November 18, 2017

‘Why does Canada have so much online learning?’

My workshop in Denmark on the design of blended learning 

Online learning in Canada 

I was doing my usual stuff in Denmark this week, a keynote on ‘Teaching for a digital age: why blended learning is so important,’ when someone at the end of my keynote asked me why does Canada have so much online learning.

The question kind of stopped me in my tracks. My presentation was about designing courses for a digital age, not about our recent survey, but I had thrown in a couple of slides to show the expansion of online learning both in the USA and in Canada over the last 10-15 years. Our survey did indicate quite clearly the following (among other things):

  • the vast majority of  post-secondary education institutions in Canada do offer at least some credit-based online learning courses
  • the rate of growth in fully online enrolments over the last five years has been strong (between 12-15% per annum)
  • online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all credit based teaching
  • as well as fully online courses, a large majority of Canadian universities and colleges are moving aggressively into blended and hybrid learning
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions consider online learning very or extremely important for their future.

Remember, this expansion is in credit-based online learning, not MOOCs. In Canada. less than 20% of institutions were developing MOOCs in the year 2015-2016.

But is this a lot? 

Well, everything’s relative. 

We tend to compare ourselves with the USA, and our results weren’t so different from the Babson and the more recent U.S. Federal government surveys, although making such comparisons are always fraught because the two systems are somewhat different. Nevertheless in comparison for instance with the U.S. public universities and two year colleges, it is likely that Canada has at least the same proportion of online course enrolments, if not more.

I’m not sure whether 12-15% of courses enrolments being fully online is a lot in absolute terms. There’s probably more room for growth yet, but I doubt if most of the existing campus-based institutions will go much over 20% of all their teaching being fully online. Where the real growth is likely to be from now on is in blended and hybrid learning.

I’m assuming from the question that Denmark does not have a lot of fully online or distance learning. However, I also came across a recent opinion piece from Richard Garrett of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, entitled: ‘Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?’. Garrett pointed out that in the United Kingdom:

‘distance, flexible and distributed’ students peaked at about 11% of undergraduates (c.220,000) and 10% of postgraduates (c.55,000) in 2009/10. By 2015/16, total distance enrollment had fallen by 35%, most obviously at sub-degree level but also among bachelor’s and master’s students. Over the same period, full-time students were up 9%.

This of course is completely different from what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada. So what is the explanation for this discrepancy between North America and at least two countries in Europe?

Key factors influencing growth in online learning

This is one of those questions where I think your guess will be as good as mine. This is an area where we need more facts and more research. However, here are my thoughts on this.

1. The growth of lifelong learning

With the development of a knowledge-based economy,and with the amount of research and knowledge increasing rapidly each year, more and more people will need to go on learning new things well after they finish their full-time post-secondary education. A lot of this can be done informally (such as through the Danish adult education centres or MOOCs), but there has certainly been strong growth in North America in fully online professional masters programs, for instance. Such programs will become increasingly important given the need for continuous learning in a knowledge-based society.

2. History and geography

It is important to understand that Denmark is a small, compact European country that you can drive across in five hours. Hardly anyone lives more than an hour’s drive (or bike ride) from a post-secondary institution, tuition is free, and there is an excellent campus-based higher education system – so there has probably been little demand for distance education programs in Denmark.

The University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitet), Odense

Also for many, many years Scandinavian countries have had a very strong adult education movement, where both credit and non-credit courses are taken in the long, dark evenings at local adult education centres, thus catering for lifelong learners.

On the other hand, in both Canada and many parts of the USA, many provinces and states established public, land-grant universities with a mission to provide not only on-campus education, but lifelong learning opportunities, particularly in health and education, for everyone in the state or province, including or especially those living in sparsely populated areas. At such institutions, distance education was offered long before online learning appeared. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, started offering correspondence-based distance education in the late 19th century, using the Royal Mounted Police to deliver the packages to remote areas. The University of British Columbia, one of the largest campus-based research universities in Canada, located in Vancouver, has offered distance education across the whole province since the 1930s.

When online learning appeared around the early 1990s, it was natural for the departments providing distance education in Canada to move into online learning. Our survey found that many institutions in Canada have been offering online learning for 15 years or more.

This experience in fully online learning of course is invaluable as instructors move more into blended and hybrid learning.

3. Government policy

The sudden drop in distance education (and hence online) students in the U.K. is almost certainly due to recent government policy. Garrett wrote:

The primary cause of the distance learning drop was higher tuition fees and reduced public funding for part-time undergraduates. Almost all domestic distance learners in UK higher education study part-time. Distance enrollment held up better than part-time numbers overall, which almost halved over the period.

