September 30, 2014

MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer

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This week I spent three days at the MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium) conference in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the theme: ‘Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available to All. Will the World take Advantage?’.

Because there is so much information that I would like to share, I am dividing this into two posts. This post will focus mainly on the activities reported from around the world, although many of these projects are related to or supported by MIT faculty and staff volunteers.

My second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic, will focus on what MIT is doing to support technology-enabled learning, mainly at home.

But first some words about the conference.

LINC

The Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) is an MIT-managed international initiative that began in 2001 and is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, student and staff volunteers. 

The mission of the LINC project is: With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.

LINC was the brain-child of Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

The conference

LINC 2013 was the sixth conference on this theme organized by MIT. It presented a range of topics, technologies and strategies for technology-enabled learning for developing countries, and raised a number of questions about the implementation of learning technologies within developing countries. There were over 300 participants from 49 countries.

The conference was supported by MIT, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Fujitsu, enabling many participants from developing countries to be supported in their travel and accommodation.

I report below just a selection of the many sessions around the theme of technology-supported education in or for developing countries, and I apologize that for space reasons, I can’t give a full report on all the sessions.

MOOCs

The conference started with a session on four perspectives on MOOCs, with four speakers making short 20 minute presentations followed by a Q&A panel with the four speakers fielding questions from the audience. I was one of the speakers in this session, and because the session deserves a whole report on its own, I discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Sufficient here to say that Sir John Daniel made a point reinforced by speakers in other sections that open and virtual universities have been delivering mass credit-based open learning in developing countries for many decades before MOOCs arrived.

The state of technology-enabled education around the world

The future direction of virtual universities

John Daniel’s point was picked up in this session, when Presidents/Rectors from Tec de Monterrey’s Virtual University in Mexico, the African Virtual University, and the Virtual University of Pakistan described the activities of their institutions. In each case, these projects are reaching very large numbers of students in their own countries or region (around 100,000 each), but each institution has its own sets of challenges as well, especially in reaching the very poor or disadvantaged. However, each of these institutions seems to have a sustainable funding base which promises well for the future.

Bakary Diallo, Rector, African Virtual University

Reaching poor young men in Latin America

Fernando Reimers, the Director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard, discussed the challenges that youth face in developing countries, particularly adolescent boys and young men, who are turned off by traditional teaching methods that neither fit their learning styles nor prepare them for the skills and knowledge needed in today’s workforce. He pointed out that less than 1% of the poorest 10% in Brazil have Internet access. (Similarly, in Mexico, less than 5% of socio-economic groups C, D and E currently have Internet access, and these three groups constitute almost two-thirds of the population.)

National educational policies and educational reform

Robin Horn discussed a World Bank project, SABER, which stands for A Systems Approach to Better Educational Results. The World Bank has found that often educational reform initiatives fail to gain traction in many countries because they do not align with existing government policies (or put another way, without changing policies, the reforms will not gain traction.) By looking at countries that have successful educational outcomes, and comparing their policies with the policies in other developing countries, it is hoped to identify barriers to educational reform. One example is telecommunications policies. An over-regulated, government controlled access to bandwidths can lead to high Internet costs due to lack of competition, whereas loose or unregulated government policies allow for competition resulting in both increased access and lower Internet costs (Canadian government: please note). Mike Trucano at the World Bank is identifying policies that appear to facilitate or inhibit the application of learning technologies in developing countries and this will be added to SABER in the near future.

The SABER website is packed full of data and analysis and makes fascinating reading for policy aficionados, and certainly my experience is that in all countries (not just developing countries) government policies do have a major influence on innovation and change in education. However, at the same time, ‘top-down’ strategies for increasing the use of learning technologies rarely work (South Korea may be an example of this – see below). In other words, government policies can foster or inhibit educational reform, but the reforms themselves will often have to come from or be supported by those close to the action, the teachers, parents and other stakeholders who will gain most from the changes.

