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National CrossTalk Fall 2001
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British Columbia's Boom in Distance Education
Universities look beyond their campuses to create innovative programs

By Kay Mills


Geography has long challenged Canada's vast provinces to come up with creative ways to educate far-flung populations. Long before computers and the Internet created the current boom in online learning, universities, government and other organizations in British Columbia were combining to produce innovative distance education programs. Now they have developed a synergy among their efforts that is leading to development of new programs and companies.

For example, the University of British Columbia, which offers 100 distance education courses, spawned the software WebCT that gives universities and professors the tools to develop online courses, without extensive programming ability and great expense. Just last spring the instructor whose work led to WebCT, Murray Goldberg, started a new company called Silicon Chalk. Goldberg, who said he remains fully involved with WebCT, is working with Silicon Chalk to produce a "fairly comprehensive set of tools" to enhance wireless technology in the classroom, for example, by allowing students to work collaboratively through their laptops.

British Columbia is also home to extensive distance learning efforts at Simon Fraser University, Royal Roads University, the University of Victoria and the new Technical University of British Columbia.

The Open Learning Agency, based east of Vancouver in Burnaby, offers the fully accredited BC Open University as well as access to educational programs for kindergarten through high school students, college training (the equivalent of U.S. community colleges), and specialized training for jobs and career transition. It also evaluates academic credentials from other countries and workplace-based training programs for higher education credit. The TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence, a national agency that sponsors research about online learning, is headquartered in Vancouver.

"The geography of the province forced British Columbia universities to look beyond their campuses," said Tony Bates, University of British Columbia's director of distance education and technology and one of the leaders in the field. "There has been political pressure to ensure that students not on the lower mainland have access to courses." Bates said the synergy among the various distance education programs that have developed in the province is "probably one of the best kept secrets. There's a long history of collaboration here."

Serendipity created some of this cooperation, said Walter Uegama, UBC's former associate vice president for continuing education, "but a lot of it was planned." He credited Patrick McGeer, a former senior education minister in the provincial government who had been a UBC faculty member, and his UBC colleague Walter Hardwick, with being the architects for the system in the 1970s. "They had the grand ideas. There was a vision."

These planners also saw to it that the three universities involved in distance education at the time (UBC, Simon Fraser and the University of Victoria) had funds to develop courses and create a consortium to plan complementary-and not duplicative-programs. "There was a great spirit of the thing among the people at the table," Uegama said.

The coordination group still exists but on a loose voluntary basis. "The boom (in distance education) happened here quite a lot earlier before it happened elsewhere," Uegama added. It was driven more by geography and holistic ideas about education than by the online technology fueling the current growth in the field.

Many other Canadian universities have major distance/online education programs, including the Teleuniversite du Quebec, serving French-speakers, and the largest, Athabasca University in Alberta.

Other provinces have some of the same cooperative action found in British Columbia. In Newfoundland, for example, distance education received a major boost in the 1970s when Memorial University started offering courses for medical staffs in remote areas. That led to formation of the Telemedicine and Educational Technology Resources Agency for delivery of health and education services, and then the Marine Institute, to offer a range of courses for the fishing and marine transportation industries so key to Newfoundland.

Making sure that people in rural areas as well as the cities could get the training and the information they needed was the spur to what Erin Keough, director of the Open Learning and Information Network in St. John's, Newfoundland, called "a real Canadian way of doing things."

Early distance education efforts were basically correspondence courses. Students typically would receive a box of books and other class materials, read the assignments, send in their work and wait for a response from the instructor. Using the postal service didn't allow swift interchanges. Eventually, more media were used: audiocassettes, videocassettes and now the Internet, which allows interaction among students and between student and professor.

The Open Learning Agency in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, offers distance education courses, evaluates credits earned at other institutions, and works with employers to determine what job experiences should receive college credit. 
The University of British Columbia offered its first four correspondence courses for credit in 1949. Since 1997, the Internet has been the primary means of delivery for the new courses that UBC's distance education and technology division has developed. More than 5,600 students, most of them undergraduates, took its distance education courses in the 2000-'01 school year. Enrollments have increased by 54 percent in the last four years. The university does not allow students to earn a degree entirely at a distance, and most of its faculties limit the courses undergraduates may take at a distance.

Tony Bates pointed out that the vast majority of UBC distance education students are not truly distant. Almost half live within Vancouver and another 39.5 percent are also on the lower mainland of the province. When asked in a UBC survey last year why they had enrolled in distance education courses, only 17 percent of the students said that they lived too far from campus or would have difficulty getting to class. Most distance education students are working, so the flexibility distance education offers appealed to them.

Distance education moved more easily into the Internet age with the help of WebCT, the software product that emerged from the efforts of Murray Goldberg, the University of British Columbia senior instructor in computer sciences who was exploring ways to enhance learning through technology. Using money from several UBC course development and teaching enhancement funds, Goldberg wrote a program to put a class online. The second time he prepared an online course, he decided to build the tools so that others could develop such courses.

