Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Response to CAUT

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 23, 2001

As you may know, the Canadian government's Advisory Committee for Online Learning recently release a report urging that government and post secondary institutions more aggressively pursue online learning. This report is available at /en/ and the best summary thus far is offered at The Node at g/february2001/briefs.cfm#ACOL

The report was informed by a broad range of input, including a background paper by Terry Anderson and myself, available http://w Report_Anderson_Downes.doc, and proposes some common sense recommendations (as summarized by the Node):

  • widespread, affordable broadband access
  • Canadian course content development
  • theoretical research and practical training in online pedagogy
  • advancement of the Canadian learnware industry

The report also recommends the formation of a pan-Canadian online learning service which would:

  • provide resources and services to online learners
  • coordinate instructional design and online pedagogy support
  • build a critical mass with which to market Canadian learnware

So basically the report is saying that online learning is here to stay, that we should adapt our infrastructure to enable student access, and that we should begin to create an online learning industry in Canada in partnership with educational institutions and private industry. These are sound recommendations.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) disagrees. In a scathing press release, they gave the report an 'F' (a cute way of implicitly indicating their academic superiority to the mere authors of the report). They argue that "the Committee ignored a growing body of research that casts doubts on the so-called benefits of virtual education."

But CAUT's position is short sighted and wrong, their 'research' (if we could call it that) misleading, and their conclusions based more on preserving an established power structure than in their stated objective of increasing accessibility.

According to the CAUT press release,

"The Committee bases a lot of its recommendations on the belief that online education will improve accessibility," said CAUT president Tom Booth. "In truth, we know that a lot of web-based courses cost more and that a substantial number of students fail to complete their online courses."

The phrasing of "cost more" is deliciously vague, and is probably based on observations of development costs for new and adapted courses offered in pilot mode or to a limited number of students.

It certainly does not refer to mass market courses, such as those offered by Ziff Davis (see http://www or to studies such as offered in Tony Bate's Managing Technological Change, which describes a more production oriented budget for online learning. Early work, software development and pilot projects will of course be more expensive, however, as colleges and universities standardize software and design approaches, and as they begin to use reusable objects, these start-up costs will fall.

But even this implication of "cost more" takes a decidedly one- sided approach to the issue. Even if, for online students, tuition is slightly higher, tuition represents only a small percentage of a student's educational costs. Online learning offers students savings in travel, accommodation, lost income, child support, and so much more. It is unlikely that CAUT calculated these savings into the equation; if they had, they never would have reached the conclusion they did.

Of more concern is the rate of failure to complete courses, a phenomenon which has historically dogged distance and online learning. We have learned from experience that completion rates are increased by offering students local support, support services, and alternative forms of instruction: exactly what the government report proposes. Simply pointing to a problem is not enough: it needs to be shown why the solutions proposed will not solve the problem.

But the major objection posed by CAUT is their concern about accessibility. They write:

Booth also noted that recent research shows that low income groups, minorities, and people with less education to begin with are less likely to have access to computers or services needed to study online.

This phenomenon is known as the 'Digital Divide' and is rapidly being bridged. The CAUT writes should be aware that internet access in Canada now costs a little over $30 per month (including telephone charges; OECD ts/isp-20hrs.htm) and that internet capable computers can be purchased new for less than a thousand dollars: in sum significantly less than one year's tuition.

And Canadian internet access is widespread and growing; ACNielson reports that 13 million Canadians (out of a total population of about 30 million) already have access from a home PC (h ttp:// and many more have access from work, school or via a local cybercafe or community access point. Indeed, the percentage of Canadians with access to the internet is already higher than the percentage of Canadians with access to a university education, so one wonders what sort of accessibility CAUT really ought to be concerned about.

Moreover, the CAUT release completely ignores that the government report proposes that steps be taken to close even those last few gaps in the digital divide. The government report, for example, proposes to

  • link all publicly funded post-secondary institutions by 2001;
  • provide anywhere, anytime high-bandwidth access to on-campus learners by 2002;
  • ensure high-bandwidth connections are available to all K-12 classrooms, libraries and public access sites throughout Canada by 2003; and
  • be maintained at a "state-of-the-art" level into the future (page 32)

One wonders what sort of a divide will remain after the completion of this program, and what reason CAUT would have for opposing it!

On top of all this, the report proposes that students' technology expenses be defrayed or otherwise support students' technology expenses (pp. 91-92). The CAUT release is silent on this item.

The CAUT release is also concerned that online learning is ill-suited to the sort of student currently excluded from Canada's post secondary system:

"Students traditionally excluded from post-secondary education are the most dependent on face-to-face interaction and the least able to deal with the frustration and isolation of web-based distance education," said Booth. "If education to date has been the great equalizer, technology-based education could be an engine of inequality."