Reaching the poor through educational TV in Brazil

Lúcia Araújo, the CEO of Canal Futura, an educational television network in Brazil, described the extensive use of ‘open source’ educational television and support materials that are being used by teachers throughout Brazil to support their classroom teaching. The programs are freely accessible through public television stations throughout Brazil, and almost 100% of homes in Brazil have access to television, a reminder that in many countries there are still better alternatives than the Internet to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

Online universities in Korea and SE Asia

Okwha Lee from Chungbuk National University in South Korea gave an overview of national educational technology developments in South Korea. In terms of sheer scale of online learning South Korea is one of the world’s leaders, with 21 cyber or online universities alone serving over 100,000 Korean students. The South Korean government plays a heavy hand in financing and managing national educational technology initiatives, through KERIS (the Korean Education and Research Information Service), and some of its centralization of data collection and top-down policies have provoked both hunger strikes and a national teachers’ strikes. South Korea has also invested in the ASEAN cyber university, which will include students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mynmar, with plans to extend it later to other ASEAN countries. Initially students will access programs through local e-learning centres.

Using Intranets to lower the cost of online learning in Africa

Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project and eGranary, gave a fascinating talk based around access to online learning in Africa. The WiderNet Project is a nonprofit organization, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that is dedicated to improving digital communications to all communities and individuals around the world in need of educational resources, knowledge, and training. Cliff Missen’s focus was on the high cost of Internet access for learners in developing countries, pointing out that while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Programs requiring extensive bandwidth, such as video lectures, are therefore prohibitively expensive for most Africans.

The WiderNet solution is the development of local Intranets linked to an extensive local library of open educational resources, the e-Granary project. The eGranary Digital Library — “The Internet in a Box” – is an off-line information store that provides instant access to over 30 million Internet resources to institutions lacking adequate Internet access. Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and delivering them to partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. This means setting up local servers and terminals, and even building a small wireless station to cover the surrounding community, but not necessarily linked into the wider Internet. This cuts down substantially on the cost of accessing digital educational resources.

MIT BLOSSOMS: Math and Science Video Lessons for High School Classes

This project has developed over 60 short videos to enrich science and math high school lessons, all freely available to teachers as streaming video and Internet downloads and as DVDs and videotapes. The videos are made in short sections, with stopping points for student and teacher activities built into the videos and supported by the teachers’ guide to each video

What makes this program particularly interesting is that many of the videos have been developed in developing countries, through partnerships between MIT and local schools and teachers, and with local presenters, often from high schools themselves. The videos are of high quality, both in terms of content, which is guaranteed by oversight from MIT professors, and in production quality. There is a strong emphasis in relating science and math to everyday life. For examples see: How Mosquitoes Fly in Rain (made in the USA) and Pythagoras and the Juice Seller (made in Jordan).

As a result, these videos are also being increasingly used by schools in the USA as well as by schools in developing countries. Although some of the programs are made in the native language of the country where they are made, they are also provided with English sub-titles or with also a voice-over version. By developing programs with local teachers, programs can be fully integrated within the national curriculum, and MIT BLOSSOMS team has also shown how each video relates to individual US state curricula.

What MIT is doing in technology-enabled learning

This session focused on MIT’s other activities in technology-enabled learning. I will discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Parallel sessions

In addition to the above plenary sessions there were also 72 presentations, each of roughly ten minutes, in parallel sessions. I cannot possibly report on them all, but I will report on two that I found really interesting .

Taylor’s University, a private university in Malaysia, is using the iPad for teaching foundational engineering. The iPads are used to access  iBooks and electronic study materials that have been specially developed by the School of Engineering to support and enhance the students’ learning. Many of the animations and applications were specially developed by final year undergraduate students, working with their professor, Mushtak Al-Atabi. There is a video on YouTube that includes a good demonstration of how the iPad is used.