People at other universities wanted the tools, too, and for a while Goldberg gave the software away as a service to colleagues, said Angus Livingstone, UBC's managing director of the university industry liaison office. Goldberg later decided to go commercial with WebCT, to provide support for its users and to develop the software further. In May 1999, Universal Learning Technologies in Boston bought WebCT, which now has a staff of 350, about half of whom work in Vancouver.

"It's a good place to do research," Livingstone added. "You don't have to sell anybody here on distance education. We're just trying to figure out how to do it better."

Simon Fraser University, established in 1965, is another major player in the province's distance education efforts. SFU opened its doors during a period of some ferment in higher education, in Canada as in the United States, and SFU "wanted to break new ground, be an innovative place where things were done differently," said Joan Collinge, director of the university's Centre for Distance Education. "People here hold on to that tradition." By 1975, SFU was offering five courses by distance education-one on opera, several on political science and one on chemistry. Criminology and kinesiology-studies in health and fitness-adopted distance education early on, she added.

Today Simon Fraser, a public university, offers 80 to 90 distance courses a semester, many with online components such as e-mail contact with professors and fellow students, online conferences and Web page links to relevant sites. Its Centre for Distance Education provides pedagogical support for the professors-called "content experts"-who write the courses.

"It's important that the technology does what the print cannot," Collinge said. Asked how expert students would need to be with computers, she replied ,"You can't assume that just because students have computers that they are fully capable with them-so we pitch our courses at a comfortable mid-range." The Internet also has made it possible to expand students' research capacity, Collinge said.

  The University of British Columbia’s Walter Uegama credits his own university and the British Columbia provincial government for early encouragement of distance education.
Typically, SFU will have 3,500 to 4,000 registrants for distance education courses in any given semester-about ten percent of the university's undergraduates. Some students take two or more courses. The distance education students pay the same amount as on-campus students-$77 per semester hour for Canadian citizens and permanent residents, $231 for international students-and their transcripts give no indication whether they took a course online or on campus.

Richard Smith, an associate professor of communication at Simon Fraser, who has studied the subject for some years, said distance education has flourished in British Columbia because the province had both the demand and the capability. "You had two pretty strong universities so you had the intellectual capacity," said Smith. There were consumers for the courses, and computers were becoming cheaper. "It's an example of what can happen when there's a mature cluster," he explained.

Other areas have the demand and the capability but haven't developed this cluster of groups and individuals working in the same field, so there was "a bit of magic" going on in British Columbia, Smith added.

The Open Learning Agency, located, as is Simon Fraser, in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, may offer perhaps the most extreme of these alternative approaches to higher education. Its president, Jaap Tuinman, is fond of saying that "knowledge is knowledge. Skills are skills. Either individuals have mastered a certain body of knowledge-or are skillful in a definable way-or they have not." He believes it should not matter where or how knowledge is obtained, and that learners should have mobility.

The Open Learning Agency seeks not only to provide the courses that enable people to develop knowledge and skills but also to knock down some of the barriers that keep people from earning credit for what they've learned. For example, OLA has an international evaluations service that compares credentials earned in other provinces or countries with their comparable levels in British Columbia and Canada. It also has a credit review service that works with employers to evaluate workplace training programs comparable to postsecondary study, so that employees can apply whatever credits they earned either at OLA or its partner institutions.

The British Columbia government created the Open Learning Institute in 1978 to try to provide greater access to higher education for people living in the province's rural areas. Resistance to the "open university" concept was fierce from some academic quarters at first, with more traditional universities feeling OLI would waste money on a suspect delivery system. Some of the same institutional critics are now firmly in line, online. The institute merged in 1988 with the province's public educational television system, the Knowledge Network, to become the Open Learning Agency.

Tony Bates, of the University of British Columbia, says distance education can be cost-effective if there is good financial management, technical support for faculty, and a team approach to course development and delivery. 
One-third of the agency's university level students are enrolled at traditional universities, said Tuinman. "For example, they're in a UBC program but the course they want is not offered for another year, or it's full or it's offered at conflicting hours so they can't graduate." OLA enrolls 14,251 university-level students and has 250 courses of its own and another 300 from other British Columbia universities. Students can register for all of these courses through OLA.

Surveying the distance education scene in British Columbia, Tuinman believes it benefits students because it provides them with a lot more options. Community college students can move more easily into universities. There's no residency requirement. And because there's so much distance education going on, he said, students can manage their time better. "It's heaven for part-time students in comparison with other (geographic) areas." A former military college, Royal Roads University was established in 1995 as what Canada calls a special-purpose university and has embraced distance education and online learning.

