December 16, 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).

Brexit and online learning in Europe

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Little England triumphs

Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial England and Wales were enough to defeat Londoners, Scots and the Northern Irish. So not only can we expect the future dismantling of the European Union, we will also probably see the end of the United Kingdom. Poor Queen – she must feel sick as a parrot as she considers the consequences. Also the old, as always, punished the young. The young mainly wanted to be outward looking Europeans; the old outvoted them, forcing them to remain in Little England (unless, like I did, they can escape).

It was not a surprise to me. Right up to the closing of the voting, and despite a last day uplift in the Remain support in opinion polls, and despite the bookies and the smart money, I was convinced that Britain would leave. Like most referendums, it was driven by emotion, not logic, and for many Brits, when they got in the voting booth, their emotions would take over.

Freedom!

Punish the bastards (the bastards being ‘them’, the invisible but omniscient ‘elite’ who have got us into this mess.)

Back to the glory days when Britain ruled the world and England won football matches.

No more Frogs and Krauts telling us what to do.

No more invasion by Syrians and terrorists.

How predictable. How sad.

It is a disaster that could have been avoided. David Cameron is staying on for three months ‘to steady the ship.’ Sorry, Mr. Cameron, but the ship has already sunk, and it was you who pulled the plug when you thought a nice little referendum would get those pesky Euroskeptics in your party off your back. What a petty motivation for destroying not only a country but a continent.

Well, of course, it won’t be as bad as that, will it? The panic and shock will slowly dissipate, the money people will work out new ways to make money, and Putin won’t be nasty and invade the Baltic states, will he? People are resilient and will find a new way through.

So let’s look forward and see what the implications are for online learning in Europe, which is almost as important as the Euro nations soccer championship (will England be disqualified now)?

Then

In the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of online learning happening in Europe, although there were several big open universities: the UK Open University was dominant, but there were also sizeable open universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. In online learning, some Norwegian distance education institutes, such as NKI, were launching online courses. When EDEN, the European Distance Education Network, started in the early 1990s it was mainly dominated by the big open universities, but it began to expand its membership by dropping institutional membership and moving to individual membership. This was important in bringing in many new participants, some of whom were European leaders in online learning. But the UK OU was still the major player, even though it was relatively slow in moving to online learning.

At the same time, the European Commission had launched a number of major funding programs that focused on ICTs (information and communications technologies) in education, such as the DELTA program. These were often large, unwieldy projects that required participants from several countries, particularly from those countries that were struggling economically or were ‘new’ to the EU, and also required sometimes a minimum of three industrial partners. Although such projects often got bogged down in trying to balance the interests of all the participants, were often slowed down by stifling bureaucratic requirements from the EC, and one or two participants from more economically advanced countries ended up doing most of the work, these programs were useful for widening the expertise in the area of online and digital learning across a large number of member states and brought new players into the game. However, in the early 1990s there were only 12 or so member states.

Now

The most significant change has been the expansion to 28 states, incorporating most of the Eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The EC still has major programs that provide funding for ICTs in education projects (although digital is now the more favoured term). More importantly, many more countries all over Europe now have substantial experience in online learning, as was evident from the recent EDEN conference. Nevertheless, Britain is still a dominant force in this area and has been a major contributor to EC programs in online and digital learning.

Not only will the withdrawal of UK participants be a major blow for many of these European projects, but also UK universities and consultants in the field of online and digital learning will lose out on major funding opportunities and the opportunity to learn from working with European partners. This may not be as bad as in other areas of collaboration or business, because academics and educators will still go to international conferences and share experiences, but nevertheless there will be a net loss both for British and European online practitioners.

What went wrong?

There are people closer to the action who are better placed than I am, but here’s my two cents worth, anyway:

  • Europe got too big, too quickly. It was difficult enough to get consensus with 12 countries with relatively similar economic and social contexts, even if the languages were different. Expanding to 28 countries covering an immensely wide range of languages, cultures and above all, economic circumstances without a change to the overall governance/political model has led to gridlock in decision-making;
  • as a result, the European Union has failed to deal adequately with its three most important challenges: the recovery from the economic recession in 2008; the immigration crisis; and its relationship with Russia. It has showed weakness in responding to each of these admittedly difficult challenges, with negative implications for the average Joe and Joe-ess in Europe and Britain;
  • Britain too suffered badly from the economic recession. Most of its major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Many of those bankers are still in place, earning almost obscene amounts of money. Although the economy has picked up since 2008, the British government has been running an austerity-focused economic policy, which hits hard unemployed and low income workers and families. Many working class people in the former industrial parts of England have been unemployed through five generations, since the devastation of UK manufacturing industries in the 1980s. Both of the two major political parties have been run until recently by ‘establishment’ figures from public school/Oxbridge backgrounds. A major theme in the run-up to the referendum was the rejection of advice from ‘experts’ (economists, politicians, international leaders and think tanks, the Bank of England) who were seen as an untrustworthy elite who benefit from the status quo. The class war is alive and strong in the UK and getting worse, as a result.
  • at the same time, fed by a viciously simplistic and racist tabloid press, many middle class Brits feel that they are no longer getting the respect they feel they deserve; the Empire has crumbled and their culture is being threatened by a wave of immigrants. England is already full. Last year, Britain, which has a population of 54 million and is geographically smaller than the Canadian Maritimes, took 360,000 immigrants, compared to the whole of Canada (population 34 million), who took 260,000. There are genuine fears that immigrant numbers will increase much more over the coming years, as the Middle East disintegrates further. The Leave proponents deliberately played on these fears.