The second was presented by Ahmed Ibrahim in behalf of a team of researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. They investgated through interviews “sources of knowledge” for students entering a gateway science course. The found that the most common source of ‘physics’ knowledge for the students is the teacher, followed by the textbook and other sources such as the Internet – what the researchers called testimony. Few students used deduction, induction or experimentation as means to ‘verify’ their knowledge. Thus the students did not feel empowered to be able to generate valid physics knowledge by themselves and  they have to turn to experts for it. In other words students are taught about science, rather than doing science, in high schools. They concluded that instructors need to use instructional methods, and activities that promote deeper learning, more conceptual knowledge construction, and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. In other words, stay away from information transmission and focus on activities that encourage scientific thinking. Although this is a general finding (and based on a very small sample), it is significant for what I have to say in my next post about MOOCs and teaching science.

Conclusions

This was one of the most interesting conferences I have been to for a long time. It brought together practitioners in using technology-enabled learning, primarily in science, math and engineering, from a wide range of countries. As a result there was a wide range of approaches, from the highly ‘engineering-based’ approach of MIT with a focus on advanced or new technologies such as MOOCs, to practitioners tackling the challenges of lack of access to or the high cost of the Internet in many developing countries.

In particular, Internet access remains a major challenge, even in newly emerging countries with dynamic economies, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India, especially for reaching beyond the relatively wealthy middle classes. Even in economically advanced countries such as Canada, wideband access, needed for video-lecture based MOOCs for instance, is problematic for many disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor or for remote aboriginal reserves.

I was therefore interested to see that non-Internet based technologies such as radio, broadcast television or DVDs are still immensely valuable technologies for reaching the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, as are Internet-linked local learning centres and/or Intranets.

Lastly, despite nearly 80 years of aid to developing countries, finding technology-enabled solutions to increasing access to education that are long-term and sustainable remains a challenge, especially when the aid is generated and organized from developed countries such as the USA and Canada. Local partnerships, cultural adaptation, use of appropriate, low-cost technologies, teacher education, and institutional and government policy changes are all needed if technology transfer is to work.

However, there is clear evidence from this conference that in many developing or economically emerging countries, there are local individuals and institutions finding local and appropriate ways to use technology to support learning. It will often start in the more affluent schools or in universities, but as the Internet gradually widens its spread, it begins to filter down to lower income groups as well. Indeed, in some areas, such as mobile learning in Africa, there is innovation and development taking place that exceeds anything in the developed world, in terms of originality and spread amongst the poor and disadvantaged.

The MIT group behind LINC has done a great service in providing a means for participants from both developed and developing countries to share experience and knowledge in this area.

 

Throttling access to online learning

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Lennett, B. and Kehl, D. (2103) Capping the Nation’s Broadband Future Washington DC: New America Foundation

Lennett, B. and Kehl, D. (2013) Data Caps Could Dim Online Learning’s Bright Future Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4

Lennett and Kehl provide a good, clear summary of their report in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Basically they are concerned about the following:

  • two companies (AT&T and Verizon) control two-thirds of the mobile market in the U.S.
  • these two companies are charging extra for anything more than a gigabyte of data per month
  •  if you tried to stream video lectures on that connection, you’d reach the data cap after about three hours and then face fees of $15 per gigabyte. If you tried to complete a course with 15 hours of video a month, your phone bill could arrive with as much as $70 in extra fees
  • roughly 19 million Americans still don’t have access to Internet service capable of streaming a video lecture
  • this will seriously inhibit online learning, especially for the poor and those in rural areas.

Their solution:

  • get the FCC to increase competition between wireless carriers, especially in rural areas (a familiar recommendation for Canadians)
  • get the government to invest more heavily in rural broadband connections through something like the New Deal Rural Electrification program.

Comment

Why stream video lectures? This is an absurdly expensive and inefficient way of doing online learning. Once again, we have people assuming that there was no online learning before video lecture capture.

