October 21, 2016

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning

Listen with webReader


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

Listen with webReader


Click to download the pdf

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

Listen with webReader
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.

Welcome back and what you may have missed in online learning over the summer

Listen with webReader
Working in my study

Not a lot of work done this summer!

I hope you all had a great summer break and have come back fully charged for another always challenging year in teaching. I thought it might be helpful to pull together some of the developments in online learning that occurred over the summer that you may have missed. My list, of course, is very selective and personal.

Online learning for beginners

During the summer I developed a series of ten posts aimed at those considering teaching online, or brand new to online teaching:

This was in response to concerns that many instructors and faculty were not well briefed or aware of best practices and what we already know about effective (and more importantly, ineffective) approaches to online teaching.

The posts of course were linked to my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. However, the book itself is likely to appeal to those who have already made a major commitment to teaching well online. The blog posts in contrast aim to address some common myths and misconceptions about online learning and online teaching, and in particular to help instructors make decisions about whether or not to do online learning in the first place, and if so, what they need to know to do it well. Think of it as a prep for the book itself.

This won’t be directly relevant to most readers of this blog, but please direct any instructors or faculty in your institution who are struggling to decide whether or not to teach online, or must undertake it but are fearful, to these posts, as well as the book itself.

Contact North will be repackaging these blog posts and re-issuing them this fall; watch this space for more details.

Upcoming conferences

The big conference announcement is that the next ICDE World Conference in Online Learning and Distance Education will be held in Toronto in October, 2017, and the lead organiser is Contact North. This global conference is one of the major events in the world of online and distance learning and it’s the first time since 1982 that it’s been held in Canada. Next year’s theme is guess what? Teaching in a Digital Age. Well, that’s a coincidence, isn’t it?

Another major conference coming up at the end of this year is the OEB conference in Berlin in December.

Registration is also now open for the EDEN Research Workshop in Oldenburg, Germany, in October this year.

AACE’s World Conference on eLearning takes place in Virginia, USA, in November this year.

And, if you hurry, you might just make the 4th E-Learning Innovations Conference and Expo in Nairobi, Kenya from September 12-16.

Reports and journals

These are reports that have been published (or which I found) over the summer. I have blogged about one or two of them but for the rest I’ve not had the time. (Well, the weather’s been glorious here in Vancouver this summer and golf called and was answered.)

Centre for Extended Learning (2016) How do we create useful online learning experiences? Waterloo ON: University of Waterloo.

This is an excellent guide to multimedia course design, combining Peter Morville’s user experience (UX) honeycomb and Richard Mayer’s theory and research on the use of multimedia for learning, to create a well-designed set of guidelines for online course design.

Daniel, J. (2016) Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Integrity of Higher Education: Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO.

No need to say more other than some of these corruptions will almost certainly be found in your institution. A great read and very disturbing.

Contact North (2016) Connecting the Dots: Technology-enabled Learning and Student Success Toronto ON: Nelson.

This is the result of a symposium organized by Nelson in Toronto earlier in the year  and looks particularly at three main issues in online learning:1. The notion of “program”; 2. The role of faculty; 3. The nature of student support services.

Garrett, R. and Lurie, H. (2016) Deconstructing CBE  Boston MA: Ellucian/Eduventures/ACE.

This is a report on a three-year study to help higher education leaders better understand competency-based education (CBE), including the diversity of institutional practices and paths forward.

Bacigalupo, M. et al (2016) The Entrepreneurship Competence Framework Brussels: European Commission JRC Science for Policy.

“The EntreComp Framework is made up of 3 competence areas: ‘Ideas and opportunities’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Into action’. Each area includes 5 competences, which, together, are the building blocks of entrepreneurship as a competence.” Something concrete at last on one of the key 21st century skills. Don’t ask me though whether I believe it – read it for yourself, if you can stand European Commission English.

IRRODL, Vol. 17, No. 4

From Rory McGreal’s editorial: ‘This one is packed with 19 articles and a book review. We begin with three articles from Africa on access, entrepreneurship, and openness. Then the focus changes to the teacher with a critique and a look at expectations and perceptions. Learning design issues are the focus of the next group of articles, including open design and guidelines. Investigations into factors affecting learning follow…. Finally, mobile learning issues are addressed in the last two articles.’ Something for everyone here.

Distance Education, Vol. 37, No.2  (journal) Special issue on building capacity for sustainable distance e-learning provision.

This is a specially commissioned set of papers around the theme of the last ICDE conference in South Africa. I found it difficult though to identify a consistent message between what are individually interesting papers.

I am well aware that there are many other ‘must-read’ reports that slipped by without my paying attention to them. Any further suggestions from readers will be welcome.

So the world didn’t stop while you were away. Enjoy your teaching this academic year.


Demographics and online learning

Listen with webReader
Image: Z Living Network, 2016

Image: Z Living Network, 2016

Rai, S. (2016) How Millennial Moms Are Parenting Differently Than Their Parents Z Living Network, 7 March

Unauthored (2016)  Survey Finds Millennial Parents Supportive Of DIY Approach To Education, Diverse School Options Parental Herald, 12 August

Boomers had Dr Spock. Millennials have each other.

No institution can now afford to ignore demographics in its strategic planning, and in no area is this more true than in plans for online learning. Traditional distance education (print-based and until very recently, online distance education) has mainly attracted older students with already some experience of higher education. It has been seen as an ideal area for continuing professional education, and the growth of online professional masters degrees is evidence in support of this belief.

However, there is now a significant shift in the overall demographics, particularly in North America. Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) are now the largest living generation in the USA.

A recent survey by Connections Education (a Pearson company) found that 55% of millennials have taken an online course (higher than any previous generation) and a majority of millennial parents (51 percent) think that high school students should be required to take at least one online course.

This may be behind the continued growth in demand for online learning at a post-secondary level. Students coming into university or college, whether millennials or post-millennials, have grown up in a world where the Internet is part of life and to whom online learning is not an exotic or marginal activity but the natural order of things.

Institutions who want to attract the best and brightest students need to be aware of this and plan for it, not just for professional education programs but also for undergraduate and two year vocational programs. This is particularly important, as I have argued many times, at a program level, where every program needs to have a rational and evidence-based policy that determines the best balance between face-to-face, blended and fully online learning within the program. In particular, to what extent can courses and programs fully exploit the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of social media in support of the learning goals?

So, does your program or institution have a plan or policy for online learning? Is it a good one, and if so what makes it good?