One wonders what sort of picture these university professors have of university access. Do they really believe that people are unable to obtain a university education because of learning deficiencies? The many single parents, aboriginals on remote First Nations reserves, shift workers and other 'deficient' students I have met in my work as a distance and online educator would belie that.

Moreover, though technology remains a frustration (though less so every year), there is little to indicate that online learners are isolated. From personal experience with online teachers and learners, I have seen that the perception of interaction and connection is greater. Empirical evidence supports this: this VCSU report is typical, showing that online learning increases feedback opportunities and increases interactivity and feedback. http://community eport.html

My feeling is that the professors at CAUT should do their research before arguing based on erroneous assumptions.

Indeed, online learning is able to meet the learning needs of just those students disenfranchised by the current university system: it allows them to study from remote locations, at odd hours and with varying schedules; it provides greater support and feedback, and it offers them membership into a community to which they had hitherto been excluded. Online learning is demonstrably exactly the oppose of what CAUT claims it to be, and CAUT should know better.

The Advisory Committee is recommending that governments and industry ensure that all post-secondary institutions are linked through a high bandwith "learning network" by the end of the year, that a fourth granting council becreated to support "learnware" development and research into online learning, and that students be encouraged to save more for their education in order to offset anticipated higher costs in the future.

By conjoining two separate points, the CAUT release suggests that if only we did not spend money on high bandwidth connections, students would enjoy lower costs. There is no ground for conjoining these statements, and good grounds for keeping the points separate.

Tuition increases began in Canada in the mid-1980s, well before the internet came to the fore. These increases are caused in part my increased university spending (the CAUT release correctly points to declining government spending as another cause). But in any case, students are encouraged to save not because of the high cost of technology but because of the high cost of education, even under the current system. As the government report observes,

But at a time when many families need two incomes to sustain them-selves, affordability should not be discounted. Indeed, between 1987 and 1997, tuition fees for post-secondary education rose 95 percent while average family incomes only increased by 0.4 percent.

In the 21st century, no one should have to choose between having to sustain themselves and getting a post-secondary education or pursuing life-long learning opportunities. (page 90)

The government recommends that students be given tax breaks and incentives to help them save for both a post secondary education and for life long learning - how could CAUT be opposed to this? Or do they envision some magic future where the cost of education will drop to affordable levels simply because we have cut our investment in technology?

One wonders what CAUT would say if the information were conjoined differently - if, say, we conjoined the value and increases in professor salaries with tuition increases, or if, say, we conjoined the amount of money spent on academic research with tuition increases. It is easy - but stupid - to even suggest that the cause of rising tuition is a rising investment in technology.

According to CAUT,

the recommendations ignore the real problems facing colleges and universities after years of governments cutbacks, and would see "badly-needed funding diverted from the core operations of institutions."
Leaving aside the fact that the committee was not given a mandate to address the health of universities in general, the CAUT report is seriously in error when it says that spending on online learning distracts from the "core operations" of universities. Teaching is a core function of a university, and explorations into online learning are explorations into how to better perform that core function. It would be a mistake to confuse a core function with a specific mode of learning, or with a specific structural configuration.

Moreever, if it is - as I would argue - possible that spending on online learning could ultimately reduce the cost of teaching, then the investment would be well spent indeed. True, this may result in a lowering of spending on academic salaries, and would perhaps change the role of the university professor, but we must recognize that students - and the public - do not financially support the educational system merely to support a professor's income and way of life.

The fact is, if we are to approach anything like a widely accessible university and college system, the current funding and spending structures are unsustainable. And while it will always with public funding be possible to support university education for an elite, if we are to make it widely available we must change our model of teaching and learning in any case.

The authors of the CAUT release themselves demonstrate the need for an improved education system when they resort to such academically unsound arguments as the following:

The recommendations are not surprising, added Booth, given the composition of the Committee. The Committee was chaired by David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo, and included senior representatives from AT&T Canada, IBM, the Bank of Montreal, Lucent Technologies, and Bell Canada Enterprises. No representatives of student groups or university and college teachers were included.

It is first worth pointing out that the sample of the committee members offered by the CAUT release is unrepresentative; of the 19 authors of the report, 13 are university or college presidents, rectors or directors while only 6 represented the corporate side of the house. Moreover, this assessment ignores the wide input sought by the committee. But in any case, educated people have long since learned that reasoning through guilt by association is unsound, and seek instead to address the merits of an argument rather than to attack its author.