Second, surely the issue is throttling, not online learning. Telecommunications companies should not be allowed to restrict selectively bandwidth use, or to try to cap Internet access, full stop.

Africa is the world’s fastest developing e-learning market

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Computers for student use at Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa

Adkins, S. (2013) The Africa Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis Monroe WA: Ambient Insight

This is one of the most interesting reports I have come across in a long time. Even the abstract is packed with information and data. I have pulled out here just a small selection of particular interest to online learning in higher education.

According to this report, e-learning is forecast to grow in Africa as a whole at a rate of 15% per annum over the next four years, with growth rates in individual countries at the following:

  • Senegal: 30%
  • Zambia: 28%
  • Zimbabwe: 25%
  • Kenya: 25%

In terms of volume of revenues from e-learning, South Africa is the dominant country but will be overtaken by Nigeria by 2016.

There are several drivers of this development in Africa:

  • the recent arrival of fiber optic connectivity. Prior to this, satellite access was the primary connectivity medium, which is very expensive. This was inhibiting the uptake of Internet connectivity
  • a price war with telecoms and ISPs dropping prices to attract customers. This has also created a boom in the adoption of Internet and mobile technologies
  • Internet penetration in Kenya essentially doubled from 2010 to 2011, growing from 28% to 52% in just one year. Internet penetration more than tripled in Rwanda between 2011 and 2012, growing from 8% to 26% in one year.
  • The wide scale digitization of academic content in every country analyzed in this report
  • The explosion of online enrollments in higher education institutions
  • the sharp spike in the adoption of eLearning in the corporate segments in the booming economies.

According to the report:

The boom in online higher education enrollments in Africa is nothing short of astonishing. Many countries are adopting eLearning as a way to meet the strong demand for higher education – a demand they simply cannot meet with traditional campuses and programs:

  • The University of South Africa (UNISA) UNISA is a pan-regional virtual university with over 310,000 students (3,500 come from outside Africa.) Over half of all UNISA students take at least one online course a year. New virtual universities are springing up everywhere in Africa.
  • In May 2011, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) announced the launch of a pan-African virtual university branch of IGNOU with headquarters in Ethiopia. IGNOU has partnerships with institutions in 20 African countries.
  • Innorero University, a private institution in Kenya, launched their Virtual Campus in January 2012.
  • The Virtual University of Uganda (VUU) claims to be the first online university in East Africa and started taking students in January 2012.
  • In June 2012, the Kenyan government funded the development of a new online education institution called the Open University of Kenya in an effort to meet the strong demand for higher education in the country.
  • The African University College of Communications (AUCC) and the India-based AVAGMAH Online School of Bharathidasan University announced in October 2012 that they would launch a virtual university in Ghana in January 2013 
  • in January 2012, the African Development Bank approved a US$15.6 million grant to help strengthen the capacity of the African Virtual University (AVU). As of 2012, the AVU had 31 active higher education partners across Africa, which it helps in building e-learning centres and training content developers. The new funding will be used to build 12 new e-learning centres.

With very few exceptions, most of the countries in the region now have official government policies on the use of technology in education. There are now dozens of new national digitization projects funded directly by the central governments with and without the aid of external donors.


Important developments in online learning in India in 2012

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Aakash users © Datawind Inc

In my e-Learning Outlook for 2012 published on January 2 in 2012 I wrote:

Watch India

…..there are several reasons behind this prediction:

  • the Indian government’s decision to subsidize 12 million Aakash tablets at US$35 per tablet will open up online learning to a vast number of Indians (800 million) who currently have no Internet access, but who do have mobile phones
  • the Aakash deal will also put great pressure on Indian higher education institutions, who in general have been highly resistant to e-learning, to move more quickly, if they are to access additional government funding for tablets.
  • this will also stimulate India’s already burgeoning e-learning industry to produce content, programs, degrees and learner support for such students. In 2009 Researchandmarkets estimated the market size to touch $603 million by the end of calendar year 2012. The Aakash deal is likely to inflate this figure by an order of magnitude.
  • up to now, most e-learning companies in India have been marketing externally, and have focused on corporate training and informal learning, but there are signs that in 2012, the focus will be on providing e-learning products, services and programs for Indian students.
  • English is widely used in Indian post-secondary education, and the move to OERs will enable Indian institutions to move quickly into online learning with what will be perceived as quality learning materials from reputable organizations (such as MIT).

