Canada is a large country occupying over half of the continent of North America, touching three oceans - Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic. Its population was estimated in the 2006 census as around 31.5 million but other estimates such as the CIA Factbook give up to and over 33 million currently. (Rapid immigration is one source of the discrepancy but not, it seems, the only one - the issue has generated some debate.)
Thus there would seem to be a strong argument that a Commonwealth country of this size would have many points of relevance, generally and in education, to the UK (60 million) and England in particular (50 million). While true generally (e.g. for industrial policy) it is not at all true for education. This is because in Canada, almost alone among countries in the world, education at all levels is so completely devolved to the provinces that there is not and cannot be a Minister of Education for Canada. (The wikipedia article on Education in Canada gives more details including of the residual federal responsibilities.)
Many if not most Canadian universities have competence in e-learning at least in pockets. Several major e-learning systems past and present have come from Canada, some from academia but most not - for example, in recent years WebCT and Desire2Learn, and many years ago the CoSy and FirstClass conferencing systems used at the Open University. We give the main ones below of relevance to a UK audience.
Canada is divided into 13 provinces and territories of which the most important and relevant in e-learning terms are the following:
- British Columbia, population 4.1 million, thus rather smaller than Scotland but rather larger than Wales and similar in size to Ireland - the base of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU), two notable institutions in e-learning; and also of Thompson Rivers University (TRU) which now operates the Open Learning Agency for British Columbia
- Alberta, population 3.2 million, thus a bit more than Wales - the base of Athabasca University, Canada's Open University (a smaller version of the Open University), but also of the much smaller but nimble Mount Royal College
- Ontario, population 12.1 million, thus not really comparable to any UK home nation (but approaching that of the Netherlands) - with several illustrious institutions but none now very active in e-learning deployment - though the University of Toronto Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) contains eminent researchers in schools e-learning known across Europe and beyond.
For a French audience, Quebec would be featured and in particular the Télé-université de Québec.
Canada - changes in approach
In recent years 'stand-alone' distance education institutions have in general fallen out of favour in many (but not all) parts of Canada. The long-standing Open Learning Agency of British Columbia was closed and its open university activities were transferred to the newly created Thompson Rivers University, based in Kamloops (and on a core of an FE college) in the mountainous interior of British Columbia - however, Australian experience with dual-mode institutions would suggest that this was a wise move, even if it seems a bit novel to a UK audience.
On the other hand, Athabasca University, a fully fledged distsnce teaching university in Alberta, continues to develop and thrive in Canada and internationally, although its use of online courses is largely focused on post-graduate programmes, such as its MBA.
There have also been some false starts in major government-funded e-learning projects. The main federally-funded research programme (TeleLearning) was closed and wound down early on various much disputed grounds (usually NCE projects are renewed for at least a second full period). There is now little trace of the project or of the full archives but a minimal archive is public at http://wildcat.iat.sfu.ca/ and there is a useful overview article on Seven Years of Telelearning Research. While a depressing tale to those in the UK who wish for e-learning research programmes, it would seem to many in the UK to be nice to have such long programme timescales to aspire to for research projects, longer even than EU Framework timescales and far longer than the usual UK research funding approach.
The charismatic start-up TechBC was closed and residual activity absorbed into Simon Fraser University as the Surrey Campus - it seems to be successful in its new guise. The former TechBC web site is now a semi-official archive - see http://www.techbc.ca/ - and the wikipedia page is useful. There were many problems affecting TechBC but two evident and accepted ones were technological over-reach and a limited market in the part of Vancouver where it was situated. Those few experts interested in e-learnng failures have found John Trueman's thesis "Our time will come again" fascinating reading and still relevant, for example to current thinking on UK HE start-ups. More information is around for persistent enquirers.
The closure of both the OLA and TechBC were precipitated as a result of a new party coming to power in provincial government in British Columbia and trying to cut spending to balance the provincial budget, but that does not explain why these projects were cut rather than others. And at the same time, the provincial government did create BCCampus, a co-ordinating service for all educational online programmes, providing funding to institutions for the development of e-learning materials, training and support services to the smaller colleges, and a one-stop portal for students for online programmes. A similar institution, e-Learning Alberta (now eCampusAlberta), has been created in the adjacent province.
Thus provincial governments and institutions have tended to see online distance education as a sub-category of e-learning, and thus there has been a tendency to integrate distance education units into broader learning and technology initiatives. At the same time, governments have been fostering within institutions the development of e-learning materials, and co-operation and co-ordination in e-learning activities. Having said that, several Canadian institutions still have very little deployment of e-learning even on-campus and some are publicly nervous of it and what it might bring.
Canadian companies who have developed e-learning systems
Highlights of any such list include:
- WebCT was developed at the University of British Columbia by Murray Goldberg as an "unofficial" e-learning system, finally being bought by a company which became WebCTm, in turn acquired by Blackboard.
- Desire2Learn is another Canadian-based learning management system, but this did not come out of academic circles.
- The FirstClass system was developed in the late 1980s by http://www.softarc.com/ [SoftArc] for use in the Ontario School Board - the product was then sold on to various companies and gradually failed to keep up with developments.
- Even earlier, the CoSy system was developed at the University of Guelph and used by the Open University for some years in the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
(Readers are refered to the relevant wikipedia articles - of wildly varying quality and length, but at least giving some of the history. For a hopefully more measured historical view see the Wikipedia History of Virtual Learning Environments.)
Eminent Canadian experts in e-learning
Such lists are always invidious but the following two have a focus closed to our wiki mission - on post-secondary deployment - as well as research, and would be known to many UK experts in e-learning:
- Tony Bates, Consultant - formerly of the Open University, then OLA and then University of British Columbia, more recently an advisor to the Open University of Catalonia, the Portuguese Open University and to EU projects including Re.ViCa - with a comprehensive web site
- Terry Anderson, Professor of Distance Education, Athabasca University - with his university site
There are of course many active researchers in e-learning also and several Francophones of whom Gilbert Paquette is the doyen. Unlike many countries, Canada has or at least had an active tradition of research into e-learning in the FE and Skills area.