It’s that time of year again. Here’s a personal look back at e-learning in 2009 (I will do another blog on priorities for Canadian e-learning in 2010, and a third blog on international trends to watch in 2010).

What I did

This year I worked in Alberta, Cuba, Mexico, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, and taught online briefly (but twice) for the University of Maryland/Oldenburg University’s joint Masters in Distance Education. I also visited UBC several times to see what they were doing, which included attending the excellent Canadian e-learning conference in June.

Meeting with the Distance Education people, University of Havana
Meeting with the Distance Education people, University of Havana

My major work was for the Government of Alberta, helping them develop strategic directions for the use of information and communications technologies for the whole post-secondary system. This will eventually see the light of day next year.

I’m currently writing a book (with Albert Sangra) on the governance and management of information and communications technologies in post-secondary educational institutions, to be published at the end of 2010 by Jossey-Bass/John Wiley. I also have another book in the pipeline, a (third) complete re-write of Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education, due in 2011.


In my blog, the State of e-Learning, 2008, I argued that although e-learning continues to grow and expand, there was a lack of innovation and change, with efforts concentrated on using technology to re-inforce the classroom teaching model, while I on the other hand believe that e-learning should be used to re-design teaching and learning for the digital age.

I have very mixed feelings about e-learning in 2009.

Good developments in 2009

The technology gets better

First, the developments in technology are very exciting. In particular, the developments in mobile technology are moving forward in ways that are really valuable for education: greater bandwidth, greater functionality, improved user interfaces, many more apps, greater access, lower costs (especially for Canada in 2010). Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are beginning to penetrate even formal education, if only in limited ways. The uptake of e-portfolios is increasing. The first steps in open source administrative systems, with the launch of the Kuali Project, offers potentially huge savings for universities and colleges. Cloud computing also offers potentially large savings and greater flexibility for educational applications. Technology continues its rapid development, ever more interesting and exciting, with huge potential for education.

E-learning outside ‘the system’

Outside of the formal education system, great things are happening in e-learning. Communities of practice, sharing of experiences, and self-learning are growing rapidly. For instance, Supercool School, which uses Facebook to link those who want to learn with those who want to teach, is taking off in a big way, with contracts with some of the larger IT corporations, such as Google, for in-house training. Open publishing now enables many people who want to share ideas in a limited market that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch can now get their ideas out. More importantly for the formal educational system, open publishing is dramatically cutting the costs of textbooks for students. For the general public, and especially for small Internet-based companies, ranging from advice on beauty spas to advising parents on how deal with their children’s difficulties at school to independent advice on banking services, e-learning is taking off around the world.

Disappointments in 2009

Then we look at the public sector, and in particular the big research universities, and what do we see? Clickers, lecture capture, multiple screens in the classroom, learning management systems with Powerpoint slides and pdf files loaded, and a total lack of recognition that the current formal higher education system is failing, and a total lack of vision of what is needed for the future, and the role that information and communications technologies can play in formal learning.

As always, I will bracket my comments by noting that many individual lecturers and instructors are doing great work, being innovative and doing great things. Also, there are a lot of colleges and universities with excellent support units and staff, who are doing great work in helping instructors and faculty do the best they can with new technologies. Fully online learning, i.e. online distance learning, continues to grow at a rapid pace – but not as fast as market demand, and often institutions or instructors moving into fully online courses are often not applying best practices so the quality is not always as high as it should be.

Open educational resources

First, some specifics. My biggest disappointment this year (apart from the disastrous Canadian Council of Learning report on e-learning, which in any case is an irrelevance) has been with open educational resources. Yes, we have seen more initiatives, not just in North America but also in Europe and Africa. But what are we getting? Digitally recorded 50 minute classroom lectures and digital textbooks. What we are not getting are materials designed from scratch for multiple use, with learning objectives, contextual materials (such as links to other open source materials and possible assessment questions), student activities, and guides for instructors. There is one exception to this statement and that is Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, which I welcome, but which I fear is too much in the other direction of whole packaged courses.

And there is still so little of it. What I would like to see are many thousands of short modules with contextual materials that allow instructors to mix and mash – yes, remashing for education. So when a new course is being planned, thought needs to be given at the design stage not only to the ‘in-course’ design of materials for students enrolled in the course, but to how the materials could best be used as open source materials. We also need some educational design models for using open source materials that would help both in their development and their application.

Mobile learning

Now mobile learning. Although the technology is rapidly developing, and some of the existing apps could be (and are being) adapted for educational purposes (such as RSS feeds), we need specifically educational apps for mobile learning that make it easy to organise and create learning materials, and integrate them with materials located elsewhere, without having to come out of the mobile environment. However, this is just a matter of time. What we then will need will be again appropriate design models for mobile learning that make full use of mobility, audio-visual collection and analysis of data, and geo-spatial location.

