October 21, 2016

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning

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Grant, M. (2016) Learning in the Digital Age Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada

The Conference Board of Canada bills itself as ‘the foremost independent, evidence-based, not-for-profit applied research organization in Canada’. Its Board is made up mainly of representatives from major corporate or business organizations. So when it issues a report on e-learning in Canada, it is likely to be read across a broad swathe of corporate and governmental organizations not directly engaged in education, but with a major interest in the kinds of graduates being produced in Canada in a digital age. It is also something that Canadian university leaders are likely to pay attention to as well.

What the report is about

The introduction to the report states:

Information and communication technologies hold the potential to improve post-secondary learning by making learning more accessible and engaging. This report considers how and when e-learning may be used to improve post-secondary education in Canada.


Chapter 1: Introduction

E-learning is defined (‘online learning’ is considered as being more or less the same as e-learning), it is argued that the quality of teaching drops as face-to-face class sizes get larger, and e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.

Chapter 2: the 5 Ws of e-learning:

The five Ws are the what, why, when, who, and where of e-learning in Canada. The main points of this chapter are as follows:

  • E-learning uses a range of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to deliver and manage learning.
  • The inherent differences between e-learning and traditional face-to-face classroom instruction relate to two factors: organization of time and space, and use of technology.
  • E-learning is becoming more popular because it appeals to learners, is cost-effective, and its quality is improving.
  • The North American e-learning market is mature in terms of e-learning adoption, but still developing in terms of the sophistication of e-learning offerings. Other markets around the world are rapidly adopting e-learning.

Chapter 3: Post-secondary e-learning in Canada

This provides a brief summary of current e-learning provision in Canadian universities and colleges. Almost the whole of the information in this chapter is based on secondary sources. It concludes:

Canada’s post-secondary institutions have been reluctant to offer e-learning as a degree option to full-time undergraduate students; perhaps because this would compete with residential learning programs.

This chapter also argues that investments in e-learning technologies such as LMSs are considerably under-utilized, that adoption is following the path of least resistance, and for the most part, e-learning is not being used as an alternative format for younger, full-time degree students because this would undermine institutions’ need to make use of existing classroom infrastructure.

Chapter 4: Advancing e-learning

This chapter particularly looks at the perceived barriers to e-learning:

There are a variety of institutional factors that must be addressed if e-learning is to be more widely adopted in the Canadian post-secondary system. These have to do with the way capital is funded at the institutions, institution management, and the way e-learning is designed and executed.

most of the people who make decisions about funding capacity favour building more physical classes. It matters little whether this is the most efficient and effective way to conduct post-secondary education….The economics of funding capacity help to explain why e-learning adoption is low. If capacity is funded in a different way, then the economics will change.

rational capacity planning and utilization should consider optimal pedagogy and learner preferences first, followed by investing in suitable learning capacity to accommodate the volume and type of learning. Then the pricing of learning should reflect its cost to deliver.

In this chapter it is argued that there is much poor quality e-learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, but it provides three examples of effective e-learning design and execution (from York University, the University of Alberta, and Humber College).

Main report conclusions

  • E-learning holds the potential to profoundly change the way post-secondary education (PSE) is designed and delivered.
  • From a quality perspective, e-learning may be more engaging, less passive, and more customized to different learning styles than traditional lecture-based learning.
  • There are about 1.3 million enrolments in fully online university and college courses in Canada. E-learning accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of PSE learning.
  • Greater adoption of e-learning will happen if institutional focus on traditional classroom delivery can be reduced; faculty are adequately supported when they teach online; and e-learning design, development, and delivery practices improve.

Report recommendations (summary)

‘Based on this report’s analysis, the following recommendations are made for consideration in the [Conference Board’s] Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE) national strategy:

  1. Reduce economic barriers to e-learning adoption: Institutional administrators, governments, and benefactors need to work together to change the PSE approach to capacity planning. They need to consider how to use e-learning and blended learning to lower costs, improve accessibility, and increase quality.
  2. Tackle institutional constraints to e-learning: Faculty resistance will be broken down when more faculty members are supported in approaching their teaching responsibilities through blended and e-learning formats.
  3. Adopt excellent e-learning practices: Post-secondary institutions need to recognize e-learning instructional design as a unique discipline. They need to access these distinctive skills either through their own in-house teams or external providers. Forums need to be created for post-secondary stakeholders to share and adopt best practices in e-learning design and execution.


This is a curious report and I find it unusually difficult to comment on it. Most of the conclusions I would not disagree with, but the report has a peculiar feeling of being written by outsiders who haven’t really quite grasped what’s going on. What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

The main weakness of the report is that it relies so heavily on secondary sources. It is really disappointing that the Conference Board did not do any original research to establish the state of e-learning in Canadian post-secondary education. By relying to large extent on a few selective interviews and a very limited range of previously published papers, the report suggests conclusions were arrived at early then evidence was looked for to support the conclusions. At no point does it provide any evidence to support statements such as ‘e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.’ Yes, it can but we need evidence, and it would show (for instance see: Carey and Trick, 2013) that while relatively important gains in productivity can be made, there are also serious limitations to what can be done in this respect.

At the same time, it is an important report. It does make the excellent point that a great deal of investment in post-secondary education is driven by the need to maximize physical plant and that this seriously militates against the large investment needed in e-learning if it is to make a difference. Cutting ribbons on a new building is much more photogenic for politicians than enrolling another 1,000 students online.

However, when you look at the recommendations they are painfully obvious and in fact are being applied in many if not most Canadian post-secondary institutions, maybe too slowly or not aggressively enough but the report makes it clear why this is the case.

At the end of the day this report reads somewhat like the first draft of a masters’ dissertation on Canadian online learning. It does not provide the heft needed to bring about or rather accelerate the major changes I would agree that are needed in this area. In particular once again a major opportunity to provide some new, hard data on online learning, and particularly its potential for improving productivity, was missed.

Nevertheless I do hope that government policy makers, institutional leaders and corporations will pay attention to this report, because it does make clear that e-learning/online learning must be a critical component of a successful future for Canadian post-secondary education. We just need to invest more in it.


Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals

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What? Not ANOTHER book from me? Well, no, not quite.

Teaching in a Digital Age‘ has been a great success but it appears it is being primarily used by faculty and instructors already committed to online learning, or on courses for post-graduate students, who don’t have much choice if it is set reading. That’s great, but even though it’s been downloaded over 40,000 times and is being translated into seven languages, there are still hundreds of thousands of faculty and instructors in North America alone who are either not interested in teaching online or are very nervous about it. The Babson 2013 survey for instance found that only 30 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.  This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.

One reason for this is that there are many misconceptions about online learning. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about online learning being more work or about the quality of online instruction. Of course, reading Teaching in a Digital Age might help dispel the misconceptions and the concerns, but instructors resistant to online learning are not likely to engage with a 500 page textbook in the first place.

I therefore did a series of blog posts aimed at encouraging ‘resistant’ faculty and instructors to at least give online learning a try. The series was initially called ‘Online learning for beginners‘. Contact North liked the idea and suggested that the 10 posts should be re-edited into a 37 page booklet that can be given to faculty and instructors. This booklet is now available. It can either be downloaded as a pdf from the Contact North|Contact Nord website, or printed locally on demand and then can be physically given to instructors. Of course it is likely to be most effective if used in conjunction with Teaching in a Digital Age, but the booklet is written to stand on its own.

So I am hoping that you will find the 10 Fundamentals booklet useful, that you will pass it on or make it available to ‘resistant’ or undecided instructors, and that this will encourage them to seriously consider teaching online.

Let me know whether you think the booklet is likely to work, and, if not, what else could be done.

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs

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From small acorns do great oaks grow.

From small acorns do great oaks grow.

BCcampus (2016) Back to school buzz: 2 million in student savings BCcampus Newsletter, September 16

BCcampus (2016) BCcampus approved, Hewlett and AVED funded OER grants in B.C. Victoria BC: BCcampus

BCcampus (2016) Open Textbook Stats Victoria BC: BCcampus

There’s a lot of talk these days about how hard it is to get faculty to adopt or use OERs. It’s certainly a struggle, but progress is being made in some jurisdictions, at least in Canada, through concerted and relatively well resourced efforts.

Open educational resources

BCcampus has recently announced on its website the result of its 2016 grant allocations for the creation of open educational resources (OER). Altogether 12 institutions received grants through a combination of funding through the Hewlett Foundation and the provincial Ministry of Advanced Education. These include:

  • health case studies (BCIT)
  • instructional videos to accompany an open biology textbook (Camosun College)
  • the creation of 3D images and videos to accompany Common Core Trades Open Textbooks (Camosun College)
  • open course packs for core curriculum developed by several BC colleges (College of the Rockies + other BC colleges)
  • creation of an open textbook on human resources for business studies (College of New Caledonia)
  • use of small grants to  help implement institution-wide OER strategies (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Simon Fraser University, University of Northern BC)
  • ancillary resources for open textbooks  (Physical Geology, Thompson Rivers University; Contemporary Women; and Teaching in a Digital Age, University of Victoria)
  • case studies on sustainability and environmental ethics (UBC)
  • virtual reality and augmented reality field trips (UBC)
  • redesign of two physics courses to integrate open textbooks as the principal content sources for student learning (UBC)
  • creation or adaptation of three open textbooks (aboriginal studies, Greek and Latin for scientists, microeconomics: University of Victoria)

I was particularly interested to learn that the University of Victoria is building ancillary resources for my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Who knew? I will make another announcement once these are developed.

Open textbooks

BCcampus now has a new web page that provides continuously updated information about the adoption of open textbooks in British Columbia. Some key data (as of today, September 25, 2016):

  • there are 163 open textbooks in the BCcampus collection (click here for a full list)
  • to date, BC’s open textbook project has saved students over $2 million in textbook costs
  • there are slightly more than 17,000 students using open textbooks (out of a total of 310,00 or just over 5%)
  • there almost 200 faculty who are known to have adopted open textbooks in the province (out of about 8,000 – about 2.5%)
  • 31 institutions have adopted at least one open textbook (covering almost every public post-secondary education institution in BC).


Guess what – more than twice as many students proportionally are using open textbooks than faculty. Although adoption is growing rapidly, it is starting from a very low base, less than 5% of courses. Nevertheless it is the most prestigious universities (UBC and UVic) in the province that are the most active this year. Great progress has been made by BCcampus in a short time (four years since the first activity) but there is still a long way to go.

Now Ontario, through eCampus Ontario, is getting into the development of OER (their new Director, David Porter, was previously the Director of BCcampus). Being a much larger province, we can expect considerably more OER being developed over the next year in Ontario.

Nevertheless from my point of view, this is a screamingly slow development for what should be a no-brainer for post-secondary education: free, online, peer-reviewed textbooks and open resources that save students – and could save institutions – big money. If BC is now a leader in this area, God help the rest of higher education. But from small acorns do great oaks grow.

Who are the founding fathers of distance education?

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Steve Wheeler's interview: click on the image to see the vieo

Steve Wheeler’s interview: click on the image to see the video

Steve Wheeler interviewed three old guys, Michael Moore, Sir John Daniel and myself, at the EDEN conference in Budapest this summer, and has posted the video under the title of ‘Learn from three founding fathers of distance education‘.

While it’s very gracious of Steve to lump me in with Sir John and Michael, who have certainly been major movers and shakers in distance education, I don’t think any of us would claim to be a founding father. Although we are all very old, distance education existed long before any of us got involved in it.

So let’s play a little game: who do you think are the fathers (or mothers) of distance education?

I’ll start off by supplying my list and I will be asking Sir John and Michael to add theirs.

1. Isaac Pitman

Pitman as a younger man

Pitman as a younger man

An authority no less than Wikipedia states:

The first distance education course in the modern sense was provided by Sir Isaac Pitman in the 1840s, who taught a system of shorthand by mailing texts transcribed into shorthand on postcards and receiving transcriptions from his students in return for correction. The element of student feedback was a crucial innovation of Pitman’s system. This scheme was made possible by the introduction of uniform postage rates across England in 1840.

