January 20, 2018

Archives for July 2011

Demand for online learning likely to grow in British Columbia

The Seaspan shipyard in North Vancouver - part of the $35 billion bid to build Canada's navy

Last week the BC Provincial government released two reports critical to the economic future of the province, and which have implicit implications for online learning in British Columbia.

British Columbia (2011) BC Labour Market Outlook 2010-2020 Victoria BC: WorkBC

This document provides the following key information:

  • 1,027,400 job openings are projected for B.C. over the next ten years.
  • Tight labour market conditions, with demand exceeding supply projected provincewide by 2016.
  • Over one million job openings are expected in B.C. by 2020.
  • Close to two-thirds of these openings will be due to retirements and aging workforce (certainly one less e-learning consultant by 2020).
  • One-third of job openings will be new jobs due to economic growth.
  • New migrants to B.C. are expected to fill one-third of job openings to 2020 (thus by implication two-thirds will have to be supplied by people already in BC).
  • Approximately 78 per cent of job openings over the next decade will require some post-secondary education and training or a university degree
  • The skill level and market success of British Columbians will depend to a large extent on increasing skills levels of those already in the work force, and teaching new skills to people who are not currently working.
  • Responding to the increasing need for skilled workers in B.C., the government is investing over $470 million in jobs training and skills development programs this year (but this was before the report – what will it do in addition?).

Vancouver Shipyards is also bidding for a $35 billion shipbuilding contract from the Canadian Navy. If it wins this it will require heavy investment in local universities and colleges to develop the required skilled workforce over the next 30 years, as the current shipbuilding industry has been allowed to wither to almost nothing.

British Columbia (2011) Skills for Growth: British Columbia’s Labour Market Strategy to 2020 Victoria BC: Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development

The second report from the BC Provincial Government lays out its strategies and priorities for meeting market needs, including a target of 90% of youth transitioning from K-12 to post-secondary training, and 80% of the working adult population having post-secondary education ‘aligned with British Columbia’s economic needs.’ Its three priorities are:

  1. Increase the Skill Level and Labour Market Success of British Columbians
  2. Attract Workers and Entrepreneurs from Outside the Province Who Meet British Columbia’s Regional Economic Needs
  3. Improve Workplace Productivity

However, there is no mention of the need for alternative delivery methods for educating or training this workforce in this document.


First congratulations to a government that I don’t generally support on doing this essential strategic planning. The reports are well researched and set clear goals and priorities.

However, it does smack a little of government silo decision-making. The second report needed to have been done jointly with the two ministries responsible for k-12 and post-secondary education (and the Federal immigration office), since the the three strategies depend essentially on investment, policies and contributions from these areas. Two of the three priorities (increased skill levels and increased workplace productivity) require more and better outcomes from the education and training systems.

In particular, it is hard to see how all these people can be trained through full time attendance at colleges and universities. Many of these will have to work and study at the same time, especially if two-thirds of the jobs have to come from existing British Columbians. This presents great opportunities for online and flexible learning in the province. However, the current provincial government doesn’t have a good track record in supporting programs for working adults, despite good intentions.

At the moment, there are approximately 60,000 British Columbians who started an on-campus apprenticeship program and never completed it. Completion rates for on-campus apprenticeship programs are a dismal 35%.

The BC government established an ePrentice program to train people in the workforce, but the Industry Training Authority, which administered the program, this year cancelled the funding after one year of operation, despite successful programs for auto mechanics and cooks with 75-80% completion rates. The sheer stupidity of this decision is now evident, but don’t look for anything to replace it any time soon, despite over $100 million in grants to the ITA from the provincial government. (see Beyond the campus: hope, trades training and skulduggery for more on this.)

It will be interesting to see how the BC Ministry of Advanced Education responds to the report. It could start by making some significant changes at the ITA.


Marshall McLuhan and his relevance to teaching with technology

Today (July 21) is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan. Although I was not consciously aware of it at the time, McLuhan turned out to be one of the biggest influences on my thinking about the use of technology for teaching. I first read McLuhan’s ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’,’The Medium is the Message’ and ‘Understanding Media’ in 1969, just as I was starting a new job doing research on the television and radio programs produced by the BBC for the Open University.

At the time, I was baffled by the books. McLuhan was not a scientist or a sociologist, but a professor of English literature. There seemed no empirical basis for his radical conclusions about the nature of technology and its impact on society. He also wrote in a metaphorical and poetic style that was quite at odds with my training as an empirical psychologist (although I did study Jung, and saw strong connections between McLuhan’s ideas and Jungian thinking – which made McLuhan even more unacceptable to me at the time.) All this of course preceded the Internet and the World Wide Web by 25 years or more.

The medium is the message

However, it became clear as I started to collect data on students’ responses especially to the television programs that something odd was going on. Students responded much more emotionally to the BBC/OU television programs than to the printed course modules, either hating or loving the programs. It was clear that the OU students (and most were mature adults) responded quite differentially to concrete or abstract representations of knowledge, to print and to television for study purposes.

Going back to McLuhan, in the Gutenberg Galaxy he wrote:

Print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral. [This has resulted in] the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, … the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] ….. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.’

This is a pretty good description of universities, so when television started to be used for university teaching, it came as quite a shock to both traditional academics and the Open University students. It should be noted that the BBC producers did NOT replicate the university lecture by using talking heads, but focused instead on non-linear documentaries that were meant to illustrate the academic principles and ideas in the texts, and concrete examples of abstract concepts through cases, models and animation (see Bates, 1984, for more analysis of the role of TV and radio for teaching). In other words, the medium was used quite differently from print (and in my view very appropriately), but for many of our students this was not what they considered a university education to be (but to the credit of many OU academics at the time, they were excited by the teaching possibilities of television and contributed greatly to the design of the programs).

In my research, the concept of ‘the medium is the message’ was beginning to roll out before my eyes, even though I did not connect the dots at the time. Students were learning differently from television. I find that academics still struggle to understand the potential of non-print media for higher education, because higher education has been defined by the concepts of ‘analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering’ which McLuhan argued were the result of print-based representations of knowledge. However, other media offer different ways of representing knowledge that can be as equal or even superior to knowledge represented through print. (One medium is not necessarily better than another – they are just different, and the value of a medium will depend to some extent on the context and purposes for which it is used – to which McLuhan never gave sufficient recognition)

Hot and cool media

Another McLuhan concept I really struggled with was his classification of hot and cool media. Here I will quote the excellent Wikipedia entry on McLuhan:

Some media, like the movies, were “hot”—that is, they enhance one single sense, in this case vision, in such a manner that a person does not need to exert much effort in filling in the details of a movie image. McLuhan contrasted this with “cool” TV, which he claimed requires more effort on the part of the viewer to determine meaning, and comics, which due to their minimal presentation of visual detail require a high degree of effort to fill in details that the cartoonist may have intended to portray. A movie is thus said by McLuhan to be “hot”, intensifying one single sense “high definition”, demanding a viewer’s attention, and a comic book to be “cool” and “low definition”, requiring much more conscious participation by the reader to extract value. “Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue.”

Hot media usually, but not always, provide complete involvement without considerable stimulus. For example, print occupies visual space, uses visual senses, but can immerse its reader. Hot media favour analytical precision, quantitative analysis and sequential ordering, as they are usually sequential, linear and logical. They emphasize one sense (for example, of sight or sound) over the others. For this reason, hot media also include radio, as well as film, the lecture and photography. Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term “cool media” as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean “detached.” 

There are many reasons why I still struggle with McLuhan’s ideas here. First, the allocation of ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ seemed to me at the time to be the wrong way round – I was getting hot reactions to the TV programs and ‘cool’ reactions to the print material. However, this is mainly a language issue. Hot and cool for McLuhan did not represent emotion so much as cognitive engagement or mental effort (hot) or detachment or ‘mindlessness’ (cool). Even within his own definition though, the classifications seemed arbitrary. Why would a film require less cognitive engagement than TV?

Nevertheless, McLuhan was on to something here, although it requires a considerable reworking of what he actually wrote. I think there is a distinction to be made between the way different media require the use of different senses. For instance, print is entirely visual, radio is entirely auditory, television and film combine both vision and sound. What McLuhan was discussing though was as much about what he perceived to be the cognitive quality of different media as about the way they draw on the senses, and here is where I really differ with McLuhan’s views. Any medium can be designed so that it requires high or low levels of cognitive engagement. I would argue that film can and these days usually does require more cognitive engagement than television, although this is often frequently reversed, depending on the film or TV program. In other words, McLuhan was guilty of over-generalization, and at the end of the day, I still find his distinction between hot and cool media really flawed and confusing.

McLuhan and the Internet

Many argue (and I would agree) that McLuhan’s main legacy is his anticipation of the Internet and its impact on culture and society 25 years in advance of its invention. In particular, people have latched on to his use of the term ‘global village’ (although others attribute the original coining of the term to his colleague at the University of Toronto, Harold Innis):

McLuhan wrote that the visual, individualistic print culture would soon be brought to an end by what he called “electronic interdependence”: when electronic media replace visual culture with aural/oral culture. In this new age, humankind will move from individualism and fragmentation to a collective identity, with a “tribal base. (Wikipedia)

Again, though, it is easy to misinterpret what McLuhan was actually saying (a common complaint of McLuhan was that critics were constantly misrepresenting him). For McLuhan, a global village was not necessarily a good thing:

…as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. (Gutenberg Galaxy, p.32)

This certainly fits with my fears about the potential dangers of Facebook and Google.


It’s a long time since I last read McLuhan. He’s one of those authors often quoted but rarely read in the original these days. As a result, I’ll probably go to the library and try to re-read him again. However, at this stage, although I am now much more aware of his influence on my thinking than I gave credit for 25 years ago, I still have strong reservations about the value of his writing.

It is easy to be entranced by the scope and range of his ideas, by his often vivid choice of phrase, and by the often deliberate obfuscation and lack of linearity in his writing. McLuhan was for me more artist than sage, more wrong than right, especially in his later years (when it has been argued he suffered from a brain tumor). But he certainly was an original thinker who raised questions about the relationship between media and culture, and the world is certainly richer as a result of his thinking.



There is further discussion of this topic on LinkedIn: Media and Learning

Learning to Teach Online: a Professional Development resource

The University of New South Wales, Australia, hosts a site with short five minute videos of interviews with experienced online instructors, giving advice on topics such as planning your online class, considerations for choosing technology for teaching, should you use an an LMS or the open web, etc. The videos are accompanied by 4-6 page pdfs with tips and additional information.

The Learning to Teach Online project is a free professional development resource designed to help teachers from any discipline, whether experienced in online teaching or not, to gain a working understanding of successful online teaching pedagogies that they can apply in their own unique teaching situations. The project has been funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC)


If you are looking for materials to motivate faculty to get some training in online teaching, take a look, but in my view this site just scratches the surface of what is needed. I was glad to see video being used to present information, and it’s great that these materials have been made publicly available for free. Unfortunately, though, I found these clips to be so short and superficial that they really didn’t provide any real help at all. Telling instructors to put pedagogy before technology is, of course, sensible advice, but what does it mean in practical terms without some examples? Start simple is also sensible, but there is more to online teaching than just keeping it simple, as useful as that is. This is typical of the level of advice in most of the videos. There was no information about evaluation or research of different online teaching strategies and very few of the accompanying pdfs had any publications that reflect research and best practice in the field. It’s as if the whole area of online learning is just being discovered for the first time.

It does though fit well with what I call the amateurish, ‘it’s up to you’, professional development model of asking those with just a bit more experience to help those without any.

Isn’t it time we put training for online learning (indeed all training in post-secondary teaching) on a more professional basis, built around research into learning, and best practices in online teaching linked to theory and practical examples, with evaluation and research supporting such practices? For these reasons I find the professional development material from the UK’s JISC and the Australian Flexible Learning Framework much more professional and useful.

International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Sydney, Australia

The CoCo Research Centre at the University of Sydney is hosting the International Conference of the Learning Sciences between 2-6 July, 2012.

The theme of the conference is the Future of Learning.

The submission deadline for Papers, Posters, and Symposia is November 1, 2011.

Click here for more details

Thoughts on the history and future of distance education

The penny post resulted in the beginning of commercial correspondence education when Isaac Pitman used it to teach his method of writing shorthand in 1840 in Britain

Capella University is a for-profit online university based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It offers a graduate course on the Delivery of Distance Education as part of its instructional design in online learning specialization.

As part of that course, I was interviewed, together with Michael Simonson, Professor of Instructional Technology and Distance Education at Nova Southeastern University, Florida, by Dr. Nan Thornton, program chair at Capella. The 45 minute audio recording of this discussion on the past and future of distance education covers the following topics:

  • Early involvement and dramatic changes in distance education
  • Leaders in distance education
  • Challenges in implementing high quality distance education
  • Opportunities and challenges for regional and global distance education
  • Key events that have dramatically impacted on distance education
  • Predictions on the future of distance education.

The discussion is archived in Adobe Presenter.

One reason I can talk authoritatively at least about the history of distance education is that I AM history!

Moble learning: the future