Photo of university building
University of Saskatchewan

I apologise for the lack of postings this past week. I have been on the road, visiting the University of Saskatchewan in central Canada and giving a keynote at the Association for the Advancement of Computers in Education e-Learn 2010 conference in Orlando, Florida. I’ll post separately about the AACE conference.

The University of Saskatchewan is the major research university in the province and has a distinguished history, especially in distance education. It is a classic example of a dual-mode institution, offering both traditional campus-based programs, but also an extensive array of credit and non-credit distance education programs.

Best practices in university distance education

I gave a presentation to faculty and staff on ‘Best Practices in University Distance Education‘. I covered the following topics:

  • Rationale for DE
  • DE or blended learning?
  • planning programs
  • quality
  • technology
  • business models
  • organization
  • conclusions

In the presentation, I argued that decisions about technology should be made primarily at the program level (bachelor, master, certificate) with a view to the progression of students from dependent to independent learners. This would mean less online learning for instance in the first year of a bachelor’s program, and much more in the final year. Also this decision should be influenced by the skills and competencies to be developed through the program, the profiles/characteristics of the students (full-time, lifelong learners, etc.) and by the requisites of the subject area (extent of hands-on training versus conceptual learning). A pdf copy of the slides can be obtained from here. (7 MBs)


The University of Saskatchewan has a long and distinguished history in distance education, being one of the first to pioneer the use of satellites for university distance education, and it still has a province-wide video-conferencing network. Unfortunately, as often happens with broadband multipoint video-conferencing going through a bridge, there were difficulties with the technology during my presentation, which prevented me from engaging with participants in the other three sites. I find that broadband video-conferencing works well between two points, but as soon as you go through a bridge to more than two sites, problems inevitably seem to happen, especially if means creating a set of links specially for an event, rather than a regular, stable network of sites. In this respect, I find web-based conferencing between multiple sites, using Adobe Connect or Elluminate, much more stable technically. However, either form of video-conferencing is not my preferred way of doing distance education, as despite years of experience, and training in video-conferencing techniques, I still find it hard to fully engage the audience in the remote sites when I also have a live audience in front of me, especially if the technology is rocky. However, I know of others who seem to manage this much better than me.

Demographics and aboriginal education

One factor that is leading to a renewed effort in distance learning at the U of S is changing demographics. The population is both declining somewhat in number and aging, with the exception of the relatively large aboriginal population, which is booming. Although many aboriginals have moved to the cities of Regina and Saskatoon, many still live in relatively remote parts of Northern Saskatchewan. I learned that the University of Saskatchewan has one of the largest proportion of aboriginal students in North America, and works collaboratively with aboriginal communities and some of the two year colleges, such as Northlands Community College, to deliver programs into aboriginal communities, mainly on an expensive face-to-face basis. With the difficulties currently being faced by the First Nations University of Canada, the role of the University of Saskatchewan in working with aboriginal communities and students becomes even more important. The U of S experience to date is that ‘straight’ distance education does not work so well for most aboriginals, who prefer teaching and learning to be delivered with a community focus and with strong input from aboriginal people in design and content to reflect aboriginal values. (I would be particularly interested in learning of successful models of distance education by or for aboriginal communities, in Canada or elsewhere, such as Australia, New Zealand or Latin America).

Although the focus is not specifically on aboriginal students, the university rightly sees distance education as enabling it to recruit students who would not be able or willing to come to the campus at Saskatoon, or to support those who wish to attend the university satellite campuses in Prince Albert and Regina. Another important target group for distance education programs would be lifelong learners within easy reach of the university, but who are working full time with families (Saskatoon has a growing high tech industry), or working adults across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The latter market is also served by Athabasca University, but U of S has a number of research-based programs that are unique that are or could be offered by distance education.

I also met with learning technology and IT support staff, and some senior administrators. The main interest during my visit was in using best practices for designing and delivering distance education, and the appropriate use of web 2.0 technologies for new distance education courses and programs.

Lastly, there is such a thing as a Saskatoon joke. One goes like this: I arrived in the USA direct from Saskatoon. At US immigration, I was asked: ‘And where are you coming from?’ Very carefully, I said, ‘Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.’ The immigration officer looked at me, picked up the phone and said: ‘Send a translator over. I’ve got a guy here who don’t speak English.’

Photo of lake
Northern Saskatchewan


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