August 14, 2018

Important developments in indigenous online learning

Esquimalt singers and dancers celebrate the partnership. Image: RRU

Royal Roads University (2018) First Nations Technology Council and Royal Roads University celebrate partnership in education, innovation Victoria BC: Royal Roads University, press release, 23 February

The First Nations Technology Council of British Columbia and Royal Roads University have recently announced a partnership that aims to leverage RRU’s expertise in digital learning with the First Nations Technology Council’s ‘comprehensive digital skills program designed to support the full, equitable participation and leadership of Indigenous peoples in the province’s fastest growing economic sector.’

Melanie Mark, BC’s Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training at the announcement commented:

By providing people with the right training and education to work towards jobs in the tech sector, we will support the success of students, job seekers and technology companies throughout our great province, and build a strong, sustainable economy that works for everyone.

The First Nations Technology Council’s program will include training modules that provide skills in

  • web development/coding,
  • GIS/GPS Mapping,
  • communications,
  • software testing,
  • network technician and office basics and
  • professional practice skills.

Royal Roads University’s Centre for Teaching & Educational Technologies will provide the tools and platform to deliver the program scheduled to launch in fall 2018.

The First Nations Technology Council provides direct technology related services through fee for service and earned income programs that create less reliance on government funded programs and grants, while continuing to advance the use of digital technologies in First Nations communities. The First Nations Technology Council is a central convener between government, industry, academia and First Nations communities to ensure comprehensive, sustainable and appropriate technology based programs and services are developed and funded.


I think this is exciting news and is just the kind of initiative Canada needs if it is to go any way towards meeting the goals of reconciliation with its indigenous population.

I don’t have any more details than what was announced in the press release, but I noted the careful wording. This is about supporting First Nations’ communities in BC through the design of digital learning, but not necessarily distance learning. Royal Roads University uses a blended model of campus-based and fully online (although more recently for financial reasons its strategy has been to reduce the campus component on a number of programs). Thus RRU is well placed to combine design and delivery of digital materials with local-based community support within First Nations communities around the province.

My hope from this partnership is that we will start to see some new designs for digital learning emerging, that incorporate indigenous ways of learning with best online learning design practices, resulting in unique and culturally appropriate learning designs for indigenous learners that at the same time prepare them for life and work in a digital society.

Further reading

Simon, J. et al. (2014) Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 15, Number 1 

Bates, T. (2017) Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron? in ‘What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, 23 October

Questions answered about British Columbia’s digital open textbook plan

© BCcampus, 2012

Gilmore, D. (2012) B.C. to lead Canada in offering students free, open textbooks, British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology, October 16

Klassen, T. (2012) BCCampus to co-ordinate provincial open textbook project, BCcampus, October 16

Klassen, T. (2012) Questions and answers on open textbooks Part 1, BCcampus, October 29

Klassen, T. (2012) Questions and answers on open textbooks Part 2, BCcampus, October 31

What is being proposed?

On October 16, John Yap, British Columbia’s Minister of Advanced Education, Innovation and technology, announced that  his government will work with post-secondary institutions in implementing an open textbook policy in anticipation they could be in use at B.C. institutions as early as 2013-14, supporting students taking a variety of courses in areas like arts, sciences, humanities and business.

An open textbook is typically published under an open licence and can be read online or downloaded at no cost. Because the open textbooks are digital and open, they can be modified and adapted by instructors to fit different classes. It is estimated that the use of free, digital tetbooks could save students between $900 and $1,500 per academic year.

BCcampusa publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all B.C. post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework, will be the executive agency for the project.

How will this work?

The two blog posts about this project by Tori Klassen provides more details, but I also had the privilege of interviewing David Porter, the Director of BCcampus, as I had my own questions. Here they are, with David’s comments:

TB: Can you say a little more about how you see these open textbooks being created? Are some already available that could just be adopted? Will others have to be created? If so, how will this be done?

DP: There are three paths forward that will each require faculty input. The first would be the adoption of existing open textbooks from freely available sources. In some cases these open textbooks are available from institutions, for example Rice University’s, or from foundation-supported collections such as There are also open textbooks available from a new style of publisher that builds open textbooks and supplemental resources aimed at adoption by faculty and instructors with special options for students. is one example of this sort of publishing entity.

The second potential process would be adaptation of existing open textbooks to support localized instances of courses to match course outcomes in specific programs. I think we all know that instructors tend to know their students best and would want to insure that materials are customized to meet those needs. The beauty of the open resource model is the boundless opportunity presented to instructors to customize and add value to existing open resources.

The third path would involve creating a new open textbook resource where none exists, contributing to the pool of available open textbooks and becoming an active player in the development of new materials for students.

