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The Whistler Learning Centre wants to become the resort's one-stop shop for education

Centre using 'concierge' model to connect students with wide array of institutions, experts

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It's not just the spectacular natural beauty that Robert Conrad loves about Whistler; it's also the lack of light pollution. Without the glare of city lights, the town is ideal for star-gazing.

Aries, Pegasus, Scorpius, and Virgo: those are just some of the constellations Conrad has studied; there's much more to spot up there than the Big Dipper and Orion's Belt.

"There are actually 88 constellations in total, and from Whistler you can see about 50 of those," Conrad says. "In Whistler, you've got really dark skies. You want to take advantage of that."

By day, Conrad works as a learning consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. In his downtime, he's an astronomy enthusiast. He acts as the observing director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Vancouver and is an operator of the Trottier observatory at Simon Fraser University's Burnaby campus. He also maintains the Whistler Astronomy Club Facebook Group page. Having amassed so much celestial knowledge, Conrad loves to share it. He has taught casual, short seminars at the Whistler Public Library and a six-week course at SFU. Soon, he'll deliver a newly designed course out of the Whistler Learning Centre (WLC).

The full-weekend program, scheduled to begin in March, is for anyone who has ever found themselves in awe while looking to the heavens at night. Participants don't need to have a penchant for physics or even a telescope; Conrad says a simple pair of binoculars is enough to open up a whole new cosmic world.

"I thought being at the Whistler Learning Centre would be a good format," Conrad says. "It's a great opportunity for people in Whistler or people visiting to learn something they can put into practice."

Having been in the planning stages for several years, the WLC is now aiming to become a shining star in its own right.

Despite what its name might suggest, it's not a bricks-and-mortar space at all; rather, it's a virtual operation that collaborates with post-secondary academic institutions and other established educational providers, as well as individuals like Conrad, to serve the needs of local residents and to draw visitors who are seeking an experience that combines learning with adventure or the outdoors.

It's based on a "concierge" model: the centre — which is a not-for-profit society in the process of seeking charitable status — acts as coordinator, connecting groups and lecturers to spaces for classes, accommodation, and other services, leaving the programming itself to the experts.

The way backers describe it, the centre has all the offerings of a college's continuing-studies department, just without a campus — and the need for significant capital investment.

"The concierge business model is creating a collaborative services model without having to build an institution," says Whistler resident and WLC board member Laurie Grant, who teaches business at BC Institute of Technology. "It's not 'build it and hope they will come,' it's 'let's encourage them to come.' It's using existing space, services, and facilities and adding to their utility. It's about building something that helps add more richness into a community.

"Whistler is a fantastic community for families and it has a lot of excellent choice in education (at the) primary and secondary levels, but there really isn't anything at the postsecondary level," she adds. "The idea was, without a huge capital investment, and the risk and cost to the municipality, we could attract education providers with the unique environment we have here, and that adds extra value to whatever programming they're offering. That would be an interesting way for guests and visitors to experience Whistler, and it would open up opportunities for people who live here."

Local psychologist Dr. Stephen Milstein says the idea for the centre goes back several years. He recalls how, when he moved to Whistler from Vancouver in 1995, he came up empty when seeking learning opportunities in town for himself. Like so many professionals, he has to take a certain number of courses every year to maintain his licence. Around the same time, he was teaching a continuing-studies course on research skills for health professionals at SFU, and, later, he and his wife began offering training seminars in Whistler. He was perplexed as to why it seemed so difficult to deliver or access post-secondary learning opportunities in the place he calls home.

"I realized that if I wanted to go to a different town (to teach seminars), I could get on the internet and very quickly find small learning spaces and big learning spaces to rent, but you couldn't do that if you were coming to Whistler," Milstein says. "The idea of having something here wasn't gaining any traction."

To advance the cause, a few years ago Milstein gathered a diverse group of residents to form the Whistler Education Group. Aside from Grant, it consisted of a cross section of the community, with representation from the business, non-profit, education, arts and sporting sectors.

While the group raised funds to get the project off the ground, Milstein says the centre will be self-sustaining, with small commissions for bookings being put back into operations.

In the year since it began facilitating programs, the WLC has established partnerships with the University of Northern B.C. (UNBC), Vancouver Island University (VIU), SFU, BCIT, and other established academic institutions. As the centre becomes more well known and its course selection broadens, Milstein says the potential benefits for the community of Whistler are tremendous, particularly with diploma or certificate programs on offer.

"If a young person comes to Whistler as a liftie or in another job, employers want to keep them," he says. "We're competing with other towns for employees. But if they're working on a diploma, there's a better opportunity to retain employees.

"Community members who are studying for work or to upgrade their careers or out of special interest don't want to go to Vancouver; it puts a strain on you and your family," he adds. "Being able to stay in Whistler and do that is a huge advantage in our community. A community that has people delving into new things in education is always going to be a community that's growing and doing the best for itself."

With her own background in the arts, board vice chair Sue Adams was keen on seeing the WLC come to fruition from the get-go. She says it makes for an ideal addition to the resort's cultural tourism offerings, another area she's interested in fostering.

"For the past 10 years, I've been heavily involved in the development of arts and culture in our community, and this just seemed to be a great parallel initiative," says Adams, a former winner of Whistler's Champion of the Arts award. "I saw the same opportunities for building our community (as the arts) through education and learning."

