Looking back: Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia Photo: Tony Bates

Looking at the traffic on my web site last week suggests many of you have already headed off for the holidays to a probably well-deserved break. However, the end of the year kind of snuck up on me – is 2019 almost over already? As Queen once sang, another one bites the dust. Better make a list of Christmas presents.

This does though give me a chance to look back over the year and reflect on some of the key developments I encountered. Having said this, I need to state that I have deliberately been reducing my work load, so I have been less engaged overall in online learning than in previous years.

Nevertheless, let’s start with what I actually did, then an analysis of the my blog posts over the last 12 months, then some conclusions I draw from this about what has been happening in online learning. If you’re already gone for the holidays, this will be waiting for you when you come back! (You can run, but you can’t hide.)

What I did in 2019

Teaching in a Digital Age

In such a fast evolving field, lots of changes can happen in four years. As a result, in 2019 I wrote a second edition of Teaching in a Digital Age, mainly additions to take account of emerging technologies. I also increased the number of activities, included relevant research published in the last four years (or that I missed in the first edition – thanks for the feedback!), and added a section on open pedagogy.

As a result if you print the book now it comes out at around 600 pages. However it was never designed to be printed, but more as a comprehensive set of resources on teaching in a digital age. Nevertheless, there are still demands for print copies, so I will produce in 2020 a slimmed down version that will be suitable for printing, but without the appendices and activities, with smaller illustrations, and some sections removed or edited that do not affect the overall thrust of the book.

The book continues to be in high demand with translation now in 10 languages and over 500,000 downloads (all probably by one obsessive-compulsive in Port Coquitlam).

The Canadian Digital Learning Research Association

I stepped back quite a bit from my engagement with CDLRA in 2019. We hired an excellent research associate, Nicole Johnson, who relieved me of the report writing. She also took on quite a bit of the administration of the project. Tricia Donovan is the Executive Director, and I am now on the Board of CDLRA, which is registered as a non-profit association.

2019 was the third year the survey was conducted (report here). The response rate was slightly down from 2018 but still covered 95% of all Canadian online student registrations. Online learning continues to grow at around 10 per cent per annum, even though overall enrolments are by and large flat.

Nevertheless institutions still face challenges:

  • lack of adequate strategies and planning for managing the increasing growth of online and digital learning
  • lack of faculty training for teaching digitally
  • problems in adequately tracking and measuring the impact of digital learning.

Lastly, CDLRA itself faces challenges in securing stable and adequate future funding for the research that is needed. Nevertheless the survey has more than proved its value, not only to institutions, but also to provincial governments.


I made a decision early in the year to avoid air travel as much as possible. I therefore personally presented at only four conferences in 2019:

  • CNIE, at UBC (a 99B bus ride from home)
  • BC’s ETUG 25th anniversary conference in Kamloops ( a bit further, on a small propellor plane)
  • Contact North’s Global Summit on Online Learning in Toronto
  • an extremely valuable eCampus Ontario focus group in Toronto on the CDLRA survey.

There was a one week trip though to Europe. At the invitation of Aalborg University, Denmark, which has a campus in Aalborg and another in Copenhagen, I gave a university-wide keynote and ran a workshop on the design of problem-based blended learning at each campus. I will be going back in January to do the same for Aalborg University’s whole School of Business.

In contrast, I did eight keynote presentations by video-conference to conferences or universities around the world:

  • Royal Roads University Master of Arts in Learning and Technology virtual symposium
  • Distance Education Teachers’ Training in Africa conference, in Lagos, Nigeria
  • ‘Building a 21st Century University’, for university administrators across South East Asia, organised by John Wiley and Co.
  • Inaugural conference for the UNESCO chair on Open Distance Learning, UNISA, Pretoria
  • 10th International Conference in Open and Distance Learning, Athens, Greece
  • A panelist on a Canada-wide webinar on online learning and adult literacy organised by ABC Life Literacy

Although I increasingly dislike giving lectures via video-conferencing, the technology generally worked well (despite a different platform being used in each of the eight presentations). My preference though is for Zoom.