TB: If new texts are being created, will they incorporate web features, such as video-clips, student activities, hyperlinks to other web materials, etc. or will they be mainly a digital version of a printed textbook?

DP: Exactly the scenario I would envision is the substance of your question.  With the adoption, adaptation and development potential in the open space, this may be the perfect time to bring together other forms of open resources such as simulations, lab materials, video materials and other web materials into the mix as we build a larger open architecture for learning.  There may be multimedia learning objects in the BCcampus in SOLR repository ( that could be incorporated into open texts. We already have a 10-year repository of OER from which to draw material.  In addition, many print textbook publishers provide sets of study questions and multimedia learning resources online and we intend to replicate that practice where it’s pedagogically appropriate. And, while textbooks may be only one form of open resource, they are still a major component of the academic ecosystem. The open textbook program in British Columbia provides us a launch pad in which to consider a more integrated approach to bringing all open educational resources into play.

TB: It’s one thing to create the textbooks; it’s another to get faculty to agree to recommend them to students. What incentives will there be to encourage faculty to adopt these open textbooks in their courses?

DP: Clearly faculty and instructors are key players in making operational any open resource model within classrooms. I would suggest that students have a big voice here, too.  In particular, if a peer-reviewed open textbook resource is evaluated to be as good as a conventional publisher resource, why not use it, given the customization and flexibility benefits available both to students and instructors by open licensed materials?

That said, we do expect to be providing stipends for faculty and instructors to review open textbooks and to consider them for adoption or adaptation. We need to engage with articulation committees as well.  The flip side is that we have already had deans and instructors signal their support for the idea and their willingness to test out some of the proposed open materials or to recommend others that they’ve identified.

The funding that will be available to us in British Columbia will be used to support all of the components of building an open resource program, including awareness building and training, implementing review mechanisms and adopt-adapt-develop processes, along with tools and infrastructure to author, manage and distribute open materials.

TB: Have you been talking to publishers about this plan? If so, what has been their response?

DP: We have been proactively approached by a number of publishers and publishing entities to talk about the open textbook program. In some cases, these have been publishers with existing open materials they would like BC educators to consider. In other cases they are textbook publishers that are seeking to better understand how they could become involved in any development processes that may be undertaken using a call for proposals. There are also publishers who have technology and infrastructure services that could be important to us. We were a pioneer user of Pearson Education’s Equella digital repository software to create BC’s first open education repository, We are currently using as an environment in which to develop five pilot open textbooks for an information-technology program. This particular open textbook pilot program pre-dates the bigger open textbook announcement, and was requested by northern institutions in BC.

On the whole I would say that publishers are intrigued by what is happening and want to better understand how they might play a role. It’s our intention to keep the public, including publishers, fully informed about our progress through our web site

TB: What protections or benefits will there be for authors or subject matter experts who participate in the creation or adaptation of these open textbooks? I’m presuming they will have a Creative Commons license, but is there anything beyond that, such as royalties or other benefits? If not, why would they do it?

DP: Authors or subject matter experts who participate in the creation or adaptation of open textbooks will be compensated for their efforts. We have used agreements with institutions in the past to fund development including release time and other stipends for developers. We expect to use the Creative Commons license model that allows authors and developers to extend reuse rights for works they author or develop.

TB: Is BCcampus getting any extra funding from government for this initiative? If not how will any costs be covered?

DP: BCcampus has traditionally managed the Online Program Development Fund (OPDF) for the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, Innovation and Technology. The annual fund has been on average $750K – 1M. This fund has supported the development of online courseware, lab materials, online tools, video and other resources over the past 10 years. It is our expectation that OPDF funds will be re-profiled to focus on the open textbook program.

TB: You mention on the BCcampus website that this project is modeled after the recent California legislation. Does this mean that the provincial government has passed legislation for this to happen? Can you explain what the California legislation does?

DP: The BC provincial government has not passed legislation similar to the California legislation. Our approach is a focused program modeled on the key elements of the California legislation that we believe could also work in a British Columbia context. The things we liked about the California legislation that we will try to emulate include:

  • Free access to textbooks in the most highly enrolled first and second year post-secondary courses
  • Government funding to create a library of free textbooks for students and faculty
  • Open, to ensure faculty can utilize their skills to remix, revise and repurpose these textbooks for their students
  • Courses and textbooks overseen by the establishment of the “California Open Education Resources Council” (COERC). We’ll establish a similar group.
  • California Open Source Digital Library to house the open source textbooks and courseware.  We’ll use our own digital library currently in place.
  • Call for proposals process for faculty, publishers, and others to develop open digital textbooks and related courseware.
  • Creative Commons licensing structure for open textbooks and resources
  • All materials to be reviewed for quality.