So in this referendum, there was what we have also seen in the run-up to the USA presidential election: a weird alliance of what appear to be extreme right and extreme left wing voters rejecting and overwhelming the moderate, ‘rationale’ centre in politics. However, unless the genuine grievances of these groups are addressed, we will see similar so-called ‘irrational’ political upheavals in the future. In particular, the widening gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed or we will all end up victims to so-called ‘irrationality’.

 

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction

One definition of alienation Image: Reuters

One definition of alienation
Image: Reuters

Is there a problem here?

I live a 30 minute drive from the U.S. border, and like many of my fellow Canadians (and many U.S. colleagues) I have been watching with a mixture of disgust and horror the Donald Trump presidential campaign gathering increasing momentum. However unlike most Canadians, I am not surprised at Trump’s growing success (nor is Canada immune – Rob Ford’s support also comes from the same origins). Trump derives his support from an ever expanding body of people who feel alienated and marginalized by technology, globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the supporters of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the anti-austerity movements in Europe, are also driven by increasing alienation due to perceived failures of the capitalist/’democratic’ system to meet the interests of ordinary people. Both sides see government as having been captured by special interest groups, especially but not exclusively financial establishments and the major media and Internet companies.

There is of course no single reason for this growing alienation, but the way technology, and particularly digital technology, has been moving recently is one major cause of this alienation. People feel they are losing control to forces they do not understand. In particular, there is a growing sense that the benefits of technology are going to an increasingly smaller and richer group of people. The public, the end users of technology, increasingly feel that they are being exploited for the benefit of those that control the technology. People are losing jobs and those that have jobs are working harder or longer to stand still.

Dealing with the problem (or challenge)

I plan to explore this issue further in several blog posts that focus particularly on the role of education, and how we deal with technology, both as a field of study, and with its use for teaching and learning. I will argue that educators have a special responsibility to prepare students better for this rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital world, so students can try to wrest some control and make technology work better for them in the future. I will also be arguing that some potential developments in the use of technology in education could be more harmful than beneficial, and will further increase feelings of alienation, if we are not careful.

This is very much an exploratory journey on my part. I will outline a series of topics for discussion in different blog posts, but this may well change as we get into it. In particular, I am looking for discussion and interaction, an exchange of views, and different perspectives on what I see as an increasingly important topic. The focus will always be on the implications for teaching and learning.

Here is my initial breakdown of topics:

  • introduction (this post)
  • technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (next post)
  • skills development and the labour market: are we fighting the last war? (This will include a discussion of competency-based learning, and the difference between skills and competencies – or competences, if you are European), with the goal of better preparing learners for an increasingly hostile digital age;
  • automation vs empowerment in educational technology (already done; maybe some revisions)
  • unbundling of educational services: who benefits; alternative models; privatisation versus state funding; risk management
  • the myth of the autonomous learner: the changing relationship between teachers and learners; creating effective learning environments (partly done); how to personalise learning to the benefit of the learner
  • teaching ‘defensive’ skills: protecting privacy, avoiding monopolies, citizen engagement, understanding and controlling the technology
  • globalization and online learning: think/learn globally, act/do locally; ways to open the curriculum; building bridges with other cultures
  • wrap-up.

Help!

This is starting to look like a mini-course, maybe even a cMOOC, but my thinking is so unformed at this stage that I want to keep the topic and approach as open as possible, and in particular I want to clarify my own thoughts through the process of writing (yes, that does work sometimes). So:

  • do you believe that alienation is increasing/a serious problem, due to the way technology is being managed and controlled? Or am I being paranoid?
  • what topics would you add to this list? Is there anything essential in discussing the topic of technology-based alienation and the role of education that needs to be included that I have missed?
  • can education really make a difference? Can it help prevent alienation – or should it encourage it? Or are we already stitched up?
  • would you be interesting in contributing to this discussion; if so how? (e.g. guest posts; comments; suggested readings/videos)
  • are you thinking: ‘Don’t even go there, Tony – it’s a waste of time!’?

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

World Bank (2016) World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. Washington, DC: World Bank.

What is the report about?

This 359 page report, partly funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development and the International Development Research Centre, involved the work of several hundred people and was based on consultation meetings in 27 different countries (see here for more information on these consultations).
The report notes that more households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water, and nearly 70 percent of the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries own a mobile phone. The number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade—from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015.

