Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Canada's Lost e-learning Decade

The title of this posting  may be a bit melodramatic, but it accurately reflects the lost of international e-learning leadership by Canada as documented in the release of State of E-learning in Canada 2009 by Canada Council on Learning. I could find nothing I totally disagreed with in this 145 page report and much that I found myself agreeing with. But the report saddens me, I’ll review the main sections in the following and return to the angst in the conclusion.

The first section of the report documents the undeniable impact of ICT on all aspects of Canadian Life. It further notes Canada’s R&D accomplishments in a number of areas – notably “wireless technology, biometrics, security technology, software, and multimedia and digital entertainment.” The report then documents the now well known list of affordance of e-learning, including capacity to span geographic and temporal distance, support rich interaction, support low cost access to multimedia resources etc. Data is presented showing Canadians are using the Net and e-learnings one of the applications (50% of adults use it for education, training or school work). The report then spends 30 pages or so defining, describing and detailing major stakeholders in e-learning- nice stuff, maybe useful as a primer, but hardly the stuff of a national policy report. The report then talks about applications and the key leaders in schools, universities, industry and lifelong learning. The report then details the programs, and stimulation and elearning support initiatives of countries like Korea, Australia, UK, France, US and EU. But then comes the long list of challenges docuemented in earlier studies:

•” Canada’s efforts in e-learning are trailing behind those of other countries.
• Low levels of collaboration across and among jurisdictions are resulting in the
duplication of efforts and in unnecessary costs.
• There is a lack of Canadian data related to e-learning—in particular, relevant
empirical and longitudinal research on e-learning that details the effectiveness
of current Canadian e-learning initiatives.
• Key barriers remain at the university level, including infrastructure, funding and
staffing issues, and resistance by faculty (e.g., because of added workload,
intellectual property issues).
• Although lifelong learning is at the forefront of policy discussions, and
technology is transforming education in most instances, there is little planning
for, or vision of, e-learning for the future.
• Research findings reflect a variety of opinions and conclusions. Some research
demonstrates the positive impact of technology on student learning. However,
other research strongly suggests that there is little evidence, if any, to support
the claim that the use of technology in learning justifies the resources it
• As Abrami et al. (2006) note, post-secondary education in particular would
benefit from a national plan to assess the impact of e-learning initiatives.
• To date, there appears to be no comprehensive or coherent approach in Canada
to align e-learning’s vast potential as a learning tool with a clearly articulated and
informed understanding of what it could or should accomplish.” p. 14

Finally we get to the section where the report outlines a plan to reverse our slide to mediocrity – Wrong!. Where one would normally get recommendations we get a rehash of the action plan from the Advisory Committee on Online Learning, 2001. The recommendations from that action plan, reiterated as 4 key areas needing attention are:

  1. Generating momentum: stakeholder collaboration and sharing
    of resources
  2. A shared vision of e-learning
  3. Harnessing the potential of technology to facilitate the needs of learners
  4. Filling the gaps in research

Now again, I agree with the need for action in all of these ‘attention areas’. But what is the point of reiterating ideas from a 2001 report (likely gathered from issues of a decade ago), without looking deeply at why the action plan was never implemented. Will calling for action on the same issues change anything? I realize that the government changed after the 2001 report, but why is it that e-learning has failed to make the national or provincial agenda amongst conservative governments in Canada, while much has been done by similar governments in Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Canadian spending per capita on formal grade school education is higher than OECD average and one of the 3 highest in the world at tertiary level (OECD 2006), yet our spending on research and development to insure we getting value for that expenditure is minuscule. Have education and lifelong learning researchers and policy makers failed to mobilize interest? Will e-learning excellence and the benefits of accessible life long learning simply fall to Canadians without us doing anything to make it happen?

This report is informative, generally accurate (even though much data is not available or out of date – no funding for research!), and demonstrates that Canadian’s have a capacity to write with scholarly aplomb about important issues (note the 34 pages of endnotes and bibliography!!) The report quite correctly notes that the 2001 action plan has demonstrated only inaction. The report calls (in a muted way) for the type of momentum, vision, research and effort needed by Canadian’s their governments, businesses and educational institutions. These four – vision, momentum, research and effort are key to gaining the strategic advantage that a well equipped and motivated learning culture supplies to its citizens. I hope we don’t let another decade slide by.

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  1. Gerry Gerry
    May 25, 2009    

    Nice summary Terry, and it is sad to see what is happening. Or more precisely, what isn’t happening in Canada. Our institutions seem to be focusing more on enrollments rather than researching good practices and providing an exemplary learning environment.