The UK’s largest distance institution, the Open University, dropped from 209,000 to 126,000 students between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Other institutions saw distance enrollment rebound in recent years but the total is still short of the 2009/10 baseline, and some 64,000 domestic distance students are scattered across 124 colleges and universities.

In comparison several provincial governments in Canada, and federal and state governments in the USA, have encouraged online learning through targeted funding. For instance several provinces have set up eCampuses to provide funding for online courses, open textbooks and open educational resources, for faculty development opportunities, and for shared services, to encourage online learning. Although the Obama administration’s tightening of student financial aid rules has led to a large drop in online enrolments in the for-profit university sector, this has been more than compensated by increases in online enrolments in the state-funded universities and colleges in the USA. 
 
Again, given the ‘gig’ economy, the need for lifelong learning, and the increasing proportion of students who are working to keep down the debt resulting from tuition fees of $16,000 a year, the U.K. government’s policies regarding student financial support, and its impact on online learning and lifelong learning, could be considered catastrophic for the future British economy, unless it is quickly reversed.

4. 21st century skills

One other factor that is likely to increase pressure for more online or at least blended learning is the need to develop the skills that students will need in the 21st century, such as independent learning, IT skills embedded within a subject domain, and knowledge management. Online learning is particularly useful in not only helping students directly to develop such skills, but also in providing opportunities for practicing and demonstrating such skills, through, for instance, e-portfolios.

5. The negative impact of open universities on online learning

More controversially, I will argue that where there has been a large and important open university, this has resulted in slower growth in online learning, for two separate reasons.

Most open universities were designed in the 1970s around a heavy, front-ended print development model requiring a very large investment. It is common in such institutions for it to take two years or more to develop a course, with an army of support staff as well as faculty. This was possible with very large numbers of enrolments, through economies of scale.

However, such large industrial-type organizations have found it very difficult to move into online learning, and especially into more rapid, lightweight designs. Even now, there are still large numbers of either print-based courses, or print-based courses merely transferred to online delivery, in many of the open universities. As a result, enrolments are dropping in open universities, while more traditional universities have been able to adopt a more agile and low-cost but still good quality online course design and development model. Indeed, long-established open universities seem to be struggling in all countries where online learning is being developed.

Also, there was evidence from the Canadian survey that where a fully distance institution or open university operated, this seems to have inhibited or slowed down the adoption of distance and hence online courses in the campus-based institutions within the rest of the province. Thus in Alberta, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary have really left distance programs (other than MOOCs) to Athabasca University, whose enrolments have been in decline (partly because they have lost lots of students from Ontario, where online learning has been growing rapidly in Ontario universities and colleges). Similarly in Québec, the province-wide Cégep à Distance been losing enrolments without a corresponding increase in online enrolments from the other Cégeps. Open or distance universities or colleges then tend to have a negative effect on online enrolments in the overall system.

Is more online learning a good thing?

But is this general growth in online learning a good thing? For instance, will this undermine the value of the campus? As someone working in online learning, it is an assumption on my part that in general, if done well, online learning is a good thing and we could do with more of it, mainly because it suits a large number of students, giving them flexibility and easier access, but also because I genuinely believe that it can help develop somewhat better than traditional teaching the knowledge and skills that students will need in the 21st century. However, it does not suit all students or subject disciplines or topics, so it needs to be used selectively.

Furthermore, as with all teaching, it can be done well or it can be done badly. There is no or little evidence to date that online learning is any less costly than campus-based teaching, mainly because with developments spread across a large number of institutions, it is difficult to generate economies of scale. Quality online learning requires good faculty development and adequate technical and pedagogical support, and that costs money.

Nevertheless, online learning in general will probably continue to grow, especially through blended or hybrid learning, mainly for economic reasons, because online learning is a very powerful means to develop the knowledge and skills that our students will need in the future, and because of the greater flexibility and access to learning it provides for students.

Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of fairy tales, such as ‘the Emperor’s Clothes’

Correction: an earlier version of this post attributed the Observatory of Borderless Education quote to David Kernohan. It was actually Richard Garrett whom I was quoting. My apologies to Richard and David.

How can online learning help Canadian colleges meet the challenges ahead?

Students at Algonquin College, which has a large online program

I was recently asked if I would answer a couple of questions from students in Royal Roads University’s course ‘Leveraging Technology in Higher Education’ in their MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership.

With the permission of their instructor, Irwin de Vries, and the students, I am sharing my response to the two questions they raised. (I answered the first question yesterday). I have also added a few more comments.

