Could a Canadian MOOC provider have helped higher ed this fall?

5 min read

Efforts appear to be well underway at most Canadian post-secondary institutions to offer a good bulk of their courses online this fall in response to COVID-19 concerns. Many institutions in Canada signalled their intent early on in the pandemic and, from my own personal experiences, I know a few who have used the early announcement to hire on extra staff & bolster their online technology to accommodate the surge of online learning that will be occurring in the next few weeks.

I don’t know what the summer has been like for institutions preparing for the fall. I can only imagine based on my own personal interactions and the kinds of conversations I am hearing & seeing in my network on topics like academic burnout that this summer has been incredibly difficult for those who support teaching, learning & educational technology at their institutions. I wish I could say things are about to get better, but my own personal experience tells me that the time from Mid-August when instructors begin to return from their summer hiatus (those who were lucky enough to have one this summer) until the end of September is usually the most insane 6-8 weeks of the year.

The Canadian post-secondary system is about to undergo a massive surge in online learning that will eclipse the spring, and I suspect that over the summer a lot of energy at individual institutions has been poured into the development of high enrollment first and second year online courses. A lot of new “Introduction to…” courses will be coming online this fall, all slight variations of one another. Which, systematically, represents a lot of redundant work.

In the spring, sensing this massive duplication effort coming, Alex Usher floated an idea around the collaborative development of a core set of shareable high enrollment first-year courses. Alex’s idea represents a more systematic approach to developing online courses to help alleviate the development and delivery pressure many institutions will be feeling acutely over the next few weeks. It is a laudable idea. Indeed, it is one that has found some purchase within my own organization where a project is currently underway to identify OER content that could be used to develop Open Courseware (OCW) for high enrollment courses.

However, as years of experience have taught many of us who have worked on OCW-type projects, the road to OCW is not an easy one. The idea of reshareable course content is one that has driven the OER side of open education for the better part of 20 years and, while there has been a great deal of success in open education since OER’s first began, the idea of OCW has had limited results. I won’t get into the myriad of technical, cultural, pedagogical, administrative hurdles that exist (some of which were touched upon by George Veletsianos in his response to Alex’s original post), but they are not insignificant.

This makes me wonder about additional ways in which the Canadian post-secondary system can collaborate and scale up online learning that was not such a massive duplication of effort, and I began to wonder about MOOC’s and MOOC providers. Might a centralized MOOC provider in Canada have given institutions another way to prepare for the fall?

If there was a publically-funded (important imo) national MOOC provider in Canada, say in the form of an inter-provincial institutional consortium, could that have been in a position to help the wider post-secondary system respond more nimbly to the fall onslaught by making highly enrolled first-year courses available broadly and at scale? Instead of developing course content to be copied and moved from one institutional platform to another – which is still a significant hurdle in 2020 – why not a centralized learning platform that is open to thousands of students from any institution that would be able to scale to handle a massive influx of online learners all looking for those same foundational courses?

Not that MOOC’s are the be-all and end-all. But they have shown that they can play a role in the delivery of scalable online learning, which is a need that all Canadian post-secondary institutions have right now, and might have for the foreseeable future. Say what you will about MOOC’s, but they are built for scale and, this fall, online learning is going to need to scale.

All this Monday morning quarterbacking also got me wondering as to why a national MOOC provider has yet to emerge in Canada, like in the US or the UK? It seems to me that, regardless of the COVID online demand, there is an appetite among Canadian institutions for a MOOC service judging from the number of publically funded post-secondary institutions I see who have partnered with for-profit and non-profit providers in the US.

There are likely a lot of reasons why one has not emerged in the publically funded landscape, not the least of which has to do with post-secondary education being a provincial, not a federal, responsibility in Canada. When you are talking about projects like MOOC’s that rely on the scale to be successful, that would likely require a national effort. But perhaps the timing is right to begin to ask the question of whether there is a role in the Canadian higher education landscape for a publically funded MOOC provider, what a Canadian MOOC provider might look like, and why nothing has emerged in the years since MOOC’s moved into the mainstream?



Stephen Downes August 17, 2020

The short answer to the question, IMO, is “yes”. A public MOOC provider would have been enormously helpful.

When we developed the first MOOC (and coincidentally, the first MOOC software) from 2008ff, the possibility existed of creating a Canadian MOOC platform. However, conditions at the time were that (a) such a platform would have to be commercial, and (b) it would have to be produced by (and to a large degree funded by) a large Canadian company. These were the conditions for public-sector innovations in the years 2006-2015.

There was no appetite among Canadian incumbent companies, and thus no start-up capital. Nor was there at the time support for spin-off companies (as supported by Stanford at the time). I suppose that had I been entrepreneurially-minded I *might* have been able to pull it off, but my strong preference was for a publicly-funded platform, so it made more sense for me to let others develop the MOOC and for me to focus on what publicly-funded work I could do (hence pursuing the personal learning environment, an innovation even less attractive to large Canadian companies than the MOOC).

There is still a lot of room to create a publicly-funded MOOC platform, and numerous innovations to be added to such a platform that may not make commercial sense but would make a lot of educational sense (especially related to OER). If the public support were ever to materialize I would certainly contribute the considerable work I have done over the years toward such a project, and provide whatever level of support and/or leadership needed.

Clint Lalonde August 18, 2020

Ah, yes, the triple P (public private partnerships) Conservative years. I wonder, too, if there wasn’t something in the MOOC backlash that may have also sucked the wind out of MOOC’s in general in Canada? In terms of there being room, I agree, especially since the small scale experimentation that institutions like UofA, UBC and UofT were doing with the Coursera’s and edX’s of the world seems to have become operationalized. Canadian institutions are well represented on US platforms and, to a lesser extent, FutureLearn as well. FutureLearn is interesting and closer to what I am thinking than Coursera as it emerged from the OU, an institution with roots in distance and open learning with other institutional partners. I much prefer that consortium model.

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