John Schofield September 6 1999


John Schofield September 6 1999



For thousands of students, online learning is proving to be a match made in cyberspace

Morris (left), Burdsall: earning an MBA on his back deck

John Schofield

It was a case of sheer exhaustion. After three years of working 14-hour days, seven days a week, David Morris and Marian Burdsall made the tough decision to sell The Rideau Review, the thriving eastern Ontario weekly they had built from scratch. Pulling up stakes in the fall of 1997, the busy parents of two boys moved to nearby Kingston, Ont., and dove headlong into the challenge of beginning afresh.

Eager to kick-start a new career as a management consultant, Morris, 41, went searching for an MBA program—the most obvious choice being the prestigious executive MBA offering at nearby Queens University. But the price tag was a steep $40,000. Instead, Morris chose Alberta’s Athabasca University: available entirely online for $25,000. Months later, Burdsall signed up with Athabasca as well, choosing to do an online master’s program in distance education. “The flexibility is the greatest thing,” says the 43-yearold software trainer. “I can work when it’s convenient, and theoretically, we could live anywhere in the world.”

Morris and Burdsall are in good company. In Athabasca’s online MBA program alone, enrolment has jumped fifteenfold to 957 since it was launched in 1994, making it Canada’s largest executive MBA program bar none. For thousands of students around the world, online learning is a match made in cyberspace. From courses in fly-fishing or auto mechanics

to a degree program from MIT, the offerings are boundless. Worldwide, more than 17,000 courses are now available entirely online—about 2,700 of them from Canadian schools— and the figure is literally growing by the hour. Thousands more combine an Internet component with brief stints on campus. According to the Massachusetts-based International Data Corp., about 15 per cent of all postsecondary students—or 2.2 million people—will be enrolled in online

courses by 2002 in the United States alone, compared with five per cent last year. Corporate powerhouses such as Microsoft, IBM and Disney are spending billions to cash in on the boom. In North America, IDC says, the Web-based learning market will grow to $8.3 billion by 2002. “This is not just another form of distance learning,” says David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo and former chairman of the federal Information Highway Advisory Council. “What we have is a new set of tools. It’s as profound a change as the founding of the printing press 500 years ago.”

As the Information Age shifts into overdrive, the breakneck pace of change is creating legions of lifelong learners. Who is fuelling the online revolution? Forty per cent of those pursuing degrees in the United States are now over the age of 40. But their children are part of a parallel shift that is transforming the way teaching takes place in elementary and secondary schools (page 28). If Canada fails to capitalize on the trend, experts warn that it risks losing the advantage to a host of foreign rivals. The three Canadian universities specializing in online programs—Alberta’s Athabasca, British Columbia’s Open University and Télé-Université du Québec—are already at the forefront. New initiatives, such as the coming launch of Canadian Learning Television and the opening this fall of the Technical University of British Columbia, will help to keep Canada in the game. “It’s important that we move with some sense of urgency,” says Johnston. “This is a race that will go to the swift and the wise —and it’s borderless.”

It’s a race that has some of the world’s most venerable universities competing with brash new upstarts. In January, Britain’s Oxford University launched its first online offering, a two-year certificate program in computer science. In April, Britain’s Open University—one of the largest international

Some of the world’s most venerable universities have joined the race, competing with brash new upstarts

online players—launched Open University of the United States. Meanwhile, many traditional American universities, blessed with wealthy backers and hefty endowments, are well positioned to capitalize on the boom.

This fall, the Harvard School of Public Health will go online with a masters program in public health-care management. Stanford University, Columbia University, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics have agreed to help create course materials for, a venture backed by the former junk-bond king Michael Milken. While the initial plan is to deliver graduate-level courses electronically to corporate employees, the ultimate aim is to gain accreditation as an online business school.

Among the most aggressive players is the University of Phoenix, a private accredited university with 56,000 students—9,000 of them online. Owned by the Apollo Group Inc., a publicly traded company based in Phoenix, Ariz., the university opened a mini-campus in Vancouver last fall. Meanwhile, Western Governors University, an alliance of institutions in 17 states and Guam, counts such corporate giants as Microsoft and IBM among its investors.

