You may be under the illusion that to reach a parallel universe you have to go on a star trek or do quantum physics. Let me save you the trouble. Just hop on a plane to Ottawa, the national capital of Canada. In this parallel universe you will find a black hole into which Canadian taxes disappear. In Oduhwa, as it’s pronounced, you will find organisms such as NGOs and QGAs (quasi-governmental agencies, or what the British call quangos).

One such agency is the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), whose mandate is ‘to provide Canadians with the most current information about effective approaches to learning for learners, educators, employers and policy-makers.’ Specifically, its web site states that its mission is:

‘To improve lifelong learning across the country by:

  • Informing Canadians about the state of learning in Canada;
  • Fostering quality research on learning;
  • Facilitating evidence-based decisions about learning through knowledge exchange to ensure that success stories are shared and repeated; and
  • Becoming Canada’s authoritative resource on learning issues.’

So when I heard that it has recently published a report on the State of e-Learning in Canada, I thought:

‘Great! I can find out

  • how many students are taking different types of e-learning courses,
  • who are the leading universities and colleges in Canada using e-learning, and why,
  • what are examples of successful applications of e-learning, and how these were measured,
  • interesting case-studies on successful institutional strategies for implementing e-learning,
  • strategies that overcame the many barriers to innovation in teaching and learning through the use of technology, and
  • recommendations to improve and consolidate the efforts of those working to make e-learning a success in our institutions.’

However, the CCL seems to operate in a parallel universe from the one I live in. None of these questions is addressed.

There is nothing – and I do mean nothing – that is new in this 145 page report. The CCL report is based entirely on second hand and often third or fourth hand publications, many of dubious quality. The report had no original data whatsoever. Its recommendations merely repeat the recommendations of a previous quango – the Advisory Committee for Online Learning – which made its recommendations – wait for it – in 2001 (and which have not been implemented). Most of the secondary reports the CCL drew on are from 2005 or earlier (and hence pre-date web 2.0 applications). Indeed, I learned more from going to the original sources, especially the excellent analysis of research on e-learning by Philip Abrami and his team, than I did from the report itself.

In fact, many of the CCL’s conclusions are highly challengeable. It uses the 2005 OECD report: ‘E-learning in Tertiary Education’ to conclude ‘Canada’s efforts in e-learning are trailing behind those in other countries.’ Well, it may or may not be, but as someone who worked on the OECD report, that report does not justify this conclusion (and in any case, the data was collected in 2003-2004), and in one of the papers CCL itself commissioned, by Rossiter Consulting in 2005, it noted that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Canada second (behind Sweden) in ‘e-learning readiness’ out of a total of 17 countries.

The CCL loves rankings (it has produced a Composite Learning Index to measure how well a nation learns), but if you are going to do rankings, you’d better have damned good evidence on which to base the rankings. However, since the CCL report did not produce any justifiable quantitative data about the extent of e-learning in Canada compared with any other country, how can it come to the conclusion that Canada is going to hell in a handbasket with respect to e-learning?

However, what really p••••d me off is that the report complains that there is inadequate and insufficient research on the effectiveness of e-learning. I don’t disagree with this comment, but as someone who spent a good deal of time trying to get research grants on e-learning between 1995-2003, I did expect an organization that is funded by the Federal government with a mandate to foster research to actually do some research itself. How difficult is it to send out a questionnaire to Canadian educational institutions about their enrolments in courses using different types of e-learning? (All they had to do was copy the one in the OECD report)? How difficult would it have been to have got out of their office, walked around the corner, and talked to the good folks at the University of Ottawa about the reality of integrating ICTs into post-secondary educational institutions? Why did they not try to analyse why the recommendations of the 2001 committee had not been implemented before making the same recommendations?

Also, in CCL’s parallel universe of Canadian e-learning, neither Stephen Downes nor George Siemens exists – not a single mention of their work in a 147 page report with 400 ‘citations’.

You can see a more balanced and less emotional review of this report on Terry Anderson’s excellent blog, Canada’s Lost e-Learning Decade, on Virtual Canuck. However, on the same day I was reading the CCL report, I also read Roy McGregor’s article about Ottawa in the Globe and Mail (June 5, 2009), starting with a quote from the poet Alden Nolan:

” ‘Ah, Mackenzie King,
I think I understand you:
How easy to communicate with the dead
in a city wholly divorced from reality’
All around are examples: top executives of the Canada Pension Plan raking in $7 million in bonuses while the CPP drops $24 billion of taxpayers’ money…an $18 million federal inquiry to find out if it stinks that a former prime minister would accept envelopes stuffed with $1,000 bills in various hotel rooms…’Wholly divorced from reality’ indeed.”

So in comparison, I suppose the CCL report is small beer  – just a little piece of garbage floating in a parallel universe.

In my next couple of blogs, I will do what CCL failed to do: examine why, despite widespread adoption of information and communications technologies, there has been no systemic change in our post-secondary institutions, what could be done to encourage systemic innovation and change, and how to achieve measurable benefits from e-learning through systemic change. And I won’t need Federal tax dollars to do this.



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