That said, I would indeed call for wide representation on such a committee, and I expect that the Minister will call for a second body to review the recommendations, one more widely inclusive than the aforementioned panel of experts. But I would recommend that such a committee be genuinely representative: instead of the insular in-house committees, so many of which I have been a part, consisting only of existing academics and students, I would call for such a committee to also include representatives from the wide range of Canadians currently excluded from such deliberations by their exclusion from the Canadian college and university communities: I would call on such a committee to include farm workers, seasonal laborers, single mothers, First Nations, welfare recipients and the unemployed. And let us ask them whether they would see a benefit in widely accessible online learning, even if it meant inconveniencing some university professors.

Finally, perhaps CAUT sees some argumentative value in name calling:

"The members of the Committee clearly have a vested interest in promoting online learning," said Booth. "It's a cheerleading squad. But we don't need more cheerleading. We need a more broad-based consultation and careful consideration of the complex issues involved with online learning."

It would cheer me greatly to learn that 13 college and university presidents felt that they had a vested interest in online learning. And quite frankly, the thousands of people today working in online learning in Canada could use some cheerleading. In many cases working with little or no funding, moving from short term project to project, subject to the scepticism and indifference of the very community who should support us the most, we have nonetheless in five or six years shown the feasibility of online learning, demonstrated its effectiveness, offered university courses in communities where previously such education was just a rumour, and founded an industry which is rapidlybecoming a major sector of the economy.

The men and women working in online learning - often for little or no additional pay, and certainly at significant cost in time and energy, deserved better from CAUT. They certainly deserved at least the merit of a fair hearing, and a criticism informed by fact rather than dogma. Nobody more than those practitioners of online learning are aware of its challenges and shortfalls, and no community in academia is working harder to improve its practice.

One final note:

CAUT has observed, and expressed concern about, what it calls the "creeping privatization" of the university system. They are concerned with the increase in sponsored research and concerned with the failure of government funding to keep up with enrollment increases (http://www.caut.c a/english/publications/review/Education%20Review%2 03-1.pdf).

If they would look beyond the boundaries of their own institutions, they would see, in the educational system as a whole, not creeping privatization, but rather, galloping privatization.

We see, for example, the rise of the private online university in New Brunswick, Lansbridge (formerly Unexus) (http://www.lansb, the accreditation of DeVries in Alberta ( ublications/now/20010206_alberta.asp), cost-recovery and for-profit mode degree offerings from institutions such as Athabasca University, and more. We see large corporations such as Thompson moving in on academic publishing and online learning ( list.cgi?topicid=975432685), and emerging academic service brokers such as Hungry Minds and UNext list.cgi?topicid=964806397). We have seen the rise of corporate online learning and saw the contract for American military training awarded to lead contractor PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Were we to adopt the CAUT mode - business as usual, but more money please - then we would be effectively surrendering the field to these corporate providers. And if indeed online learning is efficient and effective - as I argue it is (and as corporations and the U.S. military seem to agree), then in our non-action we are essentially surrendering all management and control of post secondary education to the corporate community.

As I have argued in the past, we must recognize that education has a social dimension over and above the economic dimension, and it is this fact which requires a public investment in education and a public say as to its outcome. To surrender this involvement is to surrender our identity as a culture and a society. Moreover, it is to surrender the very institution of the publicly funded university and college system itself. As the government report authors argue:

The issue is much more than markets gained or lost. It is a question of the continued health of our post-secondary institutions. Some analysts believe post-secondary institutions that do not adapt to this e-learning challenge could lead to declining enrolments, smaller grants from government and thus less capacity for institutions to fulfil their role as an intellectual resource and educator for provinces, territories and communities. (page 21)

And moreover, as we surrender public control, we surrender national control:

Now some might argue that such losses would be acceptable as long as market forces in the form of foreign institutions and corporations could fill the gaps. We do not believe these gaps can be so easily filled. Canada's institutions have evolved over the years in response to local, regional and national needs and the priorities of Canadian governments.Our social and economic prospects at all levels are intimately dependent on the health of these institutions. Foreign institutions and corporations respond to the needs of their own domestic communities and only secondarily to global markets. The requirements of Canadian learners, communities and employers will not be of much concern in most cases.

We in Canada are at a crossroads. The evidence is overwhelming that online learning is here to stay, and the evidence is overwhelming that a significant private for-profit sector in online learning has arisen, one which is taking advantage of the inaction on the part of Canadian colleges and universities. These private institutions do not run to the government for grants to meet enrollment increases; they achieve their efficiencies throughnew technology and a focus on learning.

To accept CAUT's criticisms, and to accept the consequential wane of the public education system (or, to accept the increasingly unsustainable model of funding an increasing student base) is to accept the ultimate loss of public education. This is unacceptable, and if it is necessary to arouse the ire of a few well-heeled university professors to preserve and promote public accessibility to education in Canada, then so be it.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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