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My Waterloo Story

Profile of John BakerMost of the time, real life is not like the movies. In the movies, there's always some magical moment where the hero discovers his or her true purpose, or a moment of epiphany and clarity when someone decides what their path will be.

Most of the time, in real life, people make decisions slowly. Our experiences stack up, one atop the other, until suddenly we can see the path ahead more clearly than we could before. But if we're lucky, looking back, we can still see where the journey began.

For me, the road to entrepreneurship began thanks to the University of Waterloo and the value it places on study – to really think about the questions that need to be asked, and the time to read, explore, and experiment in the labs to research your ideas and build innovations.

I was sitting in my 3rd year systems design class, when the professor gave us an unexpected assignment. Out of the blue, he asked us to define a problem -- any problem -- and then come up with a solution to solve it. This was new to all of us -- we expected instructors to present the challenges to us, not to identify problems on our own.

In fact, though, that's the way the world often works. Problems at work seldom come to us as neatly and precisely packaged as a school assignment. Real-world problems are often messy and ill-defined -- and this was our professor's way of encouraging us to be researchers and not just consumers of learning experiences. His crazy, open-ended challenge knocked us out of our comfort zone as engineers and forced us to look at our world very differently.

It took our team a whole month to land on the one problem we could agree to work on for the project. We decided to re-invent crutches. We built and tested prototypes in labs, and won prizes for our work. John Baker and friends presenting project about crutches

But that challenge unlocked something in me personally. I never stopped thinking about a bigger challenge. I started asking myself -- outside of class time: "What is the most important problem, I can solve, that will have the biggest impact on the world?"

At the time, my brother was in a distance education course. The course required him to listen to cassette tapes of lectures and fax his assignments in. I asked: "Why can't you use the web to deliver education to the world, instead?" 

That was the genesis of D2L. That was a massive problem to solve - and to this day I don't think there is a more important question: how can we use technology to reach every learner, and in doing so, transform the way the world learns?

So, to start, I knocked on the doors of some professors and asked if they would trust me to put their courses online. I got five of them to agree.

After my first summer working from my parents’ house on those first five projects with the help of my family and friends, I went back to university for my 4th year and decided to close some gaps. I took entrepreneurship courses, Computer Science classes, database programming and a PhD course on Epistemology of Systems Thinking.

There was no question that running a business while being a full-time student was a challenge, but I managed to graduate with honors thanks to the support of my classmates and professors. In particular, I owe a huge debt to my mentor professors and the former President David Johnston, who gave me excellent advice as I was getting D2L started. John Baker and David Johnston at convocation

For me, this story illustrates the unique magic of the University of Waterloo.

What other university encourages its students to think so creatively and divergently? What other university follows that up with structures and processes that support research, innovation and entrepreneurship?  And in what other university would the president take such an active interest in the work of a fourth-year undergraduate?   

For 60 years, my alma mater has been preparing people to change the world for the better. I know the University of Waterloo has made an enormous difference in my life and, by extension, it has helped to provide educational opportunities to thousands upon thousands of people all around the world. That one day, sitting in a classroom, sparked an innovation that has helped to change the classroom, forever.

It might never get made into a movie but, for me, there's no better story than the University of Waterloo story. 

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I am so impressed with John Baker's story and it encourages me to add to it today. I too had a different world before Waterloo - about 50 years actually - when I realized I had a goal that burned within me, persistent enough at that time to convince me I should solve my problem by applying to the Independent Studies program where I met Professor Anne Dagg. I spent three years in this program travelling every month to confer with Anne at Waterloo as I filled my head with details of the province of Newfoundland - the place where I was born but had lost connections and all my identity as a Newfoundlander. I told Anne if I researched enough, I would apply my knowledge to writing a novel with fictional characters living the life of the early Newfoundlanders of the 1800s who could have lived as my great grandparents lived- and their struggles and successes would have built up family characteristics that would have been passed on to me through my grandparents and parents, all deceased by this time. I found myself able to create characters, Newfoundland characters, and soon I found writing the book a matter of putting on paper what I knew they experienced, fictitious as they were. Today, Rock Solid my book is at the publishers and as it is part of my thesis, I am looking forward to presenting it to the thesis committee to be added to my original thesis. Carolyn Helfenstein BIS October 12, 2017

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