First, I would like to thank David Porter for providing such a clear explanation of how this project will work. This should be read though in conjunction with Tori Klassen’s two posts, which provide more detailed information on the concept as well as the proposed project.

If you have further questions, or wish to submit a proposal for an open textbook, please contact David Porter directly at

Next, I would like to say how important this project could be in driving down some of the costs of post-secondary education. It will be interesting especially to see how faculty and instructors, as well as textbook publishers, respond to this initiative.

Lastly, in spite of the fragmented provincial system in Canada, I really hope that other provinces will join this initiative – economies of scale and the quality of the open textbooks could both be enhanced from a national approach. This is a project that is worth doing well and across the country – and perhaps even internationally.

Using interactive video for patient health education

Click on the graphic to see the video

Along with thousands of other people over 65, I”m scheduled for a partial knee replacement this summer. As part of the excellent pre-operational education provided by Vancouver General Hospital, I was able to access a simple 3 minute video by my surgeon, Dr. Bas Masri, to demonstrate what is involved in the operation, using a model knee joint.

This is just part of a rapid escalation by health services in using e-learning to educate patients and potential patients.

For instance, a partnership between British Columbia’s Heart Failure Network, Cardiac Services BC and the Interior Health Agency has resulted in some very simple but effective videos for patients with heart problems. From the web site:

There are about 500,000 Canadians living with heart failure and 50,000 new patients being diagnosed each year. (Ross, Howlett and Arnold, 2006). Health failure is also one of the most expensive chronic diseases in BC with an annual estimated cost to the health care system of $590M. HF is also the most common cause of hospitalization of people over 65 years of age and has an average one-year mortality rate of 33% (Ross, Howlet, and Arnold, 2006). Accurate and timely diagnosis is critical to initiate treatment that will relieve HF symptoms, reduce hospitalizations, diminish costs and improve survival. A provincial strategy to improved HF services and care was developed in 2009 with Health Authorities commencing their implementation strategies in 2010.

“This project was driven by the recognition that patients discharged from hospital did not always access conventional supports available to help them learn to manage their condition,” said Marie Hawkins, Network Director of Cardiac Services. “We needed to find an alternate way to provide support that was both client friendly and easily accessible. These interactive videos help fill that gap.”

I anticipate that this type of informal learning will grow rapidly over the Internet, as governments realise that patient empowerment is not only good medicine, but also saves a great deal of money in the long run.

Are cyber charter schools giving online learning a bad name?

© Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School

This is at the moment a peculiarly United States of America debate, but it is almost certain to spill over into other countries. This is a topic well worth following.

What are cyber schools? Well, this term can be used for any form of online teaching at the high school level, and this has been going on for a number of years. But more recently some US states with Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, have been introducing bills that encourage and support the establishment of cyber charter schools. Opponents argue that cyber charter schools are essentially privatizing k-12 online education. In fact it’s worse than that because it is state-subsidized privatization, since the state funding for any student who moves to a cyber charter school follows that student.

The argument appears to be not so much about online learning, as about using online learning as a back door to state subsidies for privatized k-12 education. If the critics are correct, it is also a peculiarly American way of taking a good development and completely ruining it.

However, it’s difficult for me to separate out the extent to which the opposition is against online learning in principle in the k-12 sector period, or whether it’s the way that online learning is being delivered through charter schools in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And are charter schools really privately run? Are they for profit? Neither of these is clear to me, looking over the fence at our neighbours.  There is no doubt though that state support for cyber schools is directly linked to cuts in state funding to the k-12 system in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Also we should not be too complacent here in Canada. I was a great supporter of the BC government’s move to online learning in the k-12 sector several years ago,but in recent years I have been hearing complaints from teachers that online learning is increasingly being used as a way to save money, with large student to teacher ratios, poor or non-existent instructional design, and lack of training for online instructors in online teaching. The BC government has an excellent set of standards for k-12 online teaching, but is it living up to those standards – and who is checking this?

If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, we also need it to safeguard the reputation of online learning.

I’d really like to hear from US readers regarding their views on cyber charter schools.

I’d also like to hear from BC teachers about BC’s k-12 online system, as I’ve been getting mixed messages recently. Are the published standards being followed by school boards?

Further reading on US cyber charter schools:

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School

Mitchell, J. (2012) Bill would permit virtual charter schools in state Clarion, February 11 (most detailed reporting of pros and cons)

Detroit Free Press (2012) House education panel OKs bid to expand cyber charter schools, February 8

Learning Matters (2012) Is online learning beneficial for students? February 8

Hanover, N. (2011) Outsourcing education: the rise of virtual schools, World Socialist Web Site, August 31

Other suggestions for reading on this topic will be welcome.



