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E-learning is a somewhat outmoded term that refers to online technologies used to facilitate electronic learning. E-learning can be applied to educational activities in a variety of modes: online, in blended formats and 'hybrid' learning contexts (including mediated distance education) (Abrami, 2006). E-learning is used in face-to-face (F2F) learning as a way to supplement curriculum, reading activities and classrooms. However, this approach represents a small percentage of e-learning; the highest percentage is via online delivery of distance education courses (Abrami, 2006). Distance education expert Tony Bates (2001) suggests that e-learning is an ideal way to address the diverse needs of learners in a global economy. In BC, providing convenient access to e-learning has become essential for people whose economic status or proximity to major training institutes preclude their participation in traditional classroom learning. One of the main goals of government should be to provide access to educational opportunities for its citizens across the lifespan regardless of where they live (Plant, 2007). E-learning provides a way for people to learn new skills, and to interact and collaborate with others. The use of e-learning is a way to address demand for training and a means to improve participation in learning new skills in society (BC, 2006). In balancing professional and family commitments, British Columbians have expressed the desire to choose from as many different modes of learning as possible and to learn at their own pace and convenience via e-learning (Plant, 2007). UBC offers massive open online courses (MOOCs), a recent trend in e-learning, and has its own MOOC website
E-learning in BC's Post-Secondary System
“Our research-intensive institutions must continue to be the key incubators of the innovation needed to address our most pressing social and environmental challenges and to develop a strong economy. They must also be places of teaching excellence, and they must be destinations of choice for the best and brightest students from across the province and around the world.” – Campus2020 document (Plant, 2007, p.4) BC is Canada's third largest province, a vast mountainous region of one million square kilometers whose population has risen to 4.3 million. Dominated by Vancouver and Victoria, and towns in the Interior such as Kelowna and Kamloops, each centre has its own post-secondary institutions with several universities in Prince George (UNBC), Burnaby (SFU, BCIT) and Langley (TWU). However, some British Columbians cannot access traditional classrooms given that they live in remote or isolated communities. The post-secondary system in BC falls under the MVAD (BC, 2006), and assumes a significant role in the planning and management of higher education (Plant, 2007). The four main types of post secondary institutions in BC - research universities, university colleges, colleges and institutes – provide flexibility and a range of options for people pursuing their educational and training goals. Students can transfer from one public institution to another and take course credits to other programs. However, some students cannot enter their desired programs because of poor academic achievement or too few physical places or seats - even when they meet admission criteria (Bourlova & Bullen, 2005). In some cases, students find equivalents or alternatives in the private system and take courses if they have the money to pay for them. The private system permits transfer of course credits back to public institutions which is very convenient and should be maintained.
An important stakeholder in BC’s post-secondary system is the BC Open Learning Agency (OLA) which has offered distance learning and correspondence courses for years. The newly-created British Columbia Open University (BCOU), at the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, now acts as the main office for open learning. Known as Thompson Rivers University - Open Learning or TRU Open Learning (TRU-OL), BCOU offers an electronic window to more than 400 e-learning courses for British Columbians. Since 2002, BCcampus has been an important stakeholder for e-learning; its mandate is to provide British Columbians with a central website for online programs and services. To ensure that BC’s educational system responds to changes in the global economy (BC, 2006), the government initiated a consultative process called Campus 2020. This provided stakeholders with ways to share in the aspirations of e-learning and to discuss opportunities for remote communities and workplaces (Plant, 2007). Campus 2020’s Thinking Ahead report sets high expectations for BC’s post-secondary system and emphasizes the importance of accessibility, convenience and flexibility (Plant, 2007). Campus 2020 recommended that BC’s educational sectors take steps to coordinate; for example, public institutions were encouraged to form public-private partnerships since private firms too deliver e-learning programs and have expertise to share. Building on an advanced system that responds to the needs of learners is critical (Abrami, 2006). In Campus 2020’s consultative process, a BC learning gateway was proposed to centralize information for educators and learners (BC, 2006). The MVAD must emphasize the e-learning gateway as a way to share knowledge and information resources with stakeholders and as an important supplement to planning. The BC learning gateway serves as a conduit for educators and technology experts to connect and to view each projects and learning objects – which will trigger additional collaboration and learning.
So why is e-learning so important?
Over the next five to ten years, e-learning will be critically important. First, the global economy is requiring greater numbers of skilled workers while greater competition for those workers is on the rise (Plant, 2007). Rapid changes in information and communication technologies have forced learners to adapt to changing markets and to direct their lifelong learning towards skills needed in the marketplace (Bates, 2001). That British Columbians will need to learn new techniques to access and process information within the skills-intensive economy is critical to lifelong learning (Plant, 2007) – which we believe may require basic computer training for those who have been out of school for some time. E-learning should provide British Columbians with a means to obtain training and upgrade credentials, provided they have ready access to computers and Internet access where they live. The MVAD should encourage public libraries to provide adequate numbers of computers for e-learners and provide financial support for those wanting to purchase computers (BC, 2006). Although British Columbians will continue to attend brick-and-mortar universities, others will find it difficult for financial or personal reasons. E-learning offers alternatives to those wanting to live and work in their communities while continuing their education (Bates, 2001) but we need to ensure that no one is excluded from access because of inability to pay, access or lack of computer knowledge. The MVAD should ensure that convenient access to online, flexible and interactive courses is available but that BC communities also have the requisite speed of broadband access without which students will be frustrated in their attempts to learn (Plant, 2007). Again, the public libraries are key stakeholders in helping new e-learners obtain basic skills.
E-learning requires careful planning and management of our Internet infrastructure. NetworkBC recently partnered with Telus to review BC’s efforts to bridge the digital divide between communities that have or do not have broadband access (NetworkBC, 2008). NetworkBC is working with First Nations groups to ensure broadband access in those areas. One of the misconceptions about online learning is that it is cheaper than F2F learning because expensive physical buildings are not needed. However, the infrastructure that supports learning online is not non-existent - it is merely different (Bates, 2001). Policy-makers within the MVAD should be reminded that “developing e-learning is costly; [and] requires access to state-of-the-art technologies, design of content, preparation of appropriate teaching materials, and the maintenance of a set of educators and trainers who can tutor students” (Bates, 2001, p. 83).