  2. May 25, 2009    

    Anyone who was working in Canada on elearning at the start of the 10 years you describe, 1999, knows we had an absolutely peerless reputation when it came to the work being done and research being produced. Now… well, maybe not so much, though I do know a bunch of hoser edubloggers trying valiantly to not let the side down. We do seem to excel, though, at producing post-mortems of our failings! Maybe there’s a future in that, at least if we count on any of current governments for leadership.

  3. May 25, 2009    

    Wow, what a difference perspective makes! This took me back a decade and the song has hardly changed at all. Perhaps the authors should spend a little more time at commercial conferences, such as ASTD and the elearning guild in the USA, or Educa in Europe where a common refrain is, “how come all the great innovations are from Canada?” Small innovative Canadian companies are thriving in the Global e-learning marketplace, and almost all of them emerged from the academic research and focus on elearning that Canada led in the 1990’s through until the collapse of the Canarie program around 2004.

    True, our markets are chiefly outside of Canada, in the UK, Australia, the USA, Scandinavia, and latin America, and true rival products are beginning to emerge from all of those places and are chipping away at our head start, and true we are constantly being seduced by investors from those countries because they want to take the shortcut route to catching up to Canada’s lead.

    But we haven’t lost the race yet folks, and some of the Natural forces that gave Canada the lead in the first place are still there. Great technological infrastructure, cultural diversity, scattered settlements and expensive travel as well as long winter nights to sit in front of a computer, and a driving need for lifelong learning in order to survive.

    Certainly academic research in the field has stagnated somewhat, and where it led the private sector in innovation until around 2004, the opposite is true today. But just wait till the millennials are all wanting to reinvent themselves at age 35 and that’ll change in a hurry.

  4. Ghada Ghada
    May 26, 2009    

    Dear Dr. Terry
    Dear Canada
    Hello all of you
    Happy coincidence that I have been alert to this web blog post yesterday, at the same time I was writing about Canad’s report in my social networks!
    I have read the report a few days ago, I was interested in the level of education in Canada especially e-learning, yes I’m not Canadian, but I got a master degree in e=learning from Canada, the format studying is in distance learning / e-learning,..
    when I started my master, I was impressed very much of Dr. Terry writings , there are the first windows for me in guiding the identification of the concept of e-learning ,
    for example, the book ( online learning :theory and practice), it was wonderful,
    I am a proud when one asked me where I studied my master degree.. I said : ( I studied in CANADA , the leader of e-learning around the world 🙂 ),
    So, I feel sad to the the deterioration in the level of e-learning in Canada 🙁 , but I found the report developing a good framework, while focusing on the importance of research issues in e-learning and bridge the gap in the data on applications of e-learning in Canada, Canada is a large and where many of the States, which needs to establish a strong collaborative network fully in this regard, I do not live in Canada and I hope to return Canada to its leadership in e-learning because I want to complete a doctorate as well as in e-learning universities according to the Canadian way of e-learning ..
    therefor, I see my self as the fruit of Canada’s e-learning experience .. 🙂
    Thank you

  5. Jamie Rossiter Jamie Rossiter
    May 26, 2009    

    I agree with your comments Terry. So what is holding us back as a nation? We’ve had big national initiatives like Telelearning NCE ($14 m, 1996-2001), CANARIE E-learning Program ($29 m, 1999-2005), and LORNET ($7.5 m, 2003-2008), but they have not, even in aggregate, gotten us to critical mass.

    I do think that our fragmented education system is a huge barrier, simply because it leaves a leadership vacuum that neither CMEC nor CCL have chosen to take up. And it’s clearly not a policy priority for this federal government.

    Having said that, people are voting with their wallets. Most education and training programs now have at least some e-learning component. And in a country as vast as ours, use of e-learning to reach learners whomever and wherever they are just makes sense. But what’s lost is that in a field where we should be the natural world leader, we continue to borrow more than we innovate.

    • May 31, 2009    

      Jamie has noted how our fragmented political structures work against organizational leadership in the formal education system. We might also consider the effect of geography in spreading our population across large distances [in comparison with European countries, for example], and whether the increasing use of online networking will alleviate distance as a factor.

      Another factor worth considering, in comparison with the US, is the impact of Canadians’ basic trust in public institutions, and our focus on access rather than quality as the key performance indicator. In higher education we see much more concern about institutional accountability in the US and typically a much stronger role for government ministries in monitoring quality. And we made high investments in access to higher education under bricks and mortar paradigms, which we have not come to question now that an expanded range of provision options are available.