Noting that educational providers are vetted to ensure their legitimacy, Adams says the centre is a kind of one-stop shop. It handles registration and marketing for courses via its website. It also links learners to resort reservations. For visitors, that means they have the option of staying at a place that suits them, whether it's an upscale hotel or a hostel. Adams also suggests the centre will act as a repository for other places in town to promote their educational programs.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says that, although the centre is a distinct entity from the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), its objectives align with the recommendations that were made in the municipal Learning and Education Task Force report from 2013.

"We're very supportive of what they do," she says. "What they're trying to do is optimize the use of Whistler's existing infrastructure... and they're fulfilling a local need for more learning and educational opportunities. (The RMOW) wants to expand our learning and education-tourism products and programming and partner with various institution that are considered best in class to diversify what we currently offer here in Whistler."

Not everyone is pleased with the WLC's model, however. Doug Player, West Vancouver's former superintendent of schools, was a key proponent of the Whistler International Campus, which was ultimately voted down by council in 2013, primarily because of the "substantial risk" officials' believed the plans to construct over 1 million square feet of built space would bring. Now living in North Vancouver, Player says that the centre offers nothing that is not already available online directly from any of the institutions so far onboard. He also questions the economic benefits to Whistler that the centre will provide.

"We wanted to diversify and enrich the economy," Player says of the nixed project. "We would have had a campus that housed 1,200 students, of which 70 per cent would be international students, who, statistics clearly show, spend significant dollars locally. Their parents would also contribute through their visits and use of the hotels and amenities.

"One of the forgotten issues is that our work-study model would have solved the current employees' housing crisis, which we predicted five years ago," he adds. "We had leadership schools out of Amsterdam and Austria that would have been on campus. Universities around the world were very keen, and we wanted to have an international flavour. We think that's what Whistler should be."

The centre's first year has not been without challenges. Most recently, some courses have had to be postponed. SFU cancelled its Craft Beer and Brewing Essentials that it was set to offer during Craft Beer Week, while UNBC has cancelled its Advanced Event Management Certificate Program scheduled for this fall. Representatives from both institutions say that they didn't allow enough time in advance to advertise and fill spaces. That's a lesson that Adams says the WLC is taking seriously.

"Working with the universities, we're learning that they need incredible lead time," Adams says. "We need a longer planning time; we need to make sure there's good marketing and adverting that these courses are coming onstream so we can get the word out for our local citizens."

Despite those bumps, interest in WLC seems strong.

Lisa Haslett, UNBC's interim director of business services and continuing studies, says that the WLC helps the organization fulfill its commitment to offering advanced education opportunities throughout B.C. to help meet the demand for specialized skills in today's workplace. It has already offered a Natural Resource course via the WLC called Ecological Field Data Collection. It's a specialized course that teaches forestry practitioners a specific method to classify, describe, and map ecosystem types.

"Whistler Learning Centre has made a concerted effort to bring world-class learning opportunities to Whistler, providing all the necessary resources and support services required to facilitate training in the area. Collaborating with Whistler Learning Centre allows us to more closely connect with the community so we can help establish the services that are right for Whistler," Haslett says.

Kevin Wainwright, program head of the Bachelor of Business Administration Program at BCIT, says that it's in the process of determining courses to deliver through the WLC in a variety of topics, from international business to Indigenous awareness and cultural training. With a mandate to serve the entire province, the institute might also offer everything from Excel workshops to the basics of contract law.

"The types of programming we're looking at developing are a flexible, modular approach," says Wainwright. "Rather than try to mount some large program that has a need for critical mass, we can adjust to fit demand and the size of the market. We can customize the content to make sure it's a good fit."

Wainwright is also optimistic about working with WLC because BCIT has established relationships and connections in Whistler. Like Grant, many residents are present or past instructors; BCIT has also done several industry-consulting projects with local businesses. "BCIT has a lot of connections in Whistler," he says. "We do a lot of practicums and applied education so there's a variety of contact within the Whistler community."

SFU's Raveen Sanghera, associate director in Career and Professional Programs who is responsible for the Craft Beer Certificate program, says that with the university already offering courses in Burnaby, Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria, Whistler seemed like an obvious addition.

One of the courses it offered via WLC last year was Brew 110, an introduction to brewing, to coincide Craft Beer Week; future courses may include a social-media marketing "boot camp" for small businesses.

"Students have a few different options of how they can take courses," Sanghera says. "Whistler provides a different avenue and a different format. The added advantage for students would be for them to go up to Whistler for a few days, take in a condensed format course, and have the opportunity for any adventures they want to take part in while they're there. It's an opportunity to learn and at the same time explore a bit of Whistler."

The WLC provides opportunities for local residents not only to learn but parlay their knowledge. "There are a ton of people here with amazing skills and from so many professional disciplines who are able to teach," Grant says.

The WLC is also working on a project with the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre. It will consist of leadership training for First Nations members. Also, with Whistler facing an employee shortage and many First Nations people seeking employment, the centre is developing a workshop for employers interested in learning what they might do to recruit, engage, and retain First Nations employees. The training will include information on Indigenous history and culture. Milstein says UNBC, BCIT, and the University of Victoria have expressed interest in preparing and offering the programs.

Milstein has other ideas for the WLC, including "pop-up" courses on those occasional days in winter when weather forces the closure of lifts or makes being outdoors unpleasant. A call would go out first thing in the morning to mobilize, with local residents being ready to present a short "teaser" course on a topic of interest.

Like Grant, Milstein sees the WLC as being a great way for Whistler residents to share their expertise and knowledge. "There are so many capable people in town," he says. "We would help promote them and develop our home-grown talent." He says the centre is open to hearing from interested locals.

More information about the Whistler Learning Centre is available at www.whistlerlearningcentre.com.

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