Question 2

2. How must colleges change in the next ten years, in order to remain successful as they face the challenges of declining enrolment, decreased funding and shrinking infrastructures?

I am limiting my comments here to Canada’s two year public post-secondary college system, drawing on some of the results and experience from the recent National Survey of Online Learning and Distance Education.

This is another good question. Resources are always limited, and there is no evidence that online learning leads to significant reductions in costs, at least in the short term. Indeed, the evidence suggests that online learning needs initial extra investment at governmental and institutional level, and also at the individual instructor level, if time is considered a cost.

Questionable assumptions

Nevertheless, I have to challenge the assumptions made in this question. They may apply to some jurisdictions or geographical areas, but not to others (at least in Canada). Decreased funding and declining enrolment apply particularly to some of the Maritime provinces and to northern Ontario and rural Saskatchewan, but not to other parts of Ontario (e.g. the GTA) or the BC lower mainland, for instance.

In terms of funding, the Ontario provincial government in fact has put over $12 million recently into online learning, partly for economic reasons (the government has linked it to the development of 21st century skills and the need for lifelong learning) as well as to increase access, particularly in more remote parts of Ontario. 

The main funding gap is for aboriginal communities, where access to post-secondary education is still limited by cost and distance. However, I have seen signs of increased interest in the development of online programs for aboriginal students that at least consider aboriginal culture and pedagogy. These programs can build on increased federal and provincial funding for high speed networks for remote and rural areas in Canada totalling $150 million.

It also appears there may be an online learning funding issue in Québec, which is the only province in the national survey where online enrolments went down in the college sector (CEGEPs in Québec) over the last five years. In response to another question on the survey, Québec institutions much more frequently reported a lack of government funding as a barrier to online learning compared with institutions in other provinces.

Overall, colleges may complain about lack of resources, but compared to most countries, Canada has an extremely well-funded public college system. Most colleges now offer some form of online learning, and there is plenty of room for expansion.

Becoming more efficient

In the Maritimes, institutions are increasingly looking to online learning to increase enrolments from out-of-province students (the tuition fees in maritime provinces being lower) and to keep the out-of-province students they already have. For instance, Dalhousie University in Halifax is now offering summer online courses for the out-of-province students who tend to return home for the summer, so they don’t pick up courses during the summer from institutions in their home province.

Also in Ontario, through OntarioLearn, the colleges collaborate and share online courses, avoiding duplication and thus reducing costs. Contact North through its network of local learning centres and telecommunications network facilitates the delivery of programs from all Ontario colleges and universities into remote areas of Ontario.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick already have a single institution for colleges with local campuses across each province, thus somewhat reducing overheads and duplication of courses, but more importantly ensuring common technology standards and delivery across the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar isn’t developed soon for Saskatchewan rural colleges, which are also struggling financially, and generally have low enrolments. Manitoba already has Campus Manitoba, a consortium of Manitoba’s public post-secondary institutions that encourages collaboration and facilitates student mobility in Manitoba.

Co-operation could be expanded further by provincial articulation committees agreeing on a core set of OER that are jointly developed and shared between colleges. However, that needs to be backed up by more or better faculty development on how to develop and/or use OER.

eCampuses or provincial networks provide (or could provide) a number of services that help keep down costs to both institutions and students, such as open textbook projects (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario), promoting/organizing OER initiatives, province-wide technology licenses, shared learning technology support for very small institutions, province-wide faculty development opportunities, and showcasing innovative projects. I suspect that we will see new eCampuses soon for the Maritimes and maybe Québec.

Conclusion

It can be seen that online learning does offer opportunities for cost savings or expanding access more economically, mainly through inter-institutional collaboration and sharing and by avoiding the construction of new campuses (if politicians and presidents can control their edifice complexes) through absorbing extra numbers through hybrid and full online learning.

More importantly, though, from my perspective, to remain successful, colleges will need to ensure students have developed the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age, and online learning provides a valuable and cost-effective means to enable this to happen (see Teaching in a Digital Age for more details).

How to keep up with new technology in online learning

I was recently asked if I would answer a couple of questions from students in Royal Roads University’s course ‘Leveraging Technology in Higher Education’ in their MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership.

With the permission of their instructor, Irwin de Vries, and the students, I am sharing my response to the two questions they raised.

Question 1

1. How can an institution make sense of all the new developments, such as what the NMC highlights every year, and incorporate that successfully into their institutional planning?

