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Open Letter to Canadian Universities

Dear Canadian Universities,

You are, as the cool 4chan/Reddit kids say, about to get pwned. The dramatic entrance of elite US universities into online learning will change the education landscape globally. Where we, as Canadian higher education institutions, should be leading, we are laggards. The geography and distributed sparse population of Canada lends itself well to technology-enhanced learning. Remote northern communities can benefit substantially from being able to join classes on subjects where local expertise does not exist. The currently high proportion of provincial funding as a percentage of the total cost of higher education makes it easy to justify large-scale collaborative projects.

However, lack of vision by Canadian Universities has resulted in missed opportunities. For over a decade, we have watched the internet happen to many segments of society: newspapers/journalism, music, journals and academic publications, and content in general. We are not without examples of what happens. In each instance, the change has been stunning – old economic values have been rewritten. Newcomers have become kings and long-time leaders have been dethroned. In a few instances (Pearson), effective leadership and vision has resulted in success. In most instances, however, the old guard has been shaken to its core.

Higher education leaders, globally, have few excuses to justify feeble responses. I’m concerned that the ossification of higher education institutions, and a complete failure to build capacity for adaptation, will produce a bonanza for educational technology startups at the expense of the university’s role in society. The current generation of leaders are overseeing the large-scale dismantling of the public university. Piecemeal outsourcing, growing prominence of adjuncts, and tendering key functions of the university (online course development), are creating a context where the university will no longer be able to direct its own fate.

And it’s just starting.

Add cloud computing, mobile devices, open educational resources, increased profile of universities in developing regions of the world, global competition for international students, edtech startups, greater VC interest in the education sector, reduced federal and provincial funding, changes in the federal research mandate toward commercialization, online learning, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) and we have a climate that is ripe for massive change.

Several prestigious US universities, Stanford, U of Michigan, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, U of Pennsylvania, U of California, Berkeley, have started a large scale experiment in MOOCs. While the current project is not the answer to all that ails education, it is an active experiment that will provide investigators with new insight into how teaching and learning are impacted by digital networks.

And how are our Canadian universities doing??

Very poorly.

Canadian universities are squandering an opportunity to reply meaningfully to Coursera and EDx. I’m aware of at least two major Canadian universities that are negotiating to join Coursera. Why give not develop your own? Why not create an active experiment in a Canadian context that allows you to build your understanding of emerging learning models?

By joining an existing project, you largely give away the knowledge building potential for Canadian universities in their own experimentation. Instead of a diversity of projects, where Coursera/EDx benefit from what our universities do (and vice versa), we are doing what got us into this position of innovation laggards in the first place: neglecting the development of vision by taking an easier more politically palatable route.

Be a leader!

The solution is simple: develop a Canadian version of EDx. (For that matter, nations around the world should be developing their own versions of EDx).

I propose that the top 10 Canadian universities convene a meeting to plan a MOOC response that helps us to build our competence in this space. We already have universities devoted to online learning such as Athabasca University (disclaimer: that’s where I hang out) and Thompson Rivers. Partner with those systems as design and delivery partners as they have developed the technical infrastructure and pedagogical expertise for online learning. Even a small allocation of $5-10 million by assembled universities would produce a significant impact and increase the profile of Canadian higher education.

We’ve been laggards for too long, acquiescing international students to more visionary countries (such as Australia). Now is a great time to plant the Canadian flag in the emerging education landscape. All we need is a bit of vision and a willingness to experiment.


  1. Guillaume wrote:

    Hello Georges,

    I am available at anytime to share my experience with the Council of Ontario Universities and explain how we build our online program for future Nurses Practitioners.


    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  2. It is relative what is happening: there are heaps of rubbish solutions to e-learning challenges. I think it’s a great problem for the western civilizations to answer what to invest on this issue. And I very much agree the action should have been taken alraeady, but very, very fast. We have to bring solutions in ordere to keep up with the world…

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Keith Quinn wrote:

    Hi George,

    Your letter is absolutely spot on, and could be applied across the Atlantic easily – despite being the home of the Open University, I am sure that higher education here is just not prepared or the North Americn entrepreneurialism which is coming like an express train. Technology adoption, seems to me, to be linked to replicating the classroom experience rather than using it to teansgorm the learning experience into something more relevant to the generation coming through

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Hi George, Yes and yes. I think we cannot rely on university fundings to kick this off as we do not have institutions like the US with MIT, Harvard, and the like with deep and old pockets from alumni and donors and the high tuition structure that we fortunately do not adopt in Canada. I believe we need to turn to corporate foundations for funding for these initiatives to be pushed through at sample universities who can then be the lead for others to model after. I disagree with you that it should be the “top 10 universities” – they could be old and traditional. We need universities who would come forward who are game for change.