In fact, Wikipedia has a pretty good description of the history of distance education, and my second choice is also highlighted in the same Wikipedia entry.

2. The University of London External Program

I am a proud alumnus of the University of London, having done my doctorate in educational administration at the University of London Institute of Education (recently merged with University College London).

Wikipedia states:

The University of London was the first university to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its External Programme in 1828….the External Programme was chartered by Queen Victoria in 1858, making the University of London the first university to offer distance learning degrees to students……This program is now known as the University of London International Programme and includes Postgraduate, Undergraduate and Diploma degrees created by colleges such as the London School of Economics, Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths.

Unfortunately I have no knowledge of the individuals who originally created the University of London External Programme back in 1828. It’s a worthy research project for anyone interested in the history of distance education.

I was once (mid-1960s) a correspondence tutor for students taking undergraduate psychology courses in the External Programme. In those days, the university would publish a curriculum (a list of topics) and provide a reading list. Students could sit an exam when they felt they were ready. Students paid tutors such as myself to help them with their studies. I would find old exam papers for the course, and set questions for individual students, and they would send me their answers and I would mark them. Many students were in British Commonwealth countries and it could take weeks after students sent in their essays before my feedback eventually got back to them. Not surprisingly, in those days completion rates in the programme were very low.

The programme today is completely different,using a combination of study materials and online learning resources designed to foster active learning. There are even university-approved local tutors in many countries around the world. The program has more than 50,000 students enrolled.

Note though that teaching and examining in the original External Programme were disaggregated (those teaching it were different from those examining it), contract tutors were separate from the main faculty were used, and students studied individually and took exams when ready. So many of the ‘new’ developments in distance education such as disaggregation, self-directed learning, and many of the elements of competency-based learning are in fact over 150 years old.

3. Chuck Wedemeyer

In the fall of 1969, I joined the first staff of the Open University, working in offices in an old Georgian building in Belgrave Square, central London. I knew nothing about distance education (I was hired as a researcher) and was advised to go to a talk being given by a slight, stooped American. His name was Chuck Wedemeyer and he was the first to develop a modern pedagogy that was unique to distance education. Here’s an extract from the Mildred and Charles A. Wedemeyer Award site. (I had the honour of sharing the award with Michael Moore in 1995.)

Charles Wedemeyer, W.H. Lighty Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered a father of modern distance education.

An enthusiastic instructor, in the early 1930’s Wedemeyer used the University of Wisconsin’s radio station to broadcast English lessons and expand access for those otherwise excluded from the education system. As a World War II naval instructor he created effective teaching methods for thousands of sailors deployed around the world.

As Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Correspondence Study Program (1954-1964) Wedemeyer and his graduate students initiated a number of research projects on learning theory and the sociology of independent learners. The work advanced a new discipline in the field of education by integrating adult, distance, open and independent learning with instructional systems design, and applications of instructional technology, organizational development, and evaluation.

In 1965, Wedemeyer predicted today’s e-Learning:

“…the extension student of the future will probably not ‘attend’ classes; rather, the opportunities and processes of learning will come to him. He will learn at home, at the office, on the job, in the factory, store, or salesroom, or on the farm.”

“…the teacher will reach students not only in his own state or region but nationally as well, since the media and methods employed by him in teaching will remove barriers of space and time in learning…”

Charles A. Wedemeyer, 1965/1966,
Brandenburg Memorial Essays

4. Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee

Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. Jennie Lee was Minister for the Arts in Wilson’s 1964-1970 Labour government. Between them they were responsible for creating the U.K. Open University.

It may seem odd to credit politicians for the development of distance education, but the Open University was first and foremost a political idea based on opening up higher education to all (it was after all a Socialist government that created it). It was initially hotly opposed by the Conservative Party (one of its senior shadow ministers called it ‘blithering nonsense’), although when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1970, she was less hostile and eventually supported it (it fitted nicely with her self-made philosophy – she had taken a University of London External Degree programme).

Harold Wilson had the vision (originally a ‘University of the Air’) and Jennie Lee had the political smarts to drive through all the legislation and planning and ensured that it would be created as a quality university that would strive for the highest standards of teaching and research.

Jennie Lee at the Open University

Jennie Lee at the Open University

5. Sir Walter Perry

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU's course texts

Left to right: Mary Wilson, Sam Crooks, Walter Perry, Harold Wilson: they are looking at the OU’s course texts

I could have included Sir Walter with Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, but as the founding Vice-Chancellor of the U.K. Open University Walter Perry more than anyone really created the U.K. Open University as it came to be recognised. He never wavered from the vision, and was adamant about establishing the highest possible academic standards for OU courses and programs, but he was also the ultimate pragmatist, able to get things done and make it work.

He had to negotiate with sometimes hostile governments and uncomprehending civil servants (one top bureaucrat questioned the OU’s first budget, asking where the cost of lecture halls was). Perry also had to establish a practical and mutually beneficial relationship with the BBC, and persuade the traditional universities not only to support the OU but also to collaborate with it (the OU made heavy use of contracted faculty from the regular institutions to create its courses).

He also had to work with an unwieldy Senate that included every faculty member and all the regional staff tutors and counsellors. (A visiting American university President said to him after a particularly frustrating Senate meeting: ‘Walt, you have the perfect university: no students.’ Perry replied: ‘ Aye, and it would be a bloody site better if there were no faculty, either.’)

Perry’s ultimate achievement was to get distance education recognised as a high standard, cost-effective, and academically valid way of teaching and learning.

Over to you

That’s my list. There are many others I could have included from the Christian St. Paul for his Epistles to the Corinthians, or J.C. Stobart, who first introduced educational radio broadcasting (accompanied by broadcast notes published with The Radio Times) at the BBC in 1924, or those who set up the University of South Africa in 1945.

Who would be on your list of founding fathers?

(Remember, the statement used by Steve Wheeler was ‘fathers of distance education’, not online learning. Should those who developed the first online courses and programs be considered separately?)

So please send in your nominations, with your rationale.

More webinars on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

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Linda Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion (from Harasim, 2012): a topic for discussion in webinar 1?

Linda Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion (from Harasim, 2012): a topic for discussion in webinar 1?

Last year I did a series of five webinars on topics from my online, open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ These proved to be very popular, with up to 200 requests for participation for each webinar. We limited registrants though to a maximum of 60 for each webinar, and there have been more than 20,000 downloads since the first webinars were offered, so I am grateful to Contact North for offering a second round of these webinars.

The topics I will be covering in these webinars, which as well as being live will also be available in recorded form, will be:

  1. Teaching with Technology – How to Use the Best Practice Models and Options (covers chapters 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Teaching in a Digital  Age)
  2. Choosing Media – How They Differ and How to Make the Best Choices for My Teaching (covers chapters 6, 7 and 8 of Teaching in a Digital Age)
  3. Making the Choice – How to Choose between Online, Blended or Campus-Based Delivery for Effective Learning (covers chapters 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age)
  4. Ensuring Quality – How to Design and Deliver Quality Courses in a Supportive Learning Environment (covers chapter 11 and Appendix 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age)
  5. How Open Education will Revolutionize Higher Education: the Impact of Open Research, Open Textbooks, OERs and Open Data on Course Design and Delivery (covers Chapter 10 of Teaching in a Digital Age)

Register today for the first 60-minute webinar on Teaching with Technology – How to Use Best Practice Models and Options on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. 

Webinar 1: Teaching with Technology – How to Use Best Practice Models and Options

In this webinar, we will discuss:

  • what kind of knowledge or skills students need in a digital age;
  • what kind of learning theories or pedagogy will best suit your subject area or preferred teaching style
  • what teaching approaches are most appropriate for a digital age.

The webinar features a short introduction to the topics, and I will be posing a series of questions for discussion amongst the webinar participants on the topic and an open Q&A. You are advised to read the first five chapters of the book in advance of the webinar, as I will not be able to do justice to each of the topics in a short introduction.

Registration is limited to keep the session interactive so register early to avoid disappointment.

The remaining four webinars will be held in November, December, January and February at the same times. Watch this space for more details nearer the dates.