From dream to reality: why implementation is as important as goal setting in e-learning

Two recent developments have brought home clearly the need to consider and discuss implementation strategies at the same time as setting educational goals. The following two publications discuss two remarkably similar sets of goals for education, one developed in Europe and one here on the west coast of British Columbia. (You mean politicians talk to each other?)

British Columbia (2011) BC Education Plan Victoria: Ministry of Education

Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission

I have already commented on the European report. The BC plan is focused on schools rather than post-secondary education, but the goals are remarkably similar:

  1. Personalized learning for every child
  2. Quality teaching and learning
  3. Flexibility and choice
  4. High standards
  5. Learning powered by technology.

What’s not to like about this? Well, the BC Teacher’s Federation’s news magazine, Teacher, raises some interesting questions about these motherhood statements:

Kuehn, L. (2011) Experiments with kids’ learning Teacher, Vol. 24, No. 3

The first question, which applies equally to the European report, is one about resources. There is no money attached to what in BC will be major changes to the way children will learn and teachers will teach, although the Ministry recognizes that professional development (read ‘in-service training of teachers’) will be critical for the success of this change. It should also be noted that the teachers in BC have not had a pay increase for three years and are currently in stalled negotiations with the government which has offered no increases over the next three years as well: hardly an atmosphere conducive to change.

Second, Kuehn is concerned that there is a conflict between the idea of personalized learning plans for students and the Ministry’s requirement that these learning plans meet pre-determined learning outcomes (e.g. detailed competency performance targets) that will be set by the Ministry. Kuehn fears that a teacher will have to develop a different learning plan for every student – up to 200 per teacher in a high school. Let’s be clear about this. While guidelines about expectations are important, personalized learning requires a great deal of flexibility on the part of the teacher to ascertain needs, set realistic learning goals within the constraints of available time, and manage the learning experience, which runs completely contrary to recent moves by governments around the world to set standardized performance measures. This means putting much more trust in the professionalism of teachers. So it is not just the teachers that will need to make some major changes in attitude if these goals are to be successfully implemented. (I speak from experience – my first job was as a teacher in a small rural school in Britain in 1964 with 42 children ranging in age from seven to eleven, and including all levels of ability. Personalized learning is not new.)

A third concern is with the technology goal. There are two objections in the Teacher. The first is in Kuehn’s article. The government wants to allow children to bring their own technology to class – iPads, iPhones, etc. Kuen’s concern is obvious – what about equality of access? Kids from poorer homes will be disadvantaged. I would have been less concerned about this criticism if I had seen something in the plan about providing ectra technology resources (e.g. equipment that students could borrow) for schools in poorer neighbourhoods (and yes, we do have those here).

The second objection comes from Jim McMurtry, a high school teacher. This is a general attack on fully online learning. A lot of it reads like the old David Noble arguments, driven by a concern that the government wants to use technology to save money on teachers and schools, but there is a point here that I think is worth further consideration, and that is, what is an appropriate balance between online and face-to-face teaching for students of different ages? How much time do want a seven year old to spend on a computer as part of their studies? I have to confess to feeling a lot more comfortable arguing for fully online learning for adult learners than I do for young children. Again, this is a question of finding the appropriate balance.

The third concern is the timeline. Kuehn claims the plan calls for a six month process where the Ministry will work with ‘education partners’ (read ‘teachers and parents’) to implement the plan, which involves no less than a complete redesign of teaching from grades k to 12.

At the end of the day. I do fully support the BC Ministry of Education’s goals for the k-12 sector. The emphasis on personalized learning, skills development and technology integration are all right on target. In George Abbott, BC has the brightest and best Minister of Education in the 21 years since I’ve been living in the province. BUT, you have to give as much attention to implementation as to goals. The Education Plan is no more than 800 words long and with no details about implementation. In particular, teachers must be onside for these strategies to work. BC has a history of vitriolic and toxic relationships between government and the teachers’ union that goes back before even my time in BC. However, even in a jurisdiction with good relationships between government and teachers, extensive consultation and collaborative working will be essential to bring about the changes proposed here. Some additional resources need to be found to support the changes, particularly regarding in-service training of teachers, but also to ensure equity in access to modern technology. And this kind of change isn’t going to happen in six months; it needs to be spread out over several years.

So I look forward to seeing the government’s implementation plan, which I hope will be done in collaboration with the teachers, and not imposed on them. To do this, the government has to get the bargaining settled and off the table if it is to have any hope of getting any progress on the educational changes that are much needed and in the right direction.