Photo of statue

In an earlier post, I reported that Maxim Jean-Louis has been appointed special adviser to the Minister to set out ‘Objective and Guiding Principles For the Establishment of an Ontario Online Institute’. He sent out a list of key questions to a number of experts, including Stephen Downes.

Stephen has published an extensive response to these questions at:

I don’t always agree with Stephen’s views on e-learning, but his response to the questions is excellent and comprehensive, and I recommend strongly that you should read them, as their relevance extends well beyond the Ontario border.

I have been working a little behind the scenes, as I am a research associate at Contact North, so Maxim is well aware of my views. Hence my response to his five questions were briefer and less comprehensive than Stephen’s. However, for the record, and as a comparison, here is my response.

1.      What is the biggest challenge facing online and distance learning in general today?

Lack of pedagogical training of instructors. This means they have no alternative model of teaching other than the one they were brought up in, i.e. the teacher-controlled, didactic model. This lack of theory prevents them from redesigning teaching to take advantage of new technologies, and also results in their hostility to and fear of technology. This challenge really needs to be addressed in graduate school, when students are taking their Ph.D.s, as retro-fitting experienced teachers is difficult and expensive. This means the OOI should be working with institutional leaders and faculty development offices to bring in a system-wide, systematic approach to initial training in post-secondary educational teaching, based on modern research and theory, especially as it has world leaders in this area (e.g. Tom Carey, Christensen-Hughes, Mighty, and others). However, it is no good just relying on a voluntary approach to training. It needs to be mandated in some way, so all potential teachers in post-secondary education have initial training.

2.      What is the biggest opportunity that online and distance learning in general has today?

It offers the opportunity to help learners develop the knowledge and skills they need in the 21st century. Online learning does this by integrating the tools knowledge workers will be using within their learning, as well as their work. It enables students to develop knowledge management skills and ICT skills embedded within their discipline area. In other words, online learning could give Ontario a real economic advantage if this change permeates the system. But teaching has to be re-designed to exploit technology and to achieve these goals.

3.      Keeping in mind the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for online and distance learning today, what is the one overriding step that Ontario ought to take as it attempts to take its online learning system to the next level?

This is by far the most difficult question to answer. Radical change is needed in all post-secondary education systems, and this change is unlikely to come from the institutions themselves. On the other hand, change has to come from within, rather than be imposed from outside. So whatever the government/OOI does, it needs to be both bold yet at least not be so off-putting that it provokes strong institutional resistance. What I think it needs to do is provide inspiration, a concrete vision for learning in the 21st century built around the intelligent use of technology for teaching and learning, but present this vision as a topic for discussion and development through the key stakeholders. We are talking about a 10 year process here, but real change in higher education will not come quickly without it being disastrous.

4.      Conversely what is the one thing it should absolutely avoid?

Where does one start?! I think the most dangerous thing the provincial government could do is raise expectations then fail to deliver. In particular, it should avoid looking for solutions that have no financial risk or commitment. A little funding can go a long way in leveraging existing resources, but too little funding will result in cynicism and set back online learning for a decade. Once established, what should OOI absolutely avoid? Duplicating existing services, as this will lead to a strong negative reaction from the very stakeholders it needs to support its work.

5.      Which current or emerging technology has the potential of radically transforming online and distance learning?

I hesitated over this. The current ‘vogue’ is open educational resources, and certainly the philosophy of making online materials open for public/educational use is one I strongly support. However, the weakness of the current OER movement is that it focuses solely on the supply side and does not look at the demand side, and in particular, the necessary learning context that is needed to support the use of OERs. There are also major quality issues around the material being offered, not in terms of academic quality, but in terms of its use by third parties (pedagogical and design issues, again). For this reason, my vote goes to mobile technologies, because they replicate the technologies that people will be using outside education. Thus while any jurisdiction could be involved with OERs, Ontario has significant competitive factors in the mobile learning area, if it can get them all together. However, again on the design side there is a number of challenges, and the OOI could be a very useful organization for bringing together education and the corporate side to make Ontario a world leader in this area.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Tony. Re the issue of “necessary learning context that is needed to support the use of OERs”, I would expand that beyond learning resources to include teaching practices. We have a lot more work to do before we can predict with confidence how particular methods will interact with local variability to produce exemplary learning. You might find the recent work at the Carnegie Foundation to be of value in articulating the way research evidence and local context come together to yield improvements in teaching and learning, particular the recent essay on Getting Ideas into Action (

    Tom Carey


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here