Likely barriers:

  • institutional resistance to online learning
  • costs of Internet access
  • lack of bandwidth in many rural areas
  • lack of attention paid to instructional design and learner support leading to high drop-out

Here, I want to provide a short update, as there were several interesting developments during the year. This needs to be contextualized by recognizing that India is a huge sub-continent, with a great deal of online learning development, and I did not visit the country during 2012, so this is just a tiny glimpse of what is going on.

Very low cost tablets

Khedekar, N. (2012) All you need to know about Aakash 2, tech2, 12 December, 2012

First despite a great deal of controversy, a false start, and technical criticism, Datawind Inc. did finally win the bid to supply the Indian government with 100,000 (1 lakh) Aakash 2 tablets (officially known as the Ubislate 7Ci). This was really the second round of development, as the Aakash 1 was found to be lacking on a number of functions. The Aakash 2, with its 7″ touch screen, is, according to Naina Khedekar, a big improvement. The Aakash 2 tablets are designed and developed, and the touchscreen manufactured, in Canada, the components are sourced globally, and the tablet is conceived, assembled and programmed in India.

The Indian government will make the Aakash 2 available to schools and colleges at a subsidized price of CS$20 (1,130 rupees) per tablet – yes $20! Although intended only for the school and college market, it will also retail commercially for C$78 (4,500 rupees) in India. Datawind is offering 48 hour delivery times in India.

There is a great demonstration of the Aakash 2 that can be seen here from fone arena (click on the graphic above).

Content

Mishra, A. (2012) Virtual laboratories to reach 500,000 students University World News, 1 March, 2012

It will now be up to the Indian e-learning content developers to ensure that there is sufficient high quality learning material for the tablet.

One major step towards the goal of providing high quality, free Indian-designed content is the establishment of the Indian Virtual Labs Project, funded by India’s federal government, and developed in partnership with many of the Indian Institutes of Technology. The objectives of this project are as follows:

  • To provide remote-access to Labs in various disciplines of Science and Engineering. These Virtual Labs would cater to students at the undergraduate level, post graduate level as well as to research scholars
  • To provide a complete Learning Management System around the Virtual Labs where the students can avail the various tools for learning, including additional web-resources, video-lectures, animated demonstrations and self evaluation.
  • To share costly equipment and resources, which are otherwise available to limited number of users due to constraints on time and geographical distances.

There are already over 100 detailed labs available, with lecture notes, simulations, experiments, theory and feedback, and hundreds more currently under development. This site is well worth visiting by anybody in any English-speaking country interested in teaching science or engineering online.

The government hopes to provide 500,000 students access to virtual laboratories and to thus bridge the digital divide between urban and rural teachers and learners, and empower those who have remained untouched by the digital revolution. With virtual labs, students across Indian institutions will be able to access physical laboratories hundreds of kilometres away. They will be able to visit the lab of their choice and study at any time convenient to them. Students will be able to book slots for remote-triggered labs. While theory can be prepared offline, students will conduct the experiment online.

The challenge

Nolen, S. (2012) India flush with cellphones, but few options when nature calls Globe and Mail, May 24

This article on the recent household census in India provides some interesting stats (figures refer to households, not people):

  • 67% have access to electricity
  • 63% now have a telephone connection (mainly cellphones, although no figures are given in this article)
  • 59% have access to banking services
  • 53% have access to a toilet in the home or in a shared toilet block: only 10% have a flush toilet in the home
  • 50% have television
  • 20% have radios
  • 9% have a computer (20% of urban dwellers and 5% of rural households)
  • less than 1% of households have computers and Internet access: but that’s still nearly seven million households.

