A pan-Canadian effort in online education? PD not content.

Alex Usher writes that “the only way forward [i.e the Fall semester] for [Canadian] institutions is to do something which does not come naturally to them, and that is to create a national online curriculum collaboration.” I’d like to explore this a little bit here.

I agree with Alex on a number of areas: The likelihood of a “typical” face-to-face fall semester is slim; institutions need to improve their online learning offerings; and institutions don’t currently have as much instructional/learning design capacity as is likely needed to offer the kinds of online learning experiences that we know are exemplar and imaginative. To address these problems, he argues for collaboration. In my last blog post, I argued that in their longer-term efforts/strategies Canadian institutions (especially universities) need to collaborate more, use evidence-informed practices to guide online learning designs, and pay greater attention to pedagogy, OER, and equity. As Rick Schwier wrote a long while ago competition is corrosive – let’s collaborate more.

Alex’s proposed solution however is where him and I begin to veer atowards different paths. He argues for “creating, in common, a large basket of very good online resources which each institution could then incorporate into its own learning platforms.” He continues: “It would need to be done in concert with some first-class training for how to teach online.”

Content is not the problem in online teaching and learning. Content is abundant, and even when it is not, it is relatively easy to produce (caveat: institutions’ ideas about branding and what counts as “professional” content aside).

To design and develop good* online teaching and learning – the kind that many do, including us at Royal Roads University – institutions need to (1) to prepare faculty to teach online, and (2) offer excellent student support. In other words, institutions need to focus on the second part of Alex’s recommendation (first-class training on how to teach online) and expand the kinds of student supports they currently offer. I’ll focus on #1 here.

Preparing faculty to teach online is not something that we typically do at the pan-Canadian level. It should be no surprise to readers that most universities don’t even do that at the local level. And perhaps it’s time to think beyond our individual institutions. Here’s how we could potentially do a large-scale online teaching and learning professional development event in Canada in preparation for the Fall:

  1. Assemble a group of stakeholders that includes online learning experts, IDs, directors of centers of teaching and learning, and people from existing groups that are vested in educational technology collaboration (e.g., BCcampus, eCampusOntario, etc) to develop a teaching and learning online curriculum. Typical elements included here may be modules on interactions, assessment, student success, social presence, teacher presence, a/synchronous teaching and learning, facilitating discussions, etc. There’s no need to develop this from scratch either. There’s plenty of guidance online, including in Use Tony Bates’ Teaching in the Digital Age book.
  2. Using this curriculum, create a 4-week common online course. The course should be online not just because we’re in a pandemic. The course needs to be online so that participants (i.e. faculty) experience what good online teaching looks like first-hand.
  3. What should the design of course look like? The course should include some independent work (e.g., short lectures on basics) but also collaborative work with people at one’s institution, but also with people across institutions. Remember: an advsantage of online learning is its collapsing of classroom boundaries, and so faculty teaching Engineering 201 across Canada can meet up for a real-time chat to discuss whatever matters and worries them the most. While “online assessment” or “facilitating online learning” share commonalities, there are disciplinary differences that impact how both of these things are done online. Simply put: Assessment in Sociology 101 may look different than assessment in Calculus II and those may look different than assessment in Early Childhood Practicum… and so on.
  4. In other words, while there may be some centralization in the design of the course, this needs to encompasses smaller-scale work and collaboration. Faculty need to experience both what it may look like for students to work independently but also what opportunities/challenges exist for small-group collaboration.
  5. This is a good time to remind everyone: People need to be paid to take the course (or otherwise supported). Don’t mandate something like this, especially for sessional faculty without compensating them.
  6. One this is done, provide ID support to each individual faculty to create their own online course. Clint Lalonde puts it nicely when he argues for flattening the education curve. Yes, I know this is expensive and it’s not as easy as it sounds, but that’s a post for a different day.

I’ll end this with a bit of a warning because I am beginning to worry about something else entirely. You may hear similar-sounding arguments from MOOC providers and the like. They’ll say: Hey, we have this course, and you don’t need to pay us that much or waste so much time. Send your faculty to us and we’ll even give you a discount or offer it for free. That strategy – the capitalize-on-a-disaster strategy – is how these providers will seep into your institution, embed themselves in your practices for now and for good. In politely Canadian terms, I’d advice against it.

This isn’t a magic bullet. And it likely faces some challenges. But it’s now here, so if you like it and can improve it, by all means, please take it apart and let’s improve it together.

*I use the word “good” to refer to effective, engaging, and equitable online learning.


Moving online in response to covid-19: short talk for CAUT


Face-to-face learning is inferior to online learning. Maybe. Sometimes. In some cases. If you ignore the nuance. 1/4


  1. Sanjaya

    Professional development is key to adopt online learning. Over 70% of Canadian institutions either have or developing a strategy or plan for elearning. So, supporting faculty may be easy. Not sure, under which banner this could be done. Thank you.

  2. I appreciate Alex’s vision, primarily because it reiterates a vision that led to the development of M.I.T.’s Open Courseware 20 years ago. In the ensuing decades, OER advocates have been working hard to be able to create the kind of content ecosystem that Alex envisions – bringing together institutions to collaboratively create shared resources that can be used by other institutions. Here in BC, it was the vision for the BCcampus Online Program Development Fund that ran for a decade starting in the mid 2000’s.

    The problems, as OER advocates have learned over the years, are largely cultural, structural (training, institutional recognition and support, which your post gets at nicely) & somewhat technical (technical interoperability of course content is often viewed at best as an idosyncratic afterthought when it comes to creating shared content). The barrier isn’t content.

    Indeed, there is a dichotomy in effect here where the vast majority of educators are willing to use copyrighted content created by a commercial publisher ahead of openly licensed content created by their peers for a myriad of reasons. The problem is not content.

    Perhaps COVID could be the trigger that signals a shift in academic culture to be more willing to use collaboratively created content and, if so, that would be a huge shift and a huge win imo.

  3. One other thing if I can be a bit self-serving here. There is a program here in BC very much like what you are proposing FLO – Facilitating Learning Online, offered by BCcampus. It is an openly licensed PD program for instructors who wish to learn about teaching & learning online . The course content is OER and anyone can download, use it and modify the content for their own use https://scope.bccampus.ca/course/index.php?categoryid=16

  4. Thanks for writing this piece George. To build on Clint’s comment above, we have just also revised the Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) Facilitation Guide and it is available to everyone as an open educational resource. Anyone can find this how-to guide at: https://opentextbc.ca/flofacilitatorguide/ and use it to support implementation of any of the Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) courses at their institution or across partnering or collaborating institutions. There are many of us in the FLO community who have been designing and teaching FLO courses for years, who can step in to support the adoption of these courses in post-secondary institutions, but also in non-profits and corporations and healthcare environments etc that are now looking at making the shift to facilitating learning online.

  5. Thanks for highlighting this Clint, it looks very helpful.

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