Friday, May 09, 2008

Terry Anderson's Proposal

I want to first state that I am sympathetic with Terry Anderson's plaint. I have heard him over these last few years making the case for research in e-learning in Canada. And I agree that there is a case to be made. But I would like to caution that it's not an obvious case, and that the result even of a successful petition is not necessarily what we might envision.

Here in New Brunswick, I made a case at the provincial level for the sort of program Terry envisions nationally - a Canadian JISC or EdNA, for example. The proposal was well-received and the audience - members of the e-learning industry here in New Brunswick, including members of the Canadian military engaged in overseas training - was receptive.

But it's not clear that the sort of presentation I made would be accepted as a national proposal.

First, for the benefit of our international audience, I should point out that Canada is a confederation of ten provinces and three territories. These provinces share power with the federal government. In the Canadian constitution, education at all levels is a provincial responsibility. This has not prevented the federal government from making substantial investments in the field over the years, through established programs financing, through Council grants, and through project funding. But there is the widespread belief in Canada that there should not be a federal *coordination* of education in Canada, which would include e-learning research.

Which leads to my second point. The provincial ministers of education, when they got together under the auspices of CMEC (Council of Ministers of Education, Canada) did launch a research program, funded to the tune of some $86 million, if I recall correctly. This resulted in the creation of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) and this body *did* produce a research agenda.

It is not exactly what I would call a forward-looking agenda. Without having conducted a systematic review, I am hesitant to make specific criticisms, but much of the work seems to me to be less relevant than I would like and in some cases - such as the 'learning profiles of famous Canadians' series, outright frivolous. I don't agree with all of the presumptions underlying the development of the research agenda, and have openly questioned these presumptions in various forums.

CCL has launched a "21st Century Learning Agenda" which looks a lot like the 'school 2.0' stuff coming out of the U.S. and which has toiled in relative obscurity here in Canada. Their website, Change Learning, focuses essentially on the work of John Abbott. The site looks like an average edublog, is about as informed, and even has 'blogs', though an apparent absence of RSS feeds. If you were to join the discussion, started a half year ago, your post would be post number 6.

There is another major research path in Canada, one that has historically been dominated by a small group of people. It begins in the 1990s, with the Virtual-U project (TeleLearning NCE) based (mostly) at Simon Fraser University and led by Linda Harasim and other notables. Given the results of the project, which spent $14 million over 4 years, the criticisms in the student press seem prescient. There's more on Virtual-U here.

This was followed by the unlamented EduSource project. It was in a certain sense a carry-over from Virtual-U. Funded by CANARIE, it spend something like $6 million to produce a network of learning object repositories in Canada. Though the website is still extant, the federation (and associated initiatives, like GLOBE, limps along). This in turn was followed by LORNet, involving many of the same people, which is also a network of learning object repositories. The research themes combine to produce the "TeleLearning Operation System -TELOS."

This is a research program. One could argue that it is not a very good research program, in that it consists of attempting to do pretty much the same thing over and over, and inasmuch as it is mainly focused on replicating the university network online. One could argue that it's not enough money - though given what we've gotten for the tens of millions already spent, one could argue that more spending would be good money after bad.

You see - from my perspective, the problem is only *partially* that we haven't invested enough in e-learning research in Canada. The problem is also that our investments have been badly managed, and have gone to support projects that should not have been supported, or which though well-intentioned turned out to be less well managed. And moreover - since these projects continue to be a going concern - the best evidence is that the allocation of more money would end up in the hands of the same people, doing the same thing. I mean, after all, can we *really* imagine that the money wouldn't be absorbed by the CCL people and the LORNet people?

And all of *that* said, it is worth noting that the best research in Canada has taken place outside that sphere of well-funded influence. Projects like the Multiple Academic User Domain (MAUD) which was already doing what Virtual-U was funded to do when it was funded. Projects like WebCT, which came to define an industry. Projects like Alberta SuperNet. Like Canada SchoolNet. Like BC Campus. Like the Public Knowledge Project. And - dare I say - the loose collaboration that is the e-learning edublogging connectivist community in Canada.

My perspective is, though we have been very innovative in Canada, we have been inept at *managing* that innovation. And that this is precisely because we seem to always feel that it must *be* managed, that it must be coordinated, that we must align to a common 'research direction' because we're so small, that we must create the 'CanadArm' of global e-learning by focusing on our niche excellence (which we can then sell to the U.S. - or at least try.)

So when someone says to me, "we need a research agenda," I take pause. Because, my first question is something along the lines of: "What are the odds that a coordinated research program would in any resemble the work that I am doing?" And when I answer that question ("zero") my concern becomes that a coordinated research program would siphon what few resources make it my way as part of Canada's only *actual* e-learning research program (at the NRC) and redirect them to the CCLs and the LORNets of the world.

To be honest, I'm not interested in a research program or a research agenda. I have no real faith that such coordinated efforts at research, particularly in an undefined field such as e-learning, work.

My preference would be to see a network of supports put into place for an *uncoordinated* research effort. I would like to see the Canadian e-learning community provided with free (and easy to use) web spaces, free discussion areas, free applications and free online services. I would like to see support for a news exchange system - an aggregator of Canadian research blogs. I would like to see Canadian researchers publish in open journals and newsletters available to all educators. I'd like to see support for open content and open archiving - a genuinely free and open repository of learning (and other) resources.

Most of all, I'd like research in Canada to stop trying to create 'commercial applications' or 'commercial networks' - even when we succeed at this, we just end up selling them to the U.S. anyways. We need to think about the idea of 'research as infrastructure' - we need to conduct research by actually providing services to people, instead of conducting study after useless study of 14 graduate students and their online course.

Is this likely to happen? No.

So, while I am sympathetic with Terry Anderson's proposal, and would like to see something positive result, I am cautious and sceptical in that support.

2 comments:

  1. My perspective is, though we have been very innovative in Canada, we have been inept at *managing* that innovation. And that this is precisely because we seem to always feel that it must *be* managed, that it must be coordinated, that we must align to a common 'research direction' because we're so small, that we must create the 'CanadArm' of global e-learning by focusing on our niche excellence (which we can then sell to the U.S. - or at least try.)

    I think your perspective on this issue is correct. "We" in Canada have been at it for quite a while, and have relatively little to show for it.

    Jon Husband

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  2. ...'research as infrastructure' - we need to conduct research by actually providing services to people, instead of conducting study after useless study of 14 graduate students and their online course.

    With the above statement, you totally hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately in academia, providing services (and the quality of service) is not rewarded. Think about how one gets recognition? It is not by building the best service to support research. And what can you expect when the same academics travel from one funded agency to the next? The same old thing with the same words used over and over again (but in a different arrangement to make it sound different).

    Not only does providing an infrastructure to support research need to be thought of differently, but it needs to be done in a way to harness the needs of the research community. And too many of those at the top cannot wrap their heads around collabortion...it is as if *telling* people to collaborate will miraculously result in open and honest collaboration.

    Then it gets to the point where people do start to question the money that is put into this. How can we make the shift from thinking "quantity" to "quality"?

    How do we get politicians to understand that what is really needed is not more glitz and glamour, but real actual services to support the needs of the community? And that these real actual services need to be delivered in a way that meets "qualitative standards"? Who gets to define that standards in a collaborative approach? And just how much more money do we want to pour into this?

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