However it should be remembered that 10 years ago less than 50% of Indians had any modes of communication – other than speech. While there is still a long way to go, thing are improving rapidly in India. The stats show why the Aakash 2 project is so significant as it enables wireless connectivity.

Nevertheless, lack of reliable internet access still poses a major challenge. However, the government plans to to provide high-speed internet and data transfer connectivity to 572 universities, 25,000 colleges and 2,000 polytechnics, benefiting almost 15 million college students.

Are MOOCs and OERs the answer?

There will certainly be opportunities to use open educational resources, but of course, the majority of OERs are also currently in English, a language spoken by a total of 125 million Indians (including those for whom English is a second or third language), or about 10% of the Indian population. OERs in other Indian languages such as Hindi will also be necessary.

It is hard to see how MOOCs developed from North American institutions are going to have a major impact in India. They are likely to be of value mainly to those already with a high level of education.

In the end, it will be Indian ingenuity, Indian solutions that will transform education for the majority of Indians, not imported material from other countries, as useful as that may be for a small minority.

Help!

As I said earlier, I have just touched on what is happening in India. I would really welcome comments, news and updates from the many readers I have in India (over 800 at the last count).

 

CVU’s report on the state of online university education in Canada: first heal thyself

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© CVU, 2012 Creative Commons License

Canadian Virtual University (2012) Online University Education in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities Athabasca University AB: Canadian Virtual University.

The report was commissioned by the Canadian Federal government’s Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. CVU is a consortium of 12 Canadian universities collaborating in online university education.

Purpose

This report seeks to provide a better understanding of the impact and potential of online Canadian university education and learning in an increasingly digital world. Specifically, it examines impacts, innovations, effectiveness, adoption, cost‐benefits, business models, and barriers to the expansion of online university education. Open Educational Resources (OER) were also included because of the part they may play in many of those areas.

Above all, the aim of the document is to provoke a discussion or dialogue about ‘the status quo’ and ‘the way forward’. (And you will certainly get that from me).

Definitions here are important. This report is not about blended or hybrid learning but focuses on online distance education. I think this is a pity, because much of the argument in this document applies just as much to these other areas of online teaching and learning, and hence if these had been included, the report would get more traction within and attention from conventional institutions, where, I will argue, the problem lies.

Contents

The report covers a number of interesting areas, and has some important things to say about the following areas:

Quality, ease of use, and choice

© CVU, 2012 Creative Commons License

Data on Canadian online university education

The report makes an heroic effort to provide some national statistics, despite the fact there is no systematic collection of data. You will have to judge for yourself how reliable or useful are the data provided.

Accessibility

The lack of online university data in Canada prevents meaningful comparators with other countries; indeed, we found so little data that we cannot comment on whether—or how—Canada is keeping up in increasing access to underrepresented populations…apart from some limited student loan‐based data, national and multi‐institutional data and indicators for underrepresented students seem to be largely absent. This puts Canadian universities in the challenging position of having to decide whether and how to increase accessibility for underrepresented groups through online delivery without the data to inform them and their governments of its impact.

We observe several barriers to accessibility to underrepresented and underprepared populations: (lack of) specifically designed courses and student supports, lack of national data, and lack of clear information to students.

Aboriginal education

Aboriginal communities are challenged in terms of breadth and depth of academics that can be provided locally, and universities are challenged to address the academic and support needs of those communities. Online education has the potential to address some of these challenges…..However, formidable barriers to increased Aboriginal participation remain…A national strategy to address these barriers—specifically in the context of online education—could increase access to higher education within Aboriginal communities.

