The context

OK, I’m not James Stewart, and it wasn’t Washington, and this posting’s a little late, due to other things, but this is a report on my presentation to the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology on June 9.

The committee was studying access to post‑secondary education, and the theme of the day was distance learning. Besides myself, Thomas Chase, Vice-President Academic, Royal Roads University, and Lori Van Rooijen, Vice‑President, Advancement, of Athabasca University were also making presentations. We each had a maximum of seven minutes to make a presentation, followed by 90 minutes of questions from the 12 senators that led to responses from the three ‘witnesses’.

When thinking about what I wanted to say, I tried to take into account the Canadian Federal government’s relatively restricted jurisdiction over post-secondary education, which is mainly a provincial responsibility, although the Federal government does play an important role in providing financial aid to students and funding research. I was also aware that my two colleagues from Royal Roads and Athabasca would cover many of the issues associated with access to distance learning.

The presentations

Thomas Chase started, and drew attention to the Royal Roads pedagogical model: a blended, cohort‑based, team‑focused approach to learning.  The majority of RRU’s graduate programs are organized around a series of intensive on‑campus residencies lasting two or three weeks and involving the full cohort in team‑based learning that is centered on problem‑solving: in a word, active and experiential learning for highly motivated and very mature students.  These residencies alternate with distance‑learning segments during which students work online with their team under the guidance of a faculty supervisor.  The emphasis is on discovery and problem‑solving rather than rote learning or memorization. He claimed that the RRU model, therefore, keeps the total cost of post‑secondary education down by reducing the personal and professional dislocation associated with traditional face‑to‑face delivery on an urban campus.

In my presentation, I focused not so much on distance education itself, but on the need for more flexible access to post-secondary education for all students, and in particular to ensure that students had flexible access throughout life. We need a public policy debate about how lifelong learning should be paid for. Should they be subsidized to the same rate as student coming out of high school or should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay full cost? Should fees be student-related or program-related?

I also pointed out that unlike nearly every other country in the OECD, Canada does not have a national strategy to support e‑learning or the use of technology in teaching. As a result Canada has lost its lead in e-learning and is slipping behind countries such as Australia and the UK.

My main point though was that Canada needs much more innovation in post-secondary teaching and especially in how teaching is delivered, to meet the needs of a vastly different market today from the one the system was originally designed for. A major problem is the lack of incentives for change, so I suggested the following, relatively low cost actions the Federal government could take to encourage change in our post-secondary institutions:

  • Create a virtual national centre for digital learning (some of its possible functions are included in the following suggestions)
  • Use federal funds for innovative national program delivery: programs that could be delivered across the country in a hybrid mode, with individual institutions providing the local support but a centralized online component that will be shared across institutions.
  • Establish a national depository or centre for Canadian open content
  • Establish competitive national awards for innovative instructors and programs.
  • Establish a national credit bank to enable free movement of students between Canadian public post-secondary educational institutions

In conclusion, I argued that there was a lack of an appropriate federal‑provincial structure to support flexible delivery of programs, particularly across provincial borders.

Lori Van Rooijen, Vice‑President, Advancement, Athabasca University stressed the importance of distance education, as offered by AU, in increasing access and flexibility, especially for working adults, and those too far removed from a local institution. As well as distance, socio-economic and cultural differences and the digital divide were also barriers to access. She noted that many student funding mechanisms apply only to full‑time students.  That automatically reduces opportunities for part‑time study.  While some funding is available, more funding programs targeted at the part‑time learner would encourage more people to pursue university or college education. She also argued for more funding in research and development that supported innovation and knowledge-based industries. Pointing out that two‑thirds of Athabasca University’s students are from outside the Province of Alberta, but Athabasca is a provincial institution, she argued that provincially-based funding and credit transfer strategies do not fit easily with the context of distance learning, which is national, not provincial, in its reach.


Looking at the transcript of the ensuing discussions, few fundamentally new points were added, but further examples were given that highlighted or clarified some of the points already made.

What next?

I’m not sure. We were the last of several meetings devoted to the topic. The transcript will be analysed by Federal government staff, together with all the other evidence presented, then I guess the committee will write a report with some recommendations that will go to the government for consideration.

Overall, it was an interesting experience, but it was rather like throwing paper boats into a river – I’m not sure where they will end up.

The value of a blog

Lastly, I was curious how I came to be asked, as I don’t represent any particular institution or lobby group. Apparently, one of the staff analysts found me as a result of an Internet search on distance education. So, if you are interested in a free trip to Ottawa (and I suggest you get out more if that’s your goal), keep on blogging!


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