The key question addressed by this report then is as follows:

Have [these] massive investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) generated faster growth, more jobs, and better services? Indeed, are countries reaping sizeable digital dividends?
I can only briefly summarise this lengthy report, and if this post peaks your interest, please read the full report.

Main conclusions

Despite this vast investment in digital technologies, the digital dividend in terms of greater productivity, less inequality, more democracy, and greater wealth for all has not been gained. For instance:

  • global productivity growth has slowed;
  • labor markets have become more polarized and inequality is rising—particularly in the wealthier countries, but increasingly in developing countries;
  • while the number of democracies is growing, the share of free and fair elections is falling.

Digital divide Africa 2

Furthermore:

  • nearly 60 percent of the world’s people are still offline and can’t participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way;
  • many advanced economies face increasingly polarized labor markets and rising inequality—in part because technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs, forcing many workers to compete for low-paying jobs;
  • public sector investments in digital technologies, in the absence of accountable institutions, amplify the voice of elites, which can result in policy capture and greater state control;
  • because the economics of the internet favour natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms;
  • not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits, circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.

The fundamentals (‘complements’) of development are:

  • good governance;
  • a robust and open business market;
  • accountability (i.e. lack of corruption);
  • strong human capital (i.e. a well educated work-force)

In countries where these fundamentals are weak, digital technologies have not boosted productivity or reduced inequality. These poor trends persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them. Thus while digital technologies have been spreading, digital dividends have not. On the other hand, countries that complement technology investments with broader fundamental reforms reap digital dividends in the form of faster growth, more jobs, and better services.

Thus the report’s main conclusion is:

The full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realized unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.

Barriers to success

For digital technologies to improve productivity and reduce inequality, there are important ‘analogue’ factors that must accompany or support (‘complement’) the introduction of digital technology in order to get the benefits:
  • digital technologies can make routine, transaction-intensive tasks dramatically cheaper, faster, and more convenient. But most tasks also have an aspect that cannot be automated and that requires human judgment, intuition,and discretion; the better educated the workforce the higher the quality of such human decision-making;
  • when technology is applied to automate tasks without matching improvements in other, non-digital social, economic and political activities, such as governance, accountability and education, technology can fail to bring broad-based gains;
  • the digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry;
  • technology can make workers more productive, but not when they lack the know-how to use it;
  • digital technologies can help monitor teacher attendance and improve learning outcomes, but not when the education system lacks accountability.

What should be done?

  • make the internet universally accessible and affordable. The internet, in a broad sense, has grown quickly, but it is by no means universal. For every person connected to high-speed broadband, five are not. Worldwide, some 4 billion people do not have any internet access, nearly 2 billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with a mobile signal.
  • access to the internet is critical, but not sufficient. The digital economy also requires strong regulations that create a vibrant business climate and let firms leverage digital technologies to compete and innovate; skills that allow workers, entrepreneurs, and public servants to seize opportunities in the digital world; and accountable institutions that use the internet to empower citizens.
The Internet promoted development through three mechanisms

The Internet promotes development through three mechanisms

A favourable business climate, strong human capital and good governance are standard requirements for economic growth. But digital technology has two particular roles to play in development:

  • digital technologies amplify the impact of good (and bad) policies, so any failure to reform means falling farther behind those who do reform. With digital technologies, the stakes have risen for developing countries, which have more to gain than high-income countries, but also more to lose;
  • digital technologies can enable and accelerate the impact of these standard requirements for growth, for example, by creating new jobs and business opportunities, through online learning raising the skills level of workers, and by enabling government to make evidence-based decisions.

Comment

This report is a powerful antidote to those who think digital technologies are the silver bullet for increasing equality, improving education, and reducing the gap between rich and poor. What becomes very clear is that digital technology amplifies change: if things are going badly, digital technology will make it happen worse and faster; if things are going well, digital technology will make it better. Thus digital technology is neither cause nor effect in development, but a catalyst that amplifies change.

This means of course that the hard work of making governments and business transparent and accountable, developing an educated workforce, and having an open, well regulated business environment all need to be done. Digital technology can facilitate this, but on its own it will not lead to a better world except for a very few.

One last point. There is a very interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail newspaper by Jim Balsillie, one of the founders of Blackberry, railing against the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, because it protects incumbent intellectual property holders. This gives a huge advantage to the USA, by protecting them from innovation originating in other countries with a small number of patents, relatively speaking (such as Canada). Balsillie argues that one reason digital technology has led to a greater increase in inequality is because of the distortion of U.S. patent law which makes it very difficult for new entrants to the digital technology market – although China, interestingly, has been smart enough to work around these barriers by its sheer size and more closed culture. Another barrier we see here in Canada is the power of incumbent organizations such as the three telecommunications companies who, through their control of national network infrastructure, can freeze out new competitors.

It sure ain’t a fair world out there, and digital technology is not helping. We need better regulation, and patent reform, that’s for sure, if digital technology is to reap fully its promise.