The main problem is that I had to give these often in the middle of the night, including one night after a birthday party in Victoria when I had to use the ping-pong room in a motel at 4.00 am so as not to disturb my wife in the motel bedroom. I don’t think this was one of my better performances.

Contact North

I am still a research associate at Contact North, but this year I limited myself to two small contracts focused on Contact North’s policy and strategy.

Ryerson University

I am now Senior Advisor to the Chang School of Continuing Studies, which involves advice primarily on their research into serious games. Again, this is mainly done at a distance, although I include a visit every time I am in Toronto.

Looking back, it still looks quite a busy year, despite my efforts to cut down, but next year will be different!

Review of AI in HE

I also was part of an editorial group reviewing papers on AI in higher education for the International Journal of Technology in Higher Education. The articles are just coming out and should be finalised early in the new year. The result of this somewhat informed my blog post summarising articles on learning analytics from reviewing another journal issue from Distance Education.

My blog: What did you read in 2019?

I published 48 blog posts in 2019, roughly one a week, way down from previous years (I published 73 in 2018.) During 2019 the web site received an average of just under 700 hits a day, which is not a great deal below the average in other years, despite the reduced number of postings. This is because a lot of the hits are on old posts which I assume are being used as set readings on courses. The most popular of these are:

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age: 12,405 hits during 2019, although originally posted in 2014

Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching and learning: 7,855 hits in 2019, posted in 2014.

A short history of educational technology: 7,638 hits in 2019, posted in 2014

Another ‘old’ post worth noting is One reason we are not getting enough engineers in Canada: the professional associations: 8,318 hits in 2019, posted in 2017. This has generated over 30 comments and is a good expression of the frustration at the professional associations of engineering in Canada because they put up so many barriers to lifelong learners, and to immigrants with engineering degrees from other countries (or even other Canadian provinces). In particular they still refuse to accept any qualifications done at a distance (despite the fact that engineering itself is becoming increasingly virtual).

The following lists the most read of the new posts during 2019 (the older the post, the more likely it is to receive a higher number of hits):

2018 review of online learning: open pedagogy: 3,032 hits (posted right at the end of 2018, but read in 2019) 

Should university and college instructors ban cell phones in their classes? 1,756 hits. (Bit of a social media phenomenon, but still a serious question.)

The Coming Crisis in Canadian Post-secondary Education: 1 – External Developments 1,629 hits. This was one of a series of three posts on this topic which all received over 1,500 hits.

This of course reflects not only what readers were interested in, but also what I thought was worth posting about. Looking at the posts in 2019 that received few hits, these were mostly on fairly local topics, such as the release of the regional report on online learning in the Atlantic provinces of Canada (130 hits), Online Learning: the Danish experience (178), and the UK Open University’s 50th birthday (195). I’d better stick to items of general interest in the future.

Does this mean anything?

What did I take away from 2019? Well, I’m quite a bit removed from the coal face these days. My view is more from 10,000 feet, through the survey and my attendance at conferences (which are increasingly remote). Also I’m old, and one tends to be more negative as one gets older. But here’s my summary of 2019:

  • online learning continues to grow and evolve and become more important in post-secondary education;
  • there is a good deal of innovation in teaching taking place but it’s in pockets and not systemic or widely supported;
  • institutions are changing, but not deep enough and not fast enough for the needs of students in a digital age;
  • in general, instructors and educators are still in control of education, but that control is beginning to slip away as uninformed politicians (e.g. Doug Ford in Ontario), commercial organizations (e.g. OPMs), and computer scientists (AI applications) begin to look for cost savings or ‘efficiencies’ through automation and/or online learning
  • in some ways we are also beginning to lose control of educational technology as the application of AI grows, due to lack of transparency and explicability in the design of AI and learning analytics applications. Educators need to educate themselves on AI, and its strengths and weaknesses in education, and fight back against false understandings of learning and of the function of education often reflected in AI applications in education.