What a good question! It’s a question I personally struggle with. One could spend every waking moment these days trying to keep up with the latest apps, devices, and waves of tech innovation. Indeed, the fear of not being able to do this forced me into premature retirement – how could I keep up with everything and still play golf whenever I wanted?  (Golf won.)

However, it turns out that while the technology is forever changing, there are a number of ‘coping’ strategies, based on more fundamental principles or theories that do not change so rapidly.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future

First, the New Media Consortium has a poor track record in accurately predicting technology trends in higher education, mainly in terms of timelines (far too optimistic regarding the application of a particularly technology) but also often in terms of whether a technology in fact turns out to be useful for teaching or learning. Go back for instance to their 2008 report: grassroots video (iTunes, Möbius, etc.), the collaborative web (Google Docs), data mashups, within one or two years, etc.

These tools are often very useful outside of the teaching/learning process but don’t necessarily adapt easily for teaching and learning. More often these tools might have been useful but were not used or were ignored by instructors because they did not meet the immediate needs of the instructors (or the perceived needs of the students).

Institutional vs individual choice

Second, institutional decision-making is based mainly around IT network technology, classroom equipment, and ‘universally used’ commercially licensed software or technology such as word processing (which is one reason why LMSs and webinar technology are so heavily used – the institution pays for and maintains them), but emerging technologies these days are more end-user focused and low cost, so technologies are now being adopted and decided by individual instructors and especially by students, rather than the institution. These low cost technologies tend to be based on mobile phones or tablets and free or low-cost apps. It is only when a technology really takes off in teaching does it make sense for the institution to ‘block buy’ a license if it is a commercial product.

More importantly, it doesn’t make sense for institutions to make institution-wide decisions for most teaching technologies, partly because of wide variations in subject discipline needs, but mainly because with constantly emerging technologies, it’s better for the grassroots instructors and students to adopt as appropriate, hence ensuring more innovation in teaching and learning.

For instructors, usually technology adoption enables them to solve a teaching problem, such as not enough interaction with students, students not attending in bad weather or with long commutes, difficult concepts to teach abstractly, etc. Since the teaching problems often vary from instructor to instructor, it is best to leave such decisions to them. However, instructors can be ‘nudged’ by instructional designers/learning technology support staff, who should be constantly looking for potential new applications of technology, and for faculty who may be interested in trying them.

Lastly, for instructors or instructional designers who want to make a fully considered decision about the best choice or mix of educational media, there is my own SECTIONS model which attempts to identify key factors that should influence choice of media. However, even if this approach is used, in most cases it will be influenced by an instructor’s gut feeling or intuition about what will work best within a particular context -which is more likely to be right than wrong.

The SECTIONS model

The one exception I would make to the decentralization approach to technology selection is where an institution has a strong strategy or plan for digital learning. In this case, part of the strategy might be to combine the choice of a technology (such as tablets) with a plan for faculty development in how to use the technology, based on a clear pedagogical approach. This allows a large step forward to be made. The Justice Institute of BC’s digital learning strategy for the University of Guadalajara in Mexico is a good example. This helps the majority of faculty with the adoption of technology in a consistent and high quality manner. In this case the strategy depended on a clear pedagogical basis for the choice of technology made at an institutional level. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Conclusion

As with most educational decisions, context is all important. Instructors and to some extent students are closest to the action and hence are usually in a better position to make an appropriate choice than an institution trying to cover all possible positions.

However, there are guidelines that can be adopted to avoid being swayed by the media hype over the latest technology. Does it solve a problem I’m having? Will it help students to develop the knowledge and skills they will need in the future? Is it easy to use? Is it cheap or free for students? Not rocket science, by any means, but it is surprising how little such obvious questions are asked, especially by the media, when a new technology appears on the horizon.

My response to the second question will follow.

What I wanted to say to the Minister about online learning

A faculty development workshop: a broken system?

The opportunity

I don’t mix with politicians or high level decision-makers, so when I was offered a seat next to Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education, at the ICDE conference in Toronto two week’s ago, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. What could I say that might make a difference?

The pitch

After considerable thought, and realising I would probably have about two minutes max – a true elevator pitch, more than a tweet but less than a blog post – I came up with the following before the morning of the meeting:

Minister, do you want to ensure that Ontario’s universities prepare students appropriately for developing the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age? If so, as a condition of provincial funding, you need to require every university in the province to put in place a systematic and mandatory program for training all instructors in how to teach and how best to integrate technology into their teaching. Without such comprehensive and mandatory programs, nothing will fundamentally change.

Here’s my card: ask one of your staff to call me on why this is necessary, why it is difficult, and how it might be done.

How did I do?