Virtual worlds

Educational applications of virtual worlds also seem to have been on hold this year. The reality is that creating educational virtual worlds is expensive. Again, it is also necessary to develop appropriate design models as well as creating the virtual environment, so that the skills and competencies afforded by virtual worlds are achieved. I wouldn’t write them off, but I had hoped for more developments in 2009.

Institutional vision and the management of e-learning

This is the area of greatest disappointment for me in 2009. Where are the exciting new developments in hybrid learning in universities? What institutions are making the break with traditional classroom and laboratory-based teaching and looking to develop a digital learning environment where face-to-face teaching has a specific but limited role? How are institutions responding to the fact that they have more students now who are over 24, in reality working at least part-time, with families, and many returning for a second or third degree, than they have young, full-time students? I look at UBC’s latest strategic plan (Place and Promise) and there is nothing in it that refers to the the needs of learners in a post-industrial society, the changing profiles of our students, or the role of technology (even though UBC has probably more innovative e-learning projects than most institutions in North America).

The problem is that there cannot be real change in our post-secondary institutions without strong leadership and vision, but it seems that for the leadership of most North American post-secondary education systems, technology is so 1990s – been there, done that. The funding crisis doesn’t help, at least in the short term (more on that in my future trends blog).

However, our public post-secondary institutions are far too complacent about the current classroom-based teaching model, which is not serving our students well, in terms of giving them personal interaction with highly qualified and expert teachers and developing the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century. Too many institutions pay lip service to the use of technology for teaching, (‘a cutting edge university in the use of technology for teaching’ referring to the introduction of clickers, for instance), seeing it as a marketing tool or a way of winning government funding, rather than addressing the needs of learners in fundamentally different ways. There are no real incentives for change, especially with respect to the essential need for instructors to be properly trained to teach, which would include pedagogy as well as training in the use of technologies.


So in summary, the technology continues to develop and improve, e-learning is developing incredibly well outside the public system, there are many individuals and units working very hard within formal education to make e-learning succeed, but there are still deep systemic issues in the public post-secondary system that are severely limiting the application and usefulness of e-learning.

Your comments

However, I am now on the outside of the system looking in, which of course is both a strength and a weakness. What is the reaction of those of you inside the system to my review of 2009? What excited or disappointed you? Have you got examples that contradict my very subjective conclusions?


    • Hi, Christine

      Many thanks for your comment – much appreciated.

      I think you are absolutely right – the large research universities especially see their campuses as their competitive advantage. Hence ‘place’ is central to their value system. (It is notable that UBC’s latest strategic plan is called ‘Place and Promise’ which says it all.) As you too commented, I don’t want to get rid of the ‘place’ in higher education, but it needs to be re-thought in the context of digital learning.

  1. Excellent point – “The problem is that there cannot be real change in our post-secondary institutions without strong leadership and vision”. Also true in K-12 as well.

    Your idea of “no real incentives for change”, doesn’t go far enough. As perhaps we have to eliminate the ‘de-centives’ for change (the obstacles) before we talk about creating meaningful incentives.

  2. You think it is bad in North America, try it in France. I am in a Masters Program in IT Management in France and the lack of online support for an IT program is astounding, and this is a well known program, at least in France. The profs get up, talk for 3 hours, barely use their powerpoint presentations, certainly don’t do anything beyond that. During our semester end review I said I was disappointed in the program because there was nothing I learned that I couldn’t have learned in a book. The idea that a university classroom should be interactive and be something you can’t get by reading a book was a totally new concept for them. I am thinking I should just have done an online degree of some sort it would have been more convenient. Anyway, loved the article.

  3. Thanks for a great post. I teach physiotherapy in South Africa and a small part of me dies every time I hear someone say that they “do” technology as part of their teaching. Then they usually go on to say how they now accept assignments through the LMS.

    One of our biggest challenges in South African higher education is a technologically illiterate faculty, many of which don’t have internet access at home. Together with an “old guard” who won’t change their practice because their methods have worked for 30 years and who don’t see any reason to change, means that it’s going to take some time to move forward.

  4. Tony, thanks for providing a clear voice of disappointment regarding elearning and OER in public institutions. Last week I heard someone describe an imbalance in the higher education sector: the for-profit sector is gaining market share by increasing access and convenience through elearning, while the traditional quality brands (the public and non-profit institutions)are not participating as they could in these areas of growth. He sees opportunities for the “rightful owners of quality” to recapture this lost ground. However, I think the problem is one of values and framing – many “traditional holders of quality” see themselves as place-based institutions and define themselves as such. Their value systems which drive incentives and investments are defined by this framing. Perhaps if they could define themselves as communities that ALSO have a place, it could effectively reframe their actions to implement what you describe in your post.


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