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Margin Notes

The promise of e-learning at Canada’s universities

Is it still largely unfulfilled?


I see that Tony Bates continues to preach the gospel of e-learning, having delivered a keynote address at a recent conference on the “digital future of higher education” at Thompson Rivers University.

Dr. Bates is a longtime guru of distance and online learning. He worked for 20 years at Britain’s Open University, was an executive director at the Open Learning Agency of British Columbia, was director of distance education in the continuing studies division at the University of British Columbia, and since 2003 has been a consultant in e-learning and distance education.

I remember hearing Dr. Bates deliver a lecture on distance and online learning more than 10 years and interviewed him afterwards. What’s interesting, I find, is that in the intervening decade so much has changed, and yet so little.

Certainly, the use of online tools and technologies to assist classroom teaching has exploded. But my impression is that e-learning – in the sense of students learning online, possibly at a distance, and with no physical classroom – remains largely an unfulfilled promise at universities in Canada. I say “impression,” because I can’t seem to find any good statistics on this.

But that sense of unfulfilled promise was also the general conclusion of a 2009 report, The State of E-Learning in Canada, by the Canadian Council on Learning:

In Canada, levels of adoption of e-learning have been significantly slower than anticipated. While the proportion of courses delivered online in Canada is one of the highest among countries studied, research suggests that Canadian post-secondary institutions have been slower than those in many other countries to incorporate significant online components into their programs. Key barriers remain, including infrastructure, funding and staffing issues, and resistance by faculty (because of increased workload and intellectual property issues, among others). The growth of e-learning has not significantly altered the way in which Canada’s institutions organize or deliver learning.

That report prompted Terry Anderson, a professor at Athabasca University and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Distance Education, to lament “Canada’s Lost e-learning Decade.”

Interestingly, my interview with Dr. Bates, published in January 2001, reads as though it could have been written yesterday. For example, speaking about professors and e-learning, he had this to say:

They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They’re being pressured to use the technology, not just from management … but also from their students, who are more and more technology literate. But, the institutions have done generally a very poor job in preparing professors for this. Secondly, in Canada, many professors are nearing retirement, and there’s not a lot of incentive to go through a radical rethink about how they do their core business of teaching.

I don’t have a copy of Dr. Bates’ recent talk at Thompson Rivers, but there is a report on it in the local Kamloops newspaper. According to that report, Dr. Bates noted that statistics from the U.S. show students are increasingly favouring online education, and he predicted that within the next five to six years more than 60 percent of students will be taking some distance education.

On a related note, we are currently running a blog by Adam Chapnick, called “Virtually learning,” which recounts his experience teaching an online course for the first time.

So what do you think: Has e-learning begun to significantly alter university teaching? Or, is the promise of e-learning still largely unfulfilled, and if so, what’s holding it back?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Thomas G. Fairbairn / July 15, 2011 at 15:51

    I think e-learning is similar to all alternatives to fossil fuels: until we’ve wrung every possible profit from fossil fuels, no alternative sources of energy will be tolerated. In higher education, the tenured professors at brick-and-mortar institutions are the fossil fuel resource blocking and advancement to on-line learning.

    • Zeech / March 22, 2013 at 06:32

      Wow! that’s preety raw and true. I just want to second that as a dot-com-casualty , since 1990’s I’ve bee involved in using the web to deliver and honestly it’s only been in the corporate world where I’ve seen progress along with deadlines met. Academics are not rock stars there, they are subject matter experts and the Project Manager is the Director on the Film Set. The corporate training/educating system don’t bother with conferences, papers publishing etc which is what makes Academia (tenured) so resistant?

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