Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 2   Monday, October 24, 2005

ISSN 1748-3603

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Feature article
Reflections: ALT-C 2005
Case studies
Electronic Voting Systems
Developing tools for visual communication
Project updates
E-learning and accessibility
The FAIR Enough Project
Conference reviews
E-learning - making it work
Post-secondary e-learning conference in Canada
Software reviews
TalisList: web-based reading lists
ALT news
Director's report
Executive Secretary's Report
Supporting education in India and Thailand
News from members
Blackboard and WebCT to merge
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Past Issues
Issue 1
August 5, 2005
Post-secondary e-learning conference in Canada
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conference
by Paul Bacsich

The highlight of the first day was a fascinating after-dinner speech by Don Tapscott, the noted consultant ( Some parts of his talk might have seemed conventional, but this was mainly because he had set the agenda in his earlier books. There was only one point I profoundly disagreed with: he seemed still to see a threat to universities from corporate universities (in the sense of universities run by corporations whose business is not universities). I think that this may be a Canadian-specific insight – in Canada, universities remain, on the whole, very conservative. Globally, I see a bigger threat coming from corporate universities in the sense of private for-profit universities (in other words, universities ran as corporations such as the University of Phoenix).

The overarching aim of the conference was to distribute and introduce the new OECD study, “E-learning in tertiary education: where do we stand?” Although an authoritative publication, at a detailed level I feel that the study is compromised by selection effects, since only 17 universities self-reported in detail. I hope that in the near future a second, larger, more mechanistic study can be funded, with a more “benchmarking” approach and based on random sampling. It should also include some examples from outside the OECD countries; much of the real action in e-learning is taking place beyond OECD in, for example, Malaysia, Middle East. The report is available (for only £24) from OECD at

A highlight of Monday was Carolyn Jarmon of the US-based National Center for Academic Transformation ( who gave an excellent talk on the Pew-funded e-learning projects that focussed on efficiency gains in high-enrolment undergraduate courses. (The Director of NCAT, Carol Twigg, spoke via videoconference at ALT-C recently.) Carolyn has a substantial track record in advising higher education institutions in the US and Canada, and was an excellent speaker. Views in the UK on the NCAT work seem to vary: many in England seem to find the approach rather directive for modern English taste post-UKeU, whereas in Scotland it seems to be finding more resonance.

Of the parallel sessions I went to Topic 1 on policy – partly out of intrinsic interest, partly to hear Tony Bates. Tony took a case study standpoint, basing the presentation/discussion on a situation that had occurred at an Alberta college at which he is a consultant. The case study had few points of interest for an international audience. It dwelt on problems which we feel, perhaps smugly, in the UK have been largely solved (revealing lots more problems still to solve, of course) but the many Albertans in the audience seemed to like it, even if several of the international delegates told me that they found it less useful.

In the “delivery and development” session on Tuesday four speakers made brief presentations. Dr Gabriel Ferrate (Rector of the Open University of Catalonia) made a strong, convincing, and funny speech based on their experiences. Like many speeches from UOC, it was very specific to their situation and sadly gave no wider context. A Ministry of Education official from Brazil gave an overview of the Brazilian situation, with a focus on educational television in schools; this was of interest to only the minority interested in the “Teachers TV” side of things. Dr Candace Thille (Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative) gave an excellent short speech.

Ulf-Daniel Ehrers (Coordinator of the European Quality Observatory) gave a masterly survey of the European-level “quality” agenda. My only quibble was that the European-level agenda does not yet seem to correlate with national agendas (such as the QAA in the UK). It is interesting that both in Germany and in Canada the responsibility for higher education is delegated to the regions: does this explain why they find it harder to understand the role of national agencies in their recommendations to other countries for a strategy for quality in e-learning?

The last session in the morning was an excellent speech from Sir John Daniel, formerly at the OU and then UNESCO, now CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL,, a Commonwealth Agency based in Vancouver). His speech was on the need for open source and open content for international online learning delivery. He drew on his past career and contacts with UNESCO to give a strong impression of a global move in this direction with COL at its core. He accepted that learning object repositories were a good thing, despite much criticism of the current business models for repositories elsewhere in the conference. Furthermore, his points on culturally relevant content seemed to focus on content only in English; even in the Commonwealth, this would be arguable.

Of the afternoon sessions I think the best presentation was from Paul Lefrere, from the OU but at the time on secondment to Microsoft. His speech - intellectual and strategic but still corporate - gave clear evidence of why Microsoft had found him useful. After that, it was downhill fast into the wind-up and votes of thanks.

Conclusions from the conference and the trip
My main conclusions from the conference were:
  • There were no great surprises from Canada in terms of e-learning policy or practice. It is clear that the “provincialised” nature of Canadian education policy (where responsibility lies with the provinces not the nation), the continued drought of funding for CANARIE, and the “pause” in R&D after the demise of the TeleLearning NCE research programme have left their mark. Nevertheless, research is picking up, and at the operational level, some college-based provincial e-learning networks look well worth further study by the UK. There was also an insightful presentation on e-learning research directions by Terry Anderson.
  • Athabasca University continues its development, and its decision to “bet the farm” on Moodle may bring Open Source out of the “small is beautiful” closet. Athabasca’s success (or not) in this venture is likely be closely watched by vendors, agencies and other big distance learning players.
Conclusions from the study trip overall
  • The Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI) is a “virtual institute” binding together several noted HCI, CSCW and e-learning researchers in the University of Toronto. It is keen to build better links with Europe. Its ePresence system ( contains many interesting features.
  • The demise of the (British Columbia) Open Learning Agency may have been over-emphasised by analysts: the new Thompson Rivers University, from its small-town base in Kamloops in upstate British Columbia, is quietly building its capability towards a full takeover of the British Columbia OU (the HE arm of the Open Learning Agency) in a year’s time - see
  • The former failed e-learning start-up university of TechBC has now mutated into the successful Surrey campus of Simon Fraser University. After meetings with Surrey staff and the Simon Fraser archivists, it became clear that the demise of TechBC was much more complicated than the oft-repeated simple tale of an e-learning failure. For an entry point to this issue see “Our Time Will Come Again: Tracing the story of the Technical University of British Columbia [Revision 3]” by John Trueman on his web site
Funding for the study trip was provided by Middlesex University. Thanks for hospitality and assistance are due to my official hosts at OECD, KMDI and SFU, and to my friends and former colleagues Sara Frank Bristow and Sarah Langlois (formerly Heginbotham).

Professor Paul Bacsich
Director, Matic Media Ltd
Visiting Professor, Middlesex University
Chair, Publications Committee, ALT
Editor, e-University and UKeU Reports

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