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Accommodating the Future

The exterior of the new Telus Centre for Professional Development at the University of Alberta features two curved glass walls that converge to give the impression of the bow of a ship. The allusion isn't accidental: it is a metaphor that speaks of both travel and distance, hearkening to a time when the fastest way to cover great distances was aboard a lively sailing ship or in the context of the northern prairies-by voyageur canoe.

The metaphor is in keeping with the mandate of the Centre, which was officially opened on 23 June 2000. Made possible by a $12.9 million donation by Telus the state-of-the-art facility represents the University of Alberta's expanded mandate and continuing commitment to lifelong learning.

The Telus Centre will offer customized professional learning programs and showcase enhanced learning through the application of innovative technologies. Speaking at the opening, University of Alberta president Rod Fraser described the new facility as "the most sophisticated communications and learning hub in Canada." Acknowledging the contribution of "our partners at Telus," he said the Centre "brings to light the best practices employing state-of-the-art communication technology, offering participants the maximum flexibility in learning."

Fraser also pointed out another metaphor. In addition to a number of speakers — including Edmonton mayor Bill Smith and federal justice minister Anne McLellan — the opening ceremonies featured a performance by the Kita No Taiko Japanese drummers. "What a powerful metaphor the drummers are as we open this fine building," observed Fraser. "These drums are meant to send a message, just as we want to send a message around the world."

Speaking at the opening on behalf of Telus the company's president and CEO, Brian Canfield, said the Centre had come together as a result of the common vision and strategic partnership between Telus and the University of Alberta. "We are proud to underwrite this important project which will showcase Alberta technology" he said, adding that "Telus's involvement in the project underscores its commitment to education, to the University of Alberta, to the people and businesses in Edmonton, and in the province of Alberta."

The 4,500-square-metre Telus Centre features "smart" multi-media classrooms, video-conferencing facilities, a 30 computer learning laboratory with a teacher-controlled master computer to facilitate interactive learning, and a 300-seat auditorium equipped with big screen video and Internet functions. The total cost of the entire project was $17.5 million. Telus's gift — the largest single private donation in the University's history — was supplemented by $1.1 million jointly contributed by the U of A and the Alberta government's access fund. The remaining $3.5 million, which was used to construct the Centre's 200-car underground parkade, was provided by the U of A's Parking Services on a cost-recovery basis.

While the exterior of the building may bring to mind the golden age of sail, the Centre's control room is more like something from the Starship Enterprise. From the control room, technicians can provide interactive support not only to the Telus Centre's high-tech classrooms and auditorium, but to every "smart" classroom on campus.

The control room also will link the Centre to Alberta's high-speed, fibre-optic telecommunications network (called NETERA), providing the Centre with an enhanced connection to the rest of the world. Judi Ross, who is the head of the University's technical resource group and the chair of the Telus Centre's technical committee, says the Centre's design gives it "point-to-point communication capabilities, so people can do distance learning from their own homes or in groups in other classrooms around the world with multi-media hookups."

She adds that the Centre was designed not only to be as up-to-date as possible, but to accommodate the future. "We set this up to be as flexible, reliable, and robust as possible, and to be able to deal with the best of current technology and adapt to future technology," she says.

Now that the construction of the facility is complete, responsibility for the day-to-day activities of the Centre passes into the hands of Sally Omar, its executive director and chief operating officer. She explains that the Centre will operate as an independent academic unit on a full cost-recovery basis, reporting directly to the University's vice-president (academic) and provost, Doug Owram, and to a board of directors, which Owram chairs.

Omar welcomes her new challenge. A professional engineer who developed an interest in the importance of knowledge acquisition to the achievement of corporate goals, she has an extensive background in designing learning programs. She is a former professor and school director at Ontario's Sheridan College, where she founded that institution's well-known CAD/CAM Institute. Most recently, she was the director of education and learning with Hatch, a large and diverse company with roots in the mining and metallurgical industry.

In her new position Omar will be talking to many people in positions similar to the one she just left. "We will be actively pursuing organizations and professional associations to become strategic partners in learning," she says. And that, she points out, will involve much more than just providing courses. To begin with, she says, it will mean understanding the organization's strategic development goals. "Once we understand their needs, we will design and customize programs and tools to help them develop new capabilities. In other words, we will be their partners from the time we help design their learning programs to the time they achieve results and we will help measure them by providing the necessary tools," she says.

Omar sees the Telus Centre as a vehicle for extending the capabilities of the University to learners of all ages. She hopes to work closely with each and every faculty on campus, designing and marketing professional development courses. Employing yet another metaphor, Omar says the Centre is intended to link the University with those who could benefit from professional development activities, serving as "a bridge between the wealth of knowledge the University of Alberta is sitting on and individuals."

At the same time, in serving its client partners the Centre will be venturing far beyond its immediate environment. "We will be driven by client needs, searching best practices, and bringing the latest knowledge to our clients," says Omar. "And that will mean not only working with our colleagues at the University of Alberta, but partnering with the best around the world."

Published Autumn 2000.

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