So overall a sombre review of 2019. I wish you all a great holiday period and hope you will come back energised and ready to take online learning in the right direction in 2020.


  1. Submitted by Maxim Jean-Louis, President/CEO, Contact North, Ontario



    You continue to offer sound and insightful insights through your frequent blogs, presentations and consulting and is a legend of online learning. In your blog post you offer some observations about the way online learning is developing, using 2019 as a year for observation. You make these basic points:

    · online learning continues to grow, develop and flourish at a rate faster than many organizations can fully absorb;

    · innovation is taking place in a great many places, but it is often isolated and disconnected – it takes place in pockets rather than at scale;

    · key developments are now being driven outside colleges and universities by commercial organizations, technology developers and politicians as each pushes boundaries and shape developments, often without in-depth knowledge of pedagogy; and

    · there is a danger that certain developments – especially AI but also augmented and virtual reality – will start to shape the future of online learning and that educators will be playing “catch-up” as these technology create their own momentum.

    I am more optimistic. Online learning has done a great deal to increase flexibility and access for many who would otherwise find higher education difficult. But there is more, much more to do.

    I draw a distinction between those for whom online learning is “access to flexibility” and those for whom online learning is “ critical access”. For this latter group, studying online is the only way in which they can access higher education at all. Who are these individuals? Those living in remote, rural communities with no access to a university or a college,; the indigenous in fly-in communities; first generation learners; persons with disabilities; the incarcerated who now seek to change their lives through learning; those on social assistance, the unemployed; the disadvantaged and marginalized; and finally the recent immigrant who needs access to learning while working to secure recognition of their foreign credentials. All of these individuals need online learning for “critical access”

    It is time for our post-secondary system to embrace new thinking for the next decade – the decade for intelligent systems in higher education. Rather than trying to use emerging technologies to get more people to adapt to our college and university systems, we could be using these technologies to offer new opportunities for learning. More points of access – our colleagues in New Zealand are aspiring to 365 admission points at some point early in the 2020’s – and the emergence of micro-credentials which are stackable and transferable represent opportunities to change the fundamentals of college and university learning. Coupled with 24×7 tutoring supported by AI, virtual co-ops and immersive learning we can begin to imagine new kinds of learning opportunities offered anywhere and at anytime.

    In addition, personalizing learning – both through the use of adaptive learning technologies and creating greater flexibility for learners to define their own learning pathways can transform the experience of college and university for a great many people.

    We can also imagine enhanced peer-to-peer networks for learning, which support learners pursuing active and socially engaged learning – learning that can have real impact while developing the skills needed for collaborative teamwork. Indeed, the emerging skills agenda suggests strongly the need for social and design based learning which is ideally suited to peer-to-peer problem-based learning networks, supported by intelligent systems and effective teaching.

    I accept that there are cautions and concerns about AI and cybersecurity – who would not be concerned? But I don’t see these as insurmountable barriers to innovation, development and change. In fact, I see the future as one in which educators, technology developers and content providers collaborate to create flexible learning opportunities for those who really need them.

    We do need to see innovation at an institutional level. New challenge based learning designs are being deployed within courses and at institution wide levels (see the work of Ecole 42 in Paris) and Woolf University is deploying blockchain and video-based learning for an intense personal learning experience based on the Oxbridge tutorial model. Continuing education divisions of conventional college and universities are providing new approaches to programs which can be recognized as part of degree and diploma programs and MOOC providers are expanding their micro-credential offerings (there are now over 820 of them). We need to see more institution wide change for the potential of online learning to be fully unleashed. But the key elements of these changes are already apparent.

    The 2020’s will be an interesting decade. Let us all be optimistic at its beginning, keeping an eye on the issues of concern but staying focused on the big prize: access to quality, flexible life-long learning for all, especially those who really need it to make a critical difference to their lives and livelihoods.

  2. Wow, thanks, Maxim! Especially for the links.

    Yes, I agree, we should be optimistic as we move into a new decade. Progress is being made, but there are also rapid and deep changes needed in higher education over these 10 years if the goals that you and I share are to be fully achieved.


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