Given the financial potential, academic leaders on Canadas cash-strapped campuses cannot afford to miss out. They will get a boost this fall with the launch of Canadian Learning Television, a new specialty channel spearheaded by communications czar Moses Znaimer. Initially, 50 per cent of the programming will be linked to Canadian college and university courses—many of them online—with the percentage rising to 70 per cent within three years. So far, the University of Waterloo and Athabasca have officially signed on as so-called charter members; in return, CLT will promote the Waterloo courses and carry some of the instructional TV produced by Waterloo. Says Peter Palframan, vice-president of finance and operations at CLT: “Schools know that television is a very powerful medium for promoting what they’re doing, especially online.”

Universities and colleges are also eyeing the multibillion-dollar market for corporate training. In the United States, corporate training revenues will reach $15 billion by 2001, predicts Simba Information Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based market re-

search firm. Experts believe the same rate of growth will be seen on this side of the border, and schools are battling for exclusive deals. “Education and training is what most people will be doing for the rest of their lives,” says Rory McGreal, executive director of Fredericton-based TeleEducation New Brunswick. “Just like manufacturing drove the world into the 20th century, education will be the largest industry in the world by 2010.” But Canadas share of the online market is already shrinking. At the elementary and secondary level, 90 per cent of educational software used in Canadian schools is produced outside the country. According to McGreal, hundreds of Canadians are already turning to U.S. universities for online doctoral programs. The lack of Canadian course material has prompted some software producers to call for Canadian content regulations. In the meantime, Industry Canada plans to spend $20 million in grants over the next three years in a bid to boost the volume of Canadian “learnware.”

The money is sorely needed. Online courses are expensive to develop: $150,000 or more for quality packages. In a recent KPMG survey of 100 U.S. distance-education providers, 40 per cent said they are currently operating at a loss, although 92 per cent indicated they plan to expand. “Were just not seeing the same level of postsecondary investment in Canada,” says Joanne Curry, executive director of TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence, a Vancouver-based research consortium funded by governments, universities and the private sector. “Few people are seeing the opportunities, or the competitive threat.”

Canada is home to cutting-edge research, but the fruits are not necessarily kept in Canadian hands. Witness what happened to WebCT, the worlds most popular “courseware platform”—the software used to construct and deliver online

Virtual learning Leaders in online education, by share of courses: United States 75% Canada Australia Other United Kingdom 2% 2%

Hot subjects With an Internet connection, many online courses are available around the world. The subjects that dominate virtual learning by number of courses: Applied sciences technology 4,39w Business, economics 3,348 Social sciences 2,618 Arts 2,576 Sciences 1,597 Education 1,007 Health and medicine 930 Personal interest, leisure, sports 478 WJatnattrau31flg 368

courses. Developed in 1996 by Murray Goldberg, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia, it is now used by 877 institutions in 46 countries. In May, WebCT was sold to Massachusetts-based Universal Learning Technology.

Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology is a veteran in the development of online technology, and has ambitious plans for the future. In the 1980s, it developed its own courseware platform, The Learning Manager, then sold it bit by bit to a U.S. company in the early 1990s. Last May, SAIT’s wholly owned online learning subsidiary, Synectic Learning Systems Ltd., bought it back—part of a $ 133-million plan to transform itself into Cyber-SAIT by 2002. The ambitious initiative aims to offer at least 45 per cent of SAIT s courses online

and to double the institute’s size by attracting another 10,000 full-time students by 2004. “We asked, ‘Do we want to be a world player and move into other folks’ backyard, or do we want to sit here and let other people come into our backyard?’ ” says Bob Thornborough, SAIT s director of the Centre for Learning Systems. “You either grab on to this and swing with it, or you end up going the other way.”

Toronto's Seneca College is also among the leaders. This fall, the 32-year-old institution will launch online courses in such fields as fire protec tion and early childhood education; one in avia tion training is in the works. This month, it will officially open a new $55-million wired campus on the grounds ofYork University. Designed to in corporate future advances in technology the cen trepiece of the campus is The Learning Commons, which includes an electronic library service and an extensive computer lab that gives students access to distance-education programming and Internet services around the clock.