    As you well know, I’ve been pushing for a pan-Canadian open online program for teachers from one such corporate foundation with a hopeful start of Jan 2014 and have an invited proposal from another that I have to develop immediately. So, count me in on this if you can and maybe we should skype soon about the current proposal. One of these things must fly eventually…

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  5. BTW, this sentiment is shared by others. You may have seen:

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  6. Accordingtosmith wrote:

    When I ask students about their experiences with on-line education, the responses vary very little. I recall no exception to the sentiment that they would only take another on-line course if they had no other choice. They often found the material out-dated, the course exceptionally boring, far too easy, and preferred the social environment and face-to-face experience of the physical campus. Now, I expect that different on-line institutions offer different experiences, and my impression is merely word-of-mouth based on perhaps two dozen or so testimonials, but I have serious reservations about the quality of the on-line experience. Not the least of which is derived from the fact that mine is a field-based discipline concerned with the study of human culture. Our tech is making great strides, but to date, there is no reasonable substitute for studying culture outside of a cultural environment. As more institutions move towards on-line offerings, my concern is for the quality of the education. Will we see the same travesty that plagues our grade school system (that now produces graduates with exceptionally poor communication and problem solving skills)? Will we have a multi-tiered degree system where the on-line education is broadly considered inferior to the campus-based education? I believe in access to education, but we can’t be selling a second-rate bill of goods to those who can’t access a campus. I’m concerned that much of the recent interest in developing on-line access is driven by hard economic times, rather than good pedagogy.

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink
  7. Virginia Yonkers wrote:

    We’ve started looking at Canadian Universities for my daughter because they are so much cheaper even as an international university than the US. Canada could really take advantage of this and move into the world market if they can harness some of the world class distance learning models some successful Canadian individual universities have developed. Much of the good research in distance learning, especially in the early 2000′s came from Canada. Why has Canada not taken advantage of it?

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink
  8. I work in eLearning and follow what university’s are doing closely from multiple perspectives…this article is awesome AND Australia needs to catchup!!

    We are losing millions by the month.

    Thanks for writing..

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  9. George, it’s good to see the big picture from a pan-Canadian perspective. It’s badly needed. I hope this discussion can be continued…

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  10. Mark McGuire wrote:

    Hi George and others

    I just received this email from an imaginary friend, who will remain nameless.

    Dear Colleague

    I work in a university where we have a “Centre for Innovation”. Thankfully, this absolves me from needing to worry about innovating, which, as you know, can be hard work. We also have a “Quality Advancement Unit” and a “Human Ethics Committee”, both very handy for similar reasons. I think there is also a “Higher Education Development Centre”. All I have to do is, well, what I’m told to do. Easy, eh? And they keep moving me up the chain, where I have fewer people telling me what to do and more people doing what I tell them to do. The closer to the top of the pyramid I get, the more comfortable I am with the way the organization works. I’ve exchanged stories with people in similar positions and we all agree — it’s a great system, and we will fight any attempts to weaken it. There will always be a few malcontents and loose canons, who will insist on being critical just to cause trouble. It’s not my problem if they refuse to play the game and succeed as I have, and they are probably envious of my hard-won position. Fortunately, we have policies and procedures to deal with such people. I should know — I drafted a number of them myself.

    Best regards.

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Dawn Worley wrote:

    George, there is no doubt that online learning, as well as e-learning tools, are here to stay. Innovation is a quality that community colleges and universities must have in order to persevere in online learning locally and globally. As we move forward, I am also concerned about the “human” element in online courses. How can we keep our online learners connected and what role do we play in this level of connectedness as educators?

    Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  12. Gorynel Desse wrote:

    I disagree that Athabasca and Thompson River are somehow qualified to provide some meaningful contribution to this change. I’ve taken courses at Athabasca, Thompson River, Coursera, Udacity and the original AI course from Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. The courses from Athabasca and Thompson River are essentially traditional university courses where they mail you the text book rather than requiring you pick it up, and provide no social experience. While there is an online presence it does not provide useful assistance, and in fact is so poor I usually find it easier to print out the course outline and work through it with a hard copy.

    In contrast, the Coursera, Udacity and AI courses were wonderful. I completed 10 – 20 hours of homework weekly. Voluntarily, I completed an educational experience that was more enjoyable, more rewarding, more difficult, and a better learning experience than many of the courses I completed in my undergraduate degree at Simon Fraser University.

    @Accordingtosmith, I suggest your sample is incomplete, and most likely drawn from online experience like Athabasca and Thompson River, traditional distance education institutions. Tens of thousands of people are volunteering to complete Coursera, MITx and Udacity learning experiences. I have taken three so far and hope to take many more.

    Is this not what we hope for in education? People lining up to learn?

    I agree that Canadian universities should be pioneering this field as well. A university without the ability to provide this kind of experience in a few years will be in a difficult position. However, aside from that, this is the frontier of education. Stanford has demonstrated that the incumbents of distance education, Athabasca, Thompson River, Open University, etc, were not reaching the scale, nor the interactive experience, that was possible.

    What Coursera and Udacity are currently providing is not the pinnacle of possibility, it is the foothills. However, what they have now is a large student body, a platform they can evolve, and lots of data. As these things move forward having the platform and the data is the difference between research and innovation and content provider.

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  13. Mary Madsen wrote:

    I don’t think it’s just Canadian Universities that need to look out for US Universities because of the rise of online education. Every university in every country now has more competition to deal with due to vast online educational opportunities now. Competition is always a good thing though. It forces people to step up their game!

    Monday, July 9, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  14. Australian universities suffer from the same ailment. We are lucky here in some respects as we have a huge Asian market (for want of a better word) that helps to sustain our sector. However this influx of dollars does not seem to be making any difference to forward thinking of the people who head up our universities.

    Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  15. That’s resonating, be a leader! As I shared here education needs to be customised, not just a copy or “best practice”of an education system from another country.

    Wednesday, July 18, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink
  16. Julie Gallanty wrote:

    George, Another excellent post summarizing the gaps in higher education leadership not seeing the bigger picture and trends that are changing the industry today.

    It seems that the energy in the change in higher education and technology/internet is a bottom up force and not driven from the top down.

    Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink