January 23, 2018

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.


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.


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.

Will I see you at the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning this week?

The conference

ICDE’s world conference lands at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto this week.

I am very much looking forward to the coming week in Toronto. I am not usually a great fan of very large conferences, but this one seems to be somewhat different, with a huge number of smaller, interactive sessions and few if any large keynotes given by old white men (yes, people like me) with lots of ‘telling’ and not much discussion.

Nevertheless, this old white man is pretty busy at this conference. In all, I have four formal sessions, as well as several informal functions.

The national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education

What: We will be launching the report on the national survey, briefly presenting the results, then discussing the implications. This is the first pan-Canadian survey of online learning of all public post-secondary institutions in Canada, universities AND colleges.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 4.00 pm, Osgoode West Room.

For more information on the survey: Go to: https://onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca/ to download the report; see also: Responses to the Canadian survey of online and distance learning.

Three sessions on my book: Teaching in a Digital Age

What: I am doing three seminar-type sessions on my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, under the heading of Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning. If you wish to attend you are advised to read first the recommended chapters from the book (click on time and place links below for the recommended readings) if you have not already done so, as this will be more a discussion of the issues than formal presentations.


Monday, October 16, 3.00 – 4.00 pm, City Hall Room

Presentation 1:

Building an Effective Learning Environment – How to Enable More Flexible Models of Learning Design to be Created and Applied

Presentation 2:

Making the Choice – How to Choose between Online, Blended or Campus-Based Delivery for Effective Learning 

Wednesday, October 18, 11:45 am – 12:45 pm, Maple Room

Presentation 1:

Choosing Media – How They Differ and How to Make the Best Choices for My Teaching 

Presentation 2:

How Open Education Will Revolutionize Higher Education: The Impact of Open Research, Open Textbooks, OERs and Open Data on Course Design and Delivery 

Thursday, October 19, 11.00 am – 12 noon, City Hall Room

Presentation 1:

Ensuring Quality – How to Design and Deliver Quality Courses in a Supportive Learning Environment

Presentation 2:

General discussion of the design issues raised in the book.

Nine steps to quality teaching


Perhaps the most important part of any conference like this is networking. If you want to connect, try texting me at 604-418-7484. It will be great to meet in person any of my blog or book readers!

Try to make it a coffee or lunch break, though, as I want to go to many of the other sessions. 

Hope to see you at the conference!

More details on ICDE’s World Conference on Online Learning

ICDE Toronto skyline 2

Contact North | Contact Nord, the organizer and host of the 27th International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) World Conference, launches the official portal for the World Conference on Online Learning: Teaching in a Digital Age – Re-Thinking Teaching & Learning to be held in Toronto, Canada from October 17 – 19, 2017. (For an earlier post on ICDE, Contact North, and the conference, click here.)

The theme of the World Conference on Online Learning is Teaching in the Digital Age – Re-Thinking Teaching & Learning with the program focused on five tracks:

  1. Emerging Pedagogies and Designs for Online Learning
  2. Expanding Access, Openness and Flexibility
  3. Changing Models of Assessment
  4. New Delivery Tools and Resources for Learning
  5. Re-Designing Institutional Business Models

Visit the bilingual portal – www.onlinelearning2017.ca and www.apprentissageenligne2017.ca – for information including:


This will be one of the major conferences on online learning in 2017, with participants from all over the world. Even though the conference is targeting a total of 2,000 participants, early registration is recommended (when registration opens) because of the likely number of people wanting to participate from Canada and the USA alone.

Registration will open in October 2016 (sign up for their newsletter to get the exact date).

Declaration of interest: I am a Contact North Research Associate and have been engaged in some of the preliminary planning. If the choice of conference title is familiar, it was not my suggestion, although I have not opposed it.

Contact North to host the next ICDE conference in Toronto in 2017

Toronto from near Union Station

Toronto from near Union Station.

The International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) announced at the close of this year’s conference in Sun City, South Africa, that its next conference will be held at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto between 17-19 October, 2017. The host will be Contact North/Contact Nord and Maxim Jean-Louis, its President – CEO, will be the President of the Organizing Committee of the 27th World Conference.


The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) is a global membership organization and provides leadership in open education, flexible, online and distance learning, including e-learning. Its members include stakeholders working in educational institutions, school authorities and the commercial sector, as well as individuals. ICDE has a formal consultative status with UNESCO and promotes the core value of UNESCO: the universal right to education for all. To support this ideal, ICDE relies on the unique knowledge and experience of its members around the world, in terms of development and use of new methodologies and emerging technologies.

ICDE was founded in Canada in 1938 as the International Council for Correspondence Education. Today it has worldwide members in more than 60 countries.

The ICDE Permanent Secretariat has been located in Oslo, Norway since 1988. ICDE receives funding from the Ministry of Education and Research of Norway and from membership fees.

For more information about ICDE, please visit the website at www.icde.org.

Contact North

Contact North/Contact North was established in 1986 by the Government of Ontario. A key component of its activities is to provide residents of the province equitable access to postsecondary education and training opportunities through its 112 centers of online learning, often located in remote communities without any post-secondary educational campuses.

Thus Ontario students have the ability to participate through Contact North/Contact Nord in online courses and programs, in French and English, from Ontario’s 24 public colleges, 22 public universities and 250 literacy providers, as well as access basic skills training, without having to leave their community. Contact North/Contact Nord’s headquarters are in Thunder Bay and in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

For more information about Contact North/Contact Nord, please visit its websites at teachonline.ca/home and studyonline.ca/

Further information

I first came to Canada in 1982 to attend the ICDE conference in Vancouver. It was at this conference that it changed its name from ‘Correspondence’ to ‘Distance’. These conferences enable one to get a very good oversight of the world of distance education.

I will be providing updates as more information about the conference becomes available.