Cost-effectiveness/Economies of scale/business models

Online R&D and Workplace Partnerships

Main conclusions

  • Canadian university online education is constrained by lack of national data and strategic planning, cross‐jurisdictional collaboration, business models, economies of scale, resources
  • This limits universities’ ability to capitalize on the potential of digital technologies to improve uptake, quality, accessibility, return on investment, tactical innovation, and knowledge transfer 
  • The ongoing strategic vacuum creates an environment that fosters weakness and duplication and is causing Canada to fall behind other nations in online education 
  • A national e‐learning strategy based on collaboration could address these weaknesses and maximize the potential of online education to prepare Canadians for the digital economy.

Comment

As always, I recommend that you should read this document for yourself. There is a lot of interesting material in it.

I would like to see the Federal government integrating online education as part of its digital economy strategy, and certainly developing strategies for proselytizing the importance and value of online learning in a knowledge-based economy or society. Even a few strategically placed Federally funded projects to support lifelong learning or work-force training through online learning, to demonstrate its importance, would be welcome, and certainly national statistics on online learning in Canada are desperately needed.

However, I have a curious reaction to this document. I think it is more a matter of tone than substance, but I found it a less than convincing document, despite the fact that I agree with most of the information it provides about the shortcomings of Canadian university online education.

Unfortunately, this document never clearly sets out responsibilities for addressing the numerous shortcomings in Canadian online learning that it identifies. Nevertheless the target audience for this document clearly seems to be the Federal government. The central question though revolves around the role that the Federal government should play in supporting university online education. Indeed, I would argue that many of the faults lie within the institutions themselves. In other words, be careful what you wish for – if the Federal government did step in to address some of the issues raised, this would lead to a loss of autonomy for the university sector and it would certainly tread on provincial and aboriginal toes. But I’m not going to worry about that – it ain’t going to happen.

Certainly, there is a Federal role in setting national strategies, especially regarding economic development, and in setting national standards. But post-secondary education is clearly a provincial responsibility in Canada, and the current Federal Conservative government has shown no inclination to interfere in provincial matters, not even in health, where it has much clearer constitutional responsibilities.

I agree that online education has the potential to help aboriginal education, but a national strategy? Which nation? Any aboriginal education strategy has to be centred on aboriginal needs. The trend is away from a national strategy in aboriginal education because of the blatant failure of the Department of Indian Affairs to deliver quality aboriginal education. More progress will be made by individual universities sitting down with their local First Nations and listening to their needs than in seeking a national strategy from the Federal government.

It is very unfortunate that there are no national statistics on online learning. But the current Federal government abolished the long census, so there is no hope that it will take responsibility for collecting national data on online learning, no matter how important that is. This is something the inter-provincial Council of Ministers of Education could and should undertake – but won’t. This would set a dangerous precedent where provinces were actually held accountable for their education policies.

Underlying this paper is the argument for national funding for a national organization (such as the CVU) so that it can achieve economies of scale in online learning, like the big national open universities in the UK, Europe, and Asia. There are some potential economies of scale in online learning (an example would be OER), and I’m all for voluntary collaboration, but the real benefit of online learning is in economies of scope, and in particular the individualization or personalization of learning, and this is killed by any attempt to emphasise economies of scale. We need more diversity in our post-secondary educational provision, not more of the same, and certainly not the large industrial models of distance education in a country such as Canada.

I would have been much happier if some of the excellent suggestions in this paper, such as the need for quality assurance and best practices in online learning, had been addressed to the university sector itself. Keep the Feds out of it. At the end of the day, I felt that those parts of the paper that I agreed with could by and large be resolved by the universities themselves. This won’t happen though by treating fully online learning, or distance education, separately from other areas of learning technology development, such as hybrid learning. What is needed is not so much national as institutional strategies for online learning, and this is within the jurisdiction of the universities themselves.

But read the paper for yourself – I am probably misrepresenting it – and it does raise some good questions for debate.

Note: thanks to Stephen Downes/George Siemens for directing my attention to this report