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
requires.
• 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.