Universities are also mobilizing quickly. Take the University of Waterloo. By the fall of 2000, the engineering and high-tech powerhouse will be offering 30 undergraduate courses completely online, up from one offering in 1997.

The Technical University of British Columbia, Canada’s newest, will officially open this fall with the aim of including an online component in every course. Many will be 100-percent Web-based, and the university will work closely with industry to provide customized training schemes.

To help Canadian schools keep up with the competition,

Industry Canada has encouraged the formation of consortia to develop and deliver online courses. In Atlantic Canada, six universities have banded together to develop and deliver first-

A convergence of corporate and educational interests makes many teachers decidedly nervous

year university courses online. Contact South is a grouping of 18 Ontario community colleges, while Campus Manitoba brings together Brandon Univer sity, the University ofWinnipeg and the University of Manitoba-all aiming to share courses for distribu tion primarily over the Internet. And in a trend evi dent throughout the world of education, Canadian schools are forging increasingly closer ties with the

corporate sector to advance online ventures. Says SAlT's Thornborough: "When you start working in a global envi ronment, you can't go it alone." The convergence of educational and corporate interests makes many teachers decidedly nervous. The commercial im perative to drive down costs and maximize profits is bound to jeopardize jobs, they say. At the university level, professors are also concerned about the issue of intellectual-property rights. In 1997, professors at York University in Toronto went on strike, partly over the right offaculty to refuse to sign over orig

maE teaching materials tor Inter net courses. A clause allowing them to opt out of online pro jects was subsequently written into their collective agreement. At Nova Scotia's Acadia University, the technology de bate sparked a nasty, high-pro file battle. Three years ago, the school launched the Acadia Ad vantage program, designed to enhance the learning environ ment by applying information technology to the classroom. Many professors worked to rule, and the dispute went to the brink of a strike. Last fall, a clause was added to the collec Uve agreement, encouraging

facuhyto explore the use of technology but leaving the final decision to them. Says Dianne Looker, vice-president of Aca dia's faculty association: "A lot of battles are going to be fought around online courses." To be sure, the portrait painted by technology's most zealous boosters is a dramatic one. McGreal of TeleEducation New Brunswick envisions software that would allow hundreds of thousands of students to take a single course, offered at a cut rate price. But many reject that scenario. The best online courses feature relatively small student-teacher ratios of no more than 15:1. Discussions can be more animated, in fact, than some lec

tures. Says Suzanne MacDonald, associate dean of Atkinson College at York University: "In an Internet course, everyone will e-mail you."A two-year evaluation published in julybythe uni versity's Centre for the Study of Computers in Education found that students who took Internet courses achieved marks that were as good or better than those who completed the same course in class. The ability to interact online may actually mo tivate some students more, the authors cOncluded. It's working for Mary Westerhof. To upgrade her skills, the 42-year-old registered nurse from Hamilton is working her

way through an online diploma program in psychiatric nursing offered by British Columbia's Douglas College. She likes the price: $180 per course com pared with more than $300 for a traditional course at nearby McMaster University. (Online courses can cost as much or more than their conventional counterparts, but students save thousands on accommodation and travel costs that regular sat dents incur.) Westerhof, a single mother of five, also loves the flexibility. Says Westerho€ "The classroom is set on my time." For others, however, online learning still pales beside face-

to-face interaction. "It takes a while to get over the feeling that you're working in a complete vacuum," says Athabasca gradu ate David Morris. "That's a major hurdle, but you do get over it." In the end, Waterloo's Johnston cautions that the tools of online education must be seen primarily as a means to extend learning, of presenting knowledge in a wider variety of forms. "The role ofcritical thinking, which face-to-face teaching tends to teach best-has never been more important," saysJohnston. "The human search engine is the best search engine of all." As Canadians adjust to the brave new world of online learn ine~ that message may be the most imDortant one of all.

Helpful sites

• TeleEducation New Brunswick's database of online courses: • The Network for the Evaluation of Educational Technology at McMaster University EvNet: • The TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence at Simon Fraser University: http://www. • The Distance Education Clearinghouse at the University of Wisconsin: