in Western Canada. We have a population of about 1.4 million and we have a campus undergraduate and graduate student body of about just under 30,000, at this point in time. We also have about 30,000 continuing educational enrollments, which is the team that I have the privilege to lead, and 1,800 academic staff, and about 3,200 non-academic staff.”

LeBlanc explained, “Some of our key focuses are really looking at the mid-career upskilling, reskilling for professional practice in all disciplines. So, we work with all of the faculties as well as a number of external partners like Microsoft in order to ensure that we’re upskilling and reskilling people for the world of work in the future. And right now, that’s digital transformation.”

“One of the most important things that we’re doing is really looking at how do we evolve and build the skillsets of people throughout a lifetime, to keep them ready for the new world of work?”

Building digital transformation skills

LeBlanc explained how demand for digital skills has grown, both from students and from employers. “We’re paying attention to what’s happening in the economy and what’s happening in the world, but also in terms of demand for the enrollments and demand for what students are looking for.”

“As part of being a responsive unit, we want to make sure that we’re engaging the employers to see what skills and knowledge they need. So we’re seeing, not surprisingly, tons of disruption in all types of different jobs and roles, and that’s really enhanced the amount of offerings that we provide. And our work, in my mind, is really driven by how do we think about, not just the individual skills, but then how the different roles are changing.”

Delivering local impact in Calgary

LeBlanc shared how the Continuing Education team creates impact for the city and local community. “The impact locally is really about staying connected to our Calgary Economic Development and the community of employers that are here, and we have advisory groups associated with the various programming areas, where we have representatives from different employers.”

LeBlanc continued, “We get information from everywhere. It’s just the volume and the curation of that information and translating that into what we do with it, it’s kind of where the magic comes, and that’s why I’m so proud of the incredible team of innovators that I have working on content.”

Partnerships in practice

The University of Calgary is a Microsoft Global Training Partner, and a Microsoft Learning Partner. LeBlanc shared what that means in practice. “Being a partner with Microsoft has been a great experience for us, and I think it’s adding value to the learners and the communities that we serve, both local and beyond.”

“So if we start thinking about types of certifications that we can offer, the types of partnerships we can work with… We have opportunities for organizations that are using Microsoft products that we’re able to accredit their learners that go through a Microsoft Learning Program.”

LeBlanc added, “We’ve been a partner for just over two years. We’ve pulled over 13,000 people, just in Microsoft Azure. We’ve helped researchers start to develop and learn some of the latest technology that’s available. We’re working through a variety of other post-secondary institutions, and actually teaching them. We’ve got 2,400 University of Calgary students that have received Microsoft Certification Exams and finished the qualification certification through our programming. We offer a ton of different micro-credentials that we’ve brought through a number of the Microsoft skills that were so needed by our local employers. It’s just been a really strong partnership for us, where I think we’re contributing both to the education sector, but also to our employers here, and beyond.”

LeBlanc explained that programs are reaching students from around the world, “We’ve been collecting data, and using a wonderful Power BI tool that’s in Microsoft, to allow us to understand where our learners are from, and learn a lot about how they learn.”

“Although we engage students in synchronous learning, it’s online learning in our Microsoft work. So it’s instructor led and it’s instructor engaged, it can be done from anywhere. And that broader impact is something that I’m also excited about.”

Gauging success

“More students who take our programming, successfully complete the [Microsoft] certification exams, than anywhere else. And as I mentioned before, as we start looking at pedagogical changes, how do we approach learning, how do we design that? Every session we’re watching the data to inform that, so we’re looking at students’ participation through our learning management system. We’re looking at success in the virtual lab and where the students get stuck.”

LeBlanc added, “We’re taking the students’ feedback, and we’re looking at the exams – cumulative information associated with success to see where there might have been gaps in what we did, so actually using data and using learning to inform our learning practice.”

Making tweaks to the instruction

“In these large virtual classrooms, it’s a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instructor led, so synchronous when the instructor is actually there with, asynchronous when they allow the learners to go through different activities, like a virtual lab.”

LeBlanc explained, “And we actually added more synchronous time. We identified, as one example, having more of that was actually important in terms of persistence, and so you make a change, you see the outcome. This is good. So that continuous iteration of  our practice of how we teach something being driven by the data is also something that I think is quite new when we talk about technology-enhanced learning platforms. That allows us as educators, to take a new approach to our practice and to do that in a way that helps the learners at the center.”

Lessons learned

LeBlanc shared her primary advice to others working in this area, “Don’t recreate the wheel. And it’s quite a classic, what I call academic falling, is that each individual says, “I think I have to create my own content. I have to create my own class. I have to create my own approach.” There’s so much out there, and there’s sharing to be had, through partnerships, through collaboration, through learning through best practices and partnerships are key to that.”

Staying up to date

LeBlanc concluded, “It’s really about carving out enough time and getting good at kind of sensing what the flags and seeing some of the signals, and it does take a significant amount of time. I am in a privileged position. I recognize that, and I’m thankful for it, but part of my job is to maintain awareness of those signals to guide my team and to guide perhaps some of our future investments in technology and partnerships and things, it is my brain candy, if I’m going to tell the truth, because as a nerd, I love it.”

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