The conference

I’ve just got back from Toronto where last week I was one of more than 1,400 participants from 95 countries in the International Council for Distance Education’s world conference on online and distance education, with the theme ‘Teaching in a Digital Age – Rethinking Teaching and Learning.’

What did I do at the conference?

This conference was a bit different for me as I was heavily engaged in a number of different activities, including:

As a result, I met lots of people from all over the world, as well as from Canada and the U.S.A. (good), but unfortunately I was able to attend only a few of the other sessions (bad).

This was a pity, as there were over 150 sessions with more than 500 presenters, with some key one hour sessions with speakers such as Stephen Downes, Phil Hill, Stephen Murgatroyd, Richard Katz, Simon Nelson of FutureLearn, and many panel sessions. Therefore what I observed was just a small fraction of what was going on, but here, for the record, is what I took away from the conference.

The future is scary

The conference did nothing to allay my concerns about the future of post-secondary education. It is clear that post-secondary education will eventually be targeted on a significant scale by global, highly commercial, digital Internet companies, such as Amazon, Alibaba, and Facebook, and by technologies such as big data, massive online courses, and artificial intelligence. (This was particularly clear from the presentations by Richard Katz, and by Simon Nelson, the CEO of FutureLearn).

The only thing that is holding them back at the moment are successful business models for mass higher education, but it is only a matter of time before these start to emerge. These business models are likely to include partnerships with or the eventual acquisition of existing ‘branded’ universities and colleges.

There is no doubt in my mind that the elite institutions such as Oxford and Harvard will survive by offering a completely different, campus-based experience for those rich enough to afford it, and/or through commercial partnerships, but the impact of the digital commercialisation of higher education will probably drive into the ground many less prestigious private and public universities and especially two year colleges.

Smaller, independent but less prestigious private universities and colleges are surprisingly perhaps most at risk from global digital companies. Adnan Quayyum in his review of distance education internationally reported for instance that in Latin America it is the children from poorer families who go to the private universities, while children from more wealthy families tend to go to the public institutions, because their admission standards are higher. Students from poorer families will rush to lower-priced global digital companies, particularly if their degrees or diplomas are internationally recognised.

In a world where billions do not have a chance of post-secondary education, why would the dominance of global digital institutions be a bad thing? There is clearly a huge gap that large, commercial companies could fill. The issue though is whether such commercial ventures will be able to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. Ironically, by focusing on the immediate demands of employers, they may not produce the skills and knowledge that students will need into the future – because new work and new needs will emerge.

There is also the issue of cultural imperialism. The most likely countries to develop such global commercial enterprises will be China, India and the United States. It will be their visions of what constitutes higher education that are likely to prevail.

The other danger is more technological. The use of big data and AI may help reduce costs, but will they focus on particular types of learning and students? Will such technologies be focused on learning that is more easily or more cost-effectively automated – while ignoring or driving out more expensive and more ‘human’ forms of learning? Indeed, will we know whether we are interacting with a teacher or a machine? Will the use of analytics screen out students with a higher risk of failure, rather than giving them a chance? 

….but there is hope, too

At the same time, I heard two more hopeful messages at the conference. The first came from Richard Katz, who pointed out that the future is not inevitable; institutions can create their own future. Becoming experts in digital learning as distinct from digital delivery provides a possible competitive advantage for public institutions but that means paying much more attention to effective teaching than at present. Public universities and colleges will certainly have to be more nimble and move faster than at present in changing their teaching methods if they are to survive. 

The second message is that the globalisation and digital massification of higher education is just one, relatively small, part of a much wider problem, and that is the impact on competition, freedom of choice, national and regional cultures, and privacy issues resulting from global, hegemonic digital businesses. In order to protect their citizens against financial exploitation, an increasing loss of choice in the marketplace, loss of national or regional cultures, and above all the loss of jobs and tax revenues, governments will need to start regulating these global companies more rigorously and more effectively, probably through international inter-governmental agreements. The European Union has already started down this road.

It will be important to ensure that such regulation also includes the protection of home-grown public education systems, both k-12 and post-secondary, against the commercialisation and globalization of education. However, these larger macro issues were beyond the scope of the conference but will need to be addressed if public post-secondary education is to survive.

Although this was the most overwhelming concern I had coming out of the conference, there were several other small nuggets that were more positive.

Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron?

The reason I ask if online learning for indigenous people is an oxymoron is because I am not convinced that indigenous ways of learning (or pedagogy), heavily based on oral and inter-personal communication embedded in a strong ‘local’ culture, are compatible with online learning, or at least the standardised online learning design models that currently predominate.

Put another way, what indigenous models of online learning would be needed to reflect indigenous pedagogy and cultures? Or is online learning just not compatible with indigenous pedagogies?

These were questions I had before attending the conference. Thus one of the most interesting sessions I attended involved speakers from four different organisations offering or researching online education for indigenous people.

The first was a presentation by Jennifer Wemigwans of York University about a Canadian indigenous web site,, which may be considered a digital [knowledge] bundle because it is a collection of teachings by respected Elders and traditional teachers who share indigenous knowledge.

Corinne Finnie discussed a needs assessment framework for enabling rural and indigenous communities in Alberta to respond to economic diversification and community development, using synchronous, multi-site delivery models.

Lyn Petersen discussed a set of online tools designed to provide effective transitions into postgraduate study for Indigenous (Māori and Pacific) health professional students entering the University of Auckland from diverse workplaces and regions across New Zealand. The tools aim to build culturally responsive transition practices and pedagogies, mediated through technology.

