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In my opinion

Redefining international education for the digital age

Canada could do so much more in international student recruitment by relying on one of its great strengths – digital communication


Canada has failed to capitalize fully upon its expertise in e-learning, a postsecondary advantage with great potential to contribute both to Canada’s competitive position and to do good. A country that encompasses great distances, Canada has led the world in the digital communication revolution. However, it has not been a leader in exporting this expertise or in participating in the worldwide sharing of educational material known as the open educational resource movement.

The Government of Canada is considering an International Education Strategy to strengthen Canada’s competitive position with respect to the growing demand for higher education. In the 21st century, being competitive demands innovative approaches, not only greater investment in the strategies of the past which have aimed almost exclusively on attracting international students to Canada and on sending Canadian students abroad.

We are in a digital age that calls for a redefinition of international education. The government has begun to recognize this, as evidenced by a pilot project that offered “virtual” scholarships to students in Haiti and CARICOM. Though these students never set foot in Canada, they interacted with Canadian content, professors, and other students through innovative applications of digital technology, all the while remaining at home to the benefit of their communities. Their lives were changed, they are forever connected to Canada by the experience, and there is no doubt in their minds that they received an international education.

Canadian universities offer over 200 programs and over 2,000 courses from the certificate to the doctoral level, online and through distance education. These educational offerings are available right now to students living almost anywhere in the world, making a Canadian education available to more than only the most wealthy who can afford to travel and live in Canada.

In addition, online education benefits incoming international students who are awaiting visas, saving money or maturing an extra year by allowing them to start preparatory or credit courses before arriving on a Canadian campus. And online education allows potential immigrants to earn a Canadian credential before coming to Canada, thus removing the barrier that foreign credential recognition often poses to quick labour market integration.

Despite our wealth of quality online offerings, Canadian universities receive only a fraction of international students who enrol in distance programs compared with key competitor countries. For example, University of London has 50,000 distance international students, as does the British Open University. Canadian Virtual University, a consortium of 12 Canadian universities collaborating in the development and promotion of online education, collectively reported fewer than 3,000 international students taking online courses in 2010. Clearly, this suggests huge opportunities for growth.

Two reasons for Canada’s weakness in this area compared with the U.K. and Australia, in particular, have been a lack of national coordination and a lack of resources necessary to present Canadian online education as a high quality alternative for some international students. We are encouraged that these issues may be addressed if the recommendations of the Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy are implemented, and if the definition of international education is more broadly envisioned to include online education.
What is also required is an understanding of policy impediments that prevent those abroad from pursuing a Canadian education on line. In the United States, for example, federal government funds cannot be used by Americans to take courses by foreign providers. Despite attempts by Canadian diplomats to have the U.S. legislation changed, little has happened. In some of the key potential markets in Asia and in South America, there is restrictive legislation demanding that in some cases up to 80 percent of learning must be in a classroom setting.
Even though we have the capacity to take a larger share of the international online student market, by far the greatest demand for higher education comes from developing and emerging countries where simply removing travel and living costs is not enough to make higher education accessible to everyone on the basis of merit. Canada’s expertise in e-learning has the potential, if supported, to make an impact here as well — an impact for “good” that would balance the competitive goal of our international education strategy to attract the best and brightest from around the world to meet our own future labour market needs.

The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States have benefited from huge philanthropic, government and, most recently, venture capital support for open educational resource (OER) initiatives, which gives the world free online access to a large selection of university course content. Through these investments, prestigious universities in the U.S. have raised their already high global profile by “teaching” hundreds of thousands worldwide in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Whether such free noncredit courses can help students in developing nations attain the kind of education they need to contribute to development in their own countries remains to be seen.

Though Canada was awarded one of the world’s two UNESCO Chairs in OER last year and most of our universities are exploring open educational resources to some degree, Canada as a nation has yet to demonstrate interest in this potentially transformative global educational initiative. It is time to do so, not in an attempt to catch up or avoid falling further behind, but to add our own value to the open education movement.

If Canada wants to have serious and meaningful impacts on the developing world, it could leverage its digital learning advantage by assisting those Canadian postsecondary institutions with expertise in distance education to, for example, license their content or work with overseas university partners to build their own low-cost, high-quality learning capacity. Such partnerships would build on Canadian expertise in e-learning to help developing countries develop their own culturally and nationally appropriate OER to meet the massive needs of their populations, which clearly cannot be met in traditional ways. It would also help form international networks for global research to advance further innovations in e-teaching and e-learning.

Canada is a world leader in high quality e-learning. Global recognition of this quality can help further Canada’s goals to bring more international students to Canada and to better prepare new immigrants for the labour force, both of which are tied to building prosperity in Canada. But that recognition can also be translated into real contributions to helping the developing world meets its own educational needs. It will take the postsecondary sector and government to work collaboratively and imaginatively to more fully realize the potential of e-learning for national and global good.

Vicky Busch is executive director of the Canadian Virtual University.

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