Punch-drunk set starts to sober up

May 18, 2001

Canadian universities have realised that e-learning is not about a fast buck and a camera in the classroom, says Philip Fine.

Lowered profit expectations and a call for more instructional design have brought a certain sobriety to the learning technologies and distance-education scene in Canadian universities.

Since last year's World Education Market, many Canadian educators have begun to rethink some assumptions about e-learning.

"There were a lot of naive ideas out there," said Terry Anderson, associate director of academic technologies for learning at the University of Alberta, who in September will occupy Canada's first federal research chair in distance education at Athabasca University. "People are realising what works."

Anderson says Canada needs to find more instructional designers. Those designers are people who can work with both the learning technology and the professors.

Last February's report from a Canadian advisory committee on online learning, headed by University of Waterloo president David Johnston, called for better training of faculty to make good use of the technology.

But Anderson says many professors cannot be expected to sacrifice so much of their time to commit to this technology. "The idea of the university professor as Renaissance man is unsustainable," he said.

Cathy Boak, who consults on learning technologies for both the education and corporate sectors, says there is still not enough incentive for professors to design courses for the technology, nor is there enough of a link to tenure and promotion.

One of the biggest news events in the past year for Canadians in learning technologies and distance education has been a United States story - Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently decided it will post most of its online courses for free.

For Anderson and others, the decision to give away such things as lecture notes and classroom videos brought home the idea that content on its own was never the whole story.

He said: "MIT clearly thinks that education is not just dissemination of content. It's the involvement of teachers and students."

Dissemination of course content has brought more talk on intellectual property to campuses. An increasing number of faculty contracts this year have been addressing the issue, according to Boak, who in her surveys of universities has seen concern with the issue but uncertainty on how to deal with the potential profits from course materials.

This country's graduate students have had their own intellectual property fights, having found Canadian theses being sold without their knowledge. The US service Contentville was making it available among its wares, thanks to an enterprising subcontractor. Contentville gave way and took the theses off its sites. The National Library of Canada has recently set up a committee to look at alternatives for posting electronic theses.

This past year has also seen profit expectation diminish. Many universities are trying to realise savings and have a greater profile by pooling resources and curriculum to attract students. The Canadian Virtual University was born this year, through a grouping of eight small universities.

One non-profit operator exciting professors has been Merlot, which groups Canadian and USuniversities to offer free online learning materials. It is especially convenient for those who do not want to use prepared courses but would prefer to use learning objects such as a virtual laboratory.

Many say this past year has brought on a maturity for those initially excited and now more realistic about the potential benefits of distance education and learning technologies.

Anderson says people have been finding out good distance education is more than just putting a camera in the back of a classroom or posting content online.

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