Open Learning and Career Development dean on her Faculty’s shifting approach to higher education

- May 20, 2021

The Faculty of Open Learning & Career Development is a new name, and in a lot of ways, a new and refreshed start for the former College of Continuing Education.

Dianne Tyers joined the Faculty as dean in October 2019, and reflects on where the Faculty has been and where their work is going as they continue to support and guide people in their lifelong learning journeys.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I spent my entire career in this really interesting and intriguing space where academics meets business. I love this space because it challenges us to provide impactful learning experiences within realistic cost constraints that everybody lives with. It also challenges us to create learning experiences that speak to the market and introduce courses that students really need, that employers really need and that governments really need. It challenges us to create these relevant, impactful learning experiences that are needed at all levels of society and at all ages.

I spent my entire career in this space and I love it. I’m kind of a renaissance person who likes dabbling in a lot of things, including languages, history, arts, you name it – and my education path reflects this diversity. I have a mix of undergraduate, graduate and PhD training that mixes applied linguistics with business and intercultural communication and then add to that my research interests in women’s studies and women entrepreneurs.  

Why did you make the decision now to change the name of the Faculty?

When I first arrived, and when I was interviewing for the position, one of the very first things that struck me was that the name was really deceiving. It simply did not convey the full breadth and depth of the learning experiences we offer. I think we were losing a lot of people because they couldn’t see themselves in the learning we offered under the College of Continuing Education name. It was very confusing for me that we heard this word, College, in our name, but that we are, in fact, a Faculty – and have been for years. There was a clear disconnect there and we are an integral part of the university. That needs to be conveyed right from the start – the word, faculty, needs to be in our name.

There are so many ways people define open learning. How does this Faculty define it?

We took a very hard look at the word ‘open’ because there are many connotations behind it and many interpretations. One of the interpretations we frequently came across was that open learning was free learning. That made us look at the word more closely, but a more powerful interpretation that we wanted to bring forward was that of access. Open learning also means accessible learning, and that is extremely important to us in fulfilling our mandate or facilitating transformative learner-focused journeys for an evolving world.

We provide lifelong learning experiences to everyone who needs them and who is motivated to take them. Once again, the word ‘open’ conveys that learning is not something that stops when you finish high school or college. It’s something you need to engage in throughout your life span in order to have a rewarding life, quite frankly. We also serve a very diverse student group so open is another way to convey that it doesn’t matter who you are or your background – we are here for your learning needs.

See also: Introducing the Faculty of Open Learning & Career Development

Tell us about this past year and how the Faculty navigated COVID.

The past year has been a ride. Actually, it’s been an amazing year because it really brought forward the innovation, the creativity, the problem solving. the passion and the commitment of our team. We were faced with unusual challenges unique to our Faculty and others that would be familiar to other post-secondary institutions. Everyone had to fully engage using their past experience and innovation to get through the past year. This included everything from finding creative ways to bring programming online, to sunsetting courses, and bringing forward new courses that meet new learning needs – there’s been some really hard decision-making around all of these pieces. The biggest impact within our Faculty has been the operational changes we have had to put into place. We had a lot of operational change to make pre COVID, but the pandemic accelerated this work. We’ve built teams from the ground up including a registration team, a finance team, a marketing team, and an information management team. We’ve done amazing work to have incredible fundamentals coming out of this past year.

COVID ironically, has brought us closer together than pre-pandemic. Although we’ve been working virtually for more than a year, we’ve taken the opportunity to use all of the digital tools in front of us to build ourselves into a team. We’ve all commented many times that we know each other better now than when we were in the office. We’ve brought forward lots of opportunities to train each other, socialize, share ideas and connect. The other important discovery that really emerged from the past year is the need to reconnect with our diverse communities. I’ve only been here a year and a half, but one thing I immediately observed was a disconnect between our team and our communities that we should be serving. COVID forced us to better reach out to our communities to understand how we could better serve them and we’re only at the foundational level of this work, but it’s critically important.

How has the pandemic changed how people learn?

It’s opened people up to all of the different ways they can learn. I think it’s pushed many institutions to think beyond the traditional model of the classroom. COVID challenged us by asking all of us the question, ‘you can’t do it that way, so what’re you going to do?’ COVID has made both teachers, students and administrators aware of the fact that there are many, many, many ways we can learn. We can learn through virtual labs, peer mentoring, breakout sessions, self-paced courses, synchronous, instructor-led sessions and so much more. It’s been amazing to be part of this shift and to embrace the idea that there’s no one right way to do teach. Be creative and pick the solution that meets the needs of your students and fits your subject matter.

In your view, what are some of the most important COVID-proof courses people should be looking at taking right now?

We started asking this question before COVID because we were staring to look at how rapidly the world of work was changing. Regardless of the sector in which you work, there are fundamental skills that people should be adding to their resumes. Any courses in operations management, project management, risk management, and quality assurance management offer foundational knowledge important for moving up the ladder, if that’s your desire.  Another cluster of important skills and understanding are in leadership, strategy and ethics. In today’s world, we are thrown curve balls and are asked to make decisions with few details so foundational knowledge of these areas is important. Another fundamental area is managing self. It doesn’t matter what kind of job you have, there are many challenges around managing ourselves, our mental health, and our physical health. Our Health & Wellness courses address some of these challenges. These courses give us the tools to help manage ourselves so we can have a good balance and the skills to manage the challenges the world throws at us.

What would you say to someone who’s recently lost their job and is trying to figure out the next step in their career?

I’m going to tell them to take a look at what they’ve already done and what they already know and identify how that can be applied to a different type of job or sector. A lot of people don’t realize how their transferrable and durable skills around their work can be applied to other industries. People think they’re starting from scratch when they move to a new job, so in my mind, a starting point is to take an honest look at what they can do based on their past experience.

This is one of the reasons why we’re spending some time exploring and piloting a project focused on prior learning assessments. We want to have these processes in place so people can be rewarded for their existing skills and accelerate their learning.

What’s ahead in the next year for the Faculty?

We’ve got two main initiatives underway that will cut across all of our programs. You’ve probably heard the word microcredentials used a lot. It’s certainly a buzzword in continuing education and is increasing in its popularity. We’ve done a lot of work in the past year to understand how it fits into the programming we offer. Essentially, microcredentials opens the door for people to be recognized for smaller chunks of learning that is based on competencies.  We’ve just issued our first microcredential, and now, we’re building an administrative system around it. These digital badges demonstrate to employers that learners have the skills and competencies they desire and that an internationally recognized institution like Dalhousie awards this learning.  

The other initiative is focused on enhancing access to online learning experience at Dalhousie. We are working with Faculties to identify key learning experiences they can offer to learners so they can test the waters in an online environment and in a shorter courses to see if they enjoy learning at a university. It will allow them to sample university learning and will help them decide if they want to pursue a degree or not. We’ve recently piloted a course that does just that. It’s a dual-enrolment course in computer science that allows Grade 12 learners the opportunity to earn their Grade 12 credit in computer programming, and at the same time, earn a university credit they can apply to their first year of a computer science degree at Dalhousie University. We’ve very happy to see the excitement and interest from our partners at the Ministry of Education, the Faculty of Computer Science and of the students themselves who all see value in this type offering.

There are really exciting times for the Faculty of Open Learning & Career Development and we’re eager to see what the next year will hold for our team.


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