  6. May 26, 2009    

    Thanks very much for the insights added through comments to this post. I’d like to briefly respond to a few. First Stephen Downes had a different take on the report http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=49069. Although not really disagreeing with my comments, Stephen notes the flourishing Canadian EduBlog community – some of the world’s most well read pundits – folks like himself, George Siemens, Alec Couros, Darcy Norman, Scott Leslie, Brian Lamb, Dave Courmier and lots of others I have failed to note. In addition Alex, Stephen and George have run massive open courses and all of us have been involved with innovations to our courses and doing Professional development workshops in our shop and around the world. But as evidenced by the lack of participation by main stream (industry, education faculty, K12ers) practitioners in last years online – Towards a Pan Canadian E-learning Research Agenda (http://scope.bccampus.ca/course/view.php?id=56), this crew, though erudite blogers, speakers and innovators, has, to date, had little effect on policy or mainstream practice. To have a really large and effective impact I think we need the type of collaboration amongst multiple sectors we see in Canad’s investments in nano-technology or some of the medical innovations. This would involve development and testing in multiple contexts of new technologies and pedagogies, using a variety of methodologies. As noted in the report, other countries are doing this and we should be too!

    Roger Mundell (above) is touching a much different part of the elephant when he describes e-learning in Canadian industry. I confess to be not too much aware of this sector, although I regularly learn with and from those grad students in our Masters and Dr. programs working in industry training projects across the country. It is true (as Jamie Rossiter notes above) that many are involved in forms of e-learning. We also have a few stellar e-learning companies such as Ellluminate, Smart and Desire-to-Learn. But I still argue that our innovation and vision is limited. Indeed one of the roles of effective government is to stimulate interaction amongst various sectors and helping create a climate where innovation in both public and private sector flourishes.

    I still content that this report and government and institutional activities to date, have little to offer or inspire us. End of whine- back to work. Thanks again for your comments all!

  7. May 27, 2009    

    Terry, you write, “To have a really large and effective impact I think we need the type of collaboration amongst multiple sectors we see in Canada’s investments in nano-technology or some of the medical innovations.”

    I would agree, but my problem with such an approach is that it would be run by the sort of people who produced this report, and would thus effectively eliminate what good is being done now.

  8. May 27, 2009    

    speaking from the other side of the elephant, there really is a very different dynamic going on here, and it encompasses every sector, Governments, corporations, non-profits, small organizations, K-12 educators and individuals are all embracing online learning and pushing the pedagogical and innovation boundaries in what seems like a booming explosion in demand.

    So why the totally different perspectives? While I still venture to academic conferences but too often encounter the endless repeats of the same old discussions, I find there’s often boundary pushing stuff at the better run commercial conferences such as those run by the elearning guild and ASTD. Of course the gems are often buried amongst the self-serving commercial presentations, but the elearning guild in particular tries hard to police that, and to ensure that there’s a diversity of ideas and practical demonstrations.

    Perhaps if Terry and others in the academic and research communities would explore these venues more regularly we’d get some of that collaboration amongst multiple sectors going. Since leaving academia I have found the attitude of former academic colleagues is along the lines of, “well you have gone over to the dark side, so your ideas are no longer relevant” .

    The fact is that changing demographics are driving a significant and exciting change in both demand for online learning resources and also in the pedagogy.

    For example, learning from repetitive failure was never an option in the classroom but is a core component of some of the most successful online learning modules in industry, and it comes directly from game design principles, which Millennials respond to, and which established academic Instructional designers rarely even consider.

    Government and consumer and industrial training course developers, where there is no academic certification incentive to drive students to completion have had to devise new ways to engage and motivate learners. K-12 educators have picked up on some of those techniques, but post secondary educators haven’t bothered for the most part.

    Maybe Canada can be the first place to bring all the sectors back together in a truly effective collaboration? One carefully constructed and well managed Global event could put us back on the map.

  9. Raj Raj
    June 12, 2009    

    The comments on there not being enough resources in higher ed are certainly close to the mark.

    Instructors can’t or won’t take the time to learn new systems because they don’t have time and because they fear what might happen when their content leaves their personal control.

    Another issue that I have seen is that there seems to be an increasing taboo around “e”. Pointing it out as a “special” form of learning/delivery for some (many perhaps) might be a reason for resistance. If we can get traditional instructors to extend their classrooms with eLearning tools, then we might have a chance to achieve higher rates of adoption.

No Pings Yet

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