Not well, I’m afraid. By the time Ms. Matthews sat down next to me, the first announcements about the conference were being made. We did shake hands, then she went up and made a very good welcoming speech for the delegates, laying out what Ontario has done and is doing to support access and online learning. The current Ontario government has been a big supporter of online learning, creating eCampus Ontario and putting several million dollars into online course development and OER. It was a scoop for the conference organisers to get her to come, and she was genuinely interested in the conference and its theme (‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’)

She ended her speech, and then she left, surrounded by her minions. I literally had no chance to say anything to her other than ‘hi.’

So I missed my chance. It was no-one’s fault. That is just the nature of Ministerial appearances at big conferences – in and out. Maybe next time I should have made a preliminary pitch or got someone to have set something up, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I would even get the chance to meet with her, and I have no standing in Ontario other than being a retired academic administrator.

Why what I wanted to say is important

Regular readers of this blog will know why I wanted to say what I set out above. Faculty in universities are trained in research, not in teaching. If lucky they may get a short introductory course when appointed, mainly focused on lecturing effectively and classroom management. Thereafter any form of faculty ‘development’ for teaching is purely voluntary.

This may or may not have been fine when all teaching was face-to-face and focused on knowledge acquisition. It is not fine when we need to develop high level intellectual skills. Teaching students high level intellectual skills needs a different approach from teaching abstract concepts and principles. 

Furthermore, the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired is changing. Students need to acquire the skills of lifelong and independent learning, because what they learn today is likely to be obsolete or redundant in ten years’ time. Students need to know where they can find content, how to verify its validity and reliability, how to analyse it and how to apply it. These are skills that need practice, and they also require nowadays the use of digital technology.

Very few instructors are formally trained in how to do this. It is not rocket science, but it is not always obvious, either. Indeed, teaching in a digital age requires a different mindset. Some instructors will come by this naturally, but most won’t. Therefore formal training for all instructors becomes essential.

Why it’s difficult

Ideally the best way to teach instructional skills is pre-service, with regular opportunities for refreshing and updating while in service. However, this would mean building into post-graduate programs time for learning about teaching and learning, at least for those who want to go on to teach in a university. Neither students, nor especially supervising faculty, would welcome this. However it is much cheaper and more effective to do this training before faculty become tenured – or more importantly before they become set in their ways.

Second, preparation for teaching in universities has to be mandatory and not voluntary. Teaching is a professional activity with its own knowledge base and skills. It is not something to dabble in when you feel like it. Who would want to fly in a plane where the pilot’s training in how to fly the plane was voluntary (even if their knowledge of aerodynamics was superb)? Evidence (see Christensen-Hughes and Mighty, 2010) suggests that fewer than ten per cent of faculty participate in voluntary faculty development programs each year and these are often those who need it the least. It is a broken system.

Furthermore it is a systemic problem. One institution cannot go it alone for the fear it will lose its most promising academic talent and  its best graduate students to those institutions where they do not have to spend time in learning how to teach well.

The big problem then is that universities will not solve this problem themselves, because research is the primary factor that influences tenure and promotion, and anything that takes away from research time – such as time spent learning how to teach well – is unacceptable.

How to solve the problem

In most professions, you are not allowed to practice unless you have met standards approved by a professional body that is recognised by the appropriate government. For instance, you cannot operate as a professional engineer in Ontario unless you are accredited by the Professional Engineers of Ontario, which is the professional accreditation body recognised by the government.

Instructors who wish to teach in universities should meet similar requirements. There is no equivalent professional body for university teaching though. A Ph.D. is a research, not a teaching, qualification.

One thing a government could require is that the universities within its jurisdiction that receive government funding must establish a professional body that requires certification of instructors and requires all new instructors to be accredited. (Some college systems have a somewhat similar requirement, such as the Provincial Instructor Diploma in British Columbia, although it is not mandatory). 

The advantage here is that it would be up to the universities to establish such a program, but the government would not fund institutions unless such programs are in place and required. This would require negotiation between universities and government about content, standards and process for establishing the training requirement, but this is not an impossible task.

Of course, the universities will hate this and faculty would see it as government interference or an attack on academic freedom. What is increasingly unacceptable though is throwing untrained instructors into the classroom without any preparation for teaching, especially given the challenges of teaching in a digital age. If we don’t prepare our instructors better, students won’t get the knowledge and skills that they will need to survive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous digital age.

Minister, please act. If you do, Ontario will lead the world. And I will try to do better next time I meet you.

Reference

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp

What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning

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, fourdirectionsteachings.com, 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.

FourDirectionsTeachings

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.