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??
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.