Aline Germain-Rutherford of the University of Ottawa discussed a multi-institutional project, Language Integration through e-Portfolio (LITE): A plurilingual e-learning approach combining western and indigenous perspectives.

If I add the two Pockets of Innovation I did involving a Mi’kmaw MOOC and a course on aboriginal literature, it can be seen that there is a growing if uncoordinated interest in online learning for aboriginal and indigenous peoples. Maybe it’s time to set up an online community of practice on this topic, so experience can be shared. However, I did come away believing that it may be possible to develop online learning in ways that are compatible with indigenous culture.


Printed books are still popular

Maxim Jean-Louis (the President of Contact North) and I had a disagreement before the conference. He thought it would be a good idea to print out lots of copies of my open, online textbook for the conference and get me to sign copies of the book for participants. Since the book is 500 pages+ of A4 size, I though this was a dumb idea. Who would want to carry a book weighing 2 lbs or more on a plane half way around the world when they could download it at home for free?

Well, as always, Maxim was right and I was wrong. I signed over 600 copies of the book at the conference. However, this enabled me to meet and talk briefly with many people that  would otherwise have been impossible in such a large conference, where one tends to drift towards those you already knew before the conference. So thank you, Maxim. It’s nice to know my book has made it all the way to Papua New Guinea! And many people clearly like to have a printed copy as well as online access.

An excellent conference

Although I am a research associate at Contact North and hence might be expected to sing hurrahs for the conference organisation, I must doff my hat to Maxim and his colleagues who put on one of the best large conferences I have ever attended.

Everything worked like clockwork: all sessions started and ended on time and more importantly almost all the speakers turned up, a great deal of care had been made to put together several presentations within each session that had a common theme, the main one-hour presentations were of high quality, and the mix of people at the conference was exhilarating.

And I’m getting to like Toronto as I get to know it better.


  1. Indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed your commentary and what came to mind was the distinction leaders make between panic and urgency. In the field of open and distance learning I’ve learned after thirty-five years that the way most quasi-futurists and mis-informed leaders get attention in a highly competitive market is to create panic by telling institutions they have fallen behind, the for-profits are stealing your customer base, your institution will become extinct if you don’t change, and then dangle a list of futuristic changes that are coming and if your institution wants to survive and thrive then you better get aboard the train to the promise land. Propaganda at its best and worst – now that is an oxymoron.

    So what does this mean in practical terms? It means printed books aren’t going anywhere; technology is not a panacea for solving all your problems – institutional or personal; f2f instruction is still valued and Harvard and Oxford don’t do it just because they have rich kids – they actually believe in its effectiveness just like ODL evangelists believe in online and other forms of distance education. Fear, panic and making people afraid is no strategy and has no place in education. One does not have to be a futurist or university presidents/vice chancellor to understand that eternal truth. There is no questions institutions must change but fear tactics is a daft way to approach this process particularly when the predictions seldom come to pass. Urgency yes – panic no.

    Distance education in the U.S. has universally been dual mode – meaning institutions started as traditional f2f campus-based institutions and added on ODL to continuing education and/or outreach units. I spent twenty-five years in U.S. universities and distance education is generally seen as an add-on and when power politics dominates due to major budget cuts or diminishing student enrollments, the response is normally in support of traditional faculty and the traditional academic mission at the expense of distance education, international education and paradoxically student services. No amount of fear and panic will change this fact even in 2017 The panic approach will do little to change this dynamic amongst American higher education leaders.

    When you make people afraid they make poor decisions because the parameters for those decisions is based on ‘big bad data’ which means it completely neutralizes good judgment. Cultural imperialism or academic expansion has been around for the past two centuries and we are actually seeing more regional embraces of home culture than any time in history. Where do these futurists get these alternative facts. Conferences are important although many of my colleagues spend most of their time getting on airplanes, going to another meeting, and then coming home only to realize that when you go to a Beatles Convention (that’s a metaphor folks) all of the other participants already agree with you before, during and after you attend. And regrettably this choir all sings the same tunes. Perhaps not genuine debate – it is possible it is debate about things people generally agree upon in principle in advance but have different vantage points or contexts. And in the end this’GroupThink may be more scary that another consultant or futurist ringing the panic alarm to change or be left in the ashes of history.

    Indeed, there is something immoral about abandoning one’s own judgment – we need to start thinking again for ourselves sooner rather than later. The best way to control our future is to create it ourselves. I agree with you there are hopes for the future in the profession and these will have to respond to many global challenges. At the same time, my view is that we have an abundance of leaders and an absence of leadership across all sectors in society. Will we have enlightened ODL leaders who can think for themselves, make sound decisions based on good judgment that have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people especially the underserved and disadvantaged student populations? The verdict is still out on this question yet I remain hopeful that many brave new worlds will emerge in the decades ahead and higher education for all will become more reality than rhetoric.

  2. Yes, it is true that the printed books are still popular. I have downloaded your open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age immediately it was published online around two years ago, however, I still have the interest to read the printed copy and of course, take the opportunity at the Toronto conference to have you signed on my copy on site. With two copies, only one copy signed, in my luggage, I flew back to China. Showing off your signature on the copy in my social media groups, I have started again another round of downloading and reading your open textbook by the teachers of English, and for those who knows little English to read the Chinese translation version, the translator is one of my colleagues, though I advocate the English version first. Some people like reading digital versions, some people like to read printed copies, that is the future, the more diverse future. The key point is that people in the future should like reading longer pieces of writings, not just like watch video clips and write and read twitter messages.


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