It is located in a scenic spot-Hatley Park, a national heritage site on Juan de Fuca strait in Victoria, British Columbia. Royal Roads considers its "client market" to be primarily mid-career professionals who wish to advance and need to schedule their education around work and family. Most courses combine short stays on campus with Internet-based distance learning. Last year the university served 2,028 people-with an average age of 36- and plans to grow to 3,475 by 2004-'05.

The University of Victoria, located on Vancouver Island, enrolls about 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students and 13,000 continuing education students. As a distance education provider, the university's division of continuing studies specializes in developing and delivering diploma and certificate programs for professionals in such fields as adult education, business and management, cultural resource management, environmental and occupational health, English as a second language, and information systems management. It also seeks to aid the professional development of teachers.

Adding to this mix are the Tele- Learning Network of Centres of Excellence. In Canada, the federal government has established a number of networks of people working in various fields nationwide. This one, focused on telelearning and based in Vancouver, was established in 1995. A network of universities, its principal mission is research about effective telelearning approaches for kindergarten through high school, within postsecondary education, in the workplace and for teachers. In the postsecondary field, for example, Linda Harasim of Simon Fraser University has led a team exploring how people learn best online.

Tom Calvert, who is active in the Tele- Learning Network, is also vice president for research and external affairs at a relatively new institution, the Technical University of British Columbia. Established in 1997, the university enrolled its first students in 1999 and should double its enrollment to 400 students this fall.

While its campus is under construction, the university is temporarily located in Surrey, south of Vancouver, and it offers courses in such fields as information technology and interactive arts. All of its courses are at least partially online because of the school's emphasis on accessibility and innovation. Calvert views the creation of Tech U and its outlook as a major outcome of the TeleLearning Network and another example of the collaborative action occurring in British Columbia.

The promise of distance/online learning "is incredible," Calvert said. "People are looking for more flexible access to learning throughout their careers," and online learning helps fulfill that need. "It's a hot topic now and hasn't peaked yet. You're going to see places all over the world where innovation is occurring- hotbeds of activity. BC happens to be one. The (San Francisco) Bay Area is another. I look forward to BC being a leader in lifelong learning," he added.

Websites for the institutions mentioned in this article:

Athabasca University

Marine Institute

Open Learning Agency

Open Learning and Information Network

Royal Roads University

Simon Fraser University

Technical University of British Columbia

TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence

Telemedicine and Educational Technology Resources Agency

University of British Columbia

University of Victoria

How effective is distance education? To find out, the TeleLearning Network has been supporting Tony Bates' research on potential benefits and limitations of investing in online learning. In a 1999 article published in the Canadian Journal of Communication, Bates and associate Silvia Bartolic-Zlomislic concluded that "under the right conditions, online learning can be cost effective and even profit-making. However, financial management, technical support for faculty, allocation of revenues to those units that take the risk, professionalism, and a team approach to course development and delivery are all critical factors for success."

The researchers looked at three institutions-University of British Columbia, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and a two-year community college, Kwantlen University College in British Columbia. Kwantlen found that it was able to continue offering a creative writing program that otherwise would have been dropped because it did not draw enough on-campus enrollment. It "tapped into a whole new market- single mothers, people with disabilities who were unable to get to campus," Bates said in an interview about the study.

As for UBC, the research indicated that there had been a number of startup costs, some of them unanticipated. The bookstore, for example, had to figure out how to handle international orders, Bates said. The finance office wasn't equipped to do international funds transfers. The university had difficulty registering graduate students online, although it could do so for undergraduates. The university staff spent a great deal of time, which translated into money, sorting out these glitches. Now students can register, order books, take courses and pay for them, all online.

Virtually everyone associated with online learning agrees that simply transferring face-to-face lecture notes onto a computer and posting these on the Internet does not constitute an effective online course. The instructor for the Kwantlen creative writing class found that much of the course content came from online discussions and student writing samples that could be shared easily among class participants.

The research found several educational benefits to online learning. The quality of writing improved, and students reported that their computer and time management skills also improved. In addition, shy students participated more in the classes. "The lack of visual cues allowed the instructor to treat all students in the same manner," the researchers wrote, and that led to greater participation by all students. Most of all, online discussion allowed students an interaction that they had not had in print based distance learning.

In summary, this study found that online learning provides the opportunity to reach new markets, particularly lifelong learners; it can be of great value to mature adults trying to balance work, family and study requirements; it allows students to work collaboratively with colleagues across the world; and it gives small-enrollment programs a chance to attract more students.

  In 1988, the British Columbia government merged the Open Learning Institute with the provincial public television network, creating the Open Learning Agency (above). The agency now enrolls more than 14,000 university-level students.
Bates and Bartolic-Zlomislic cautioned that institutions might need substantial startup funds and should develop new administrative procedures to meet the needs of online students; their faculty members will need time to learn how to use the technology; and their students have to be psychologically and financially able to embrace this method of taking courses.

If an organization "values collaborative learning, increased access for lifelong learners, and the internationalization of the curriculum, then an online program may be of value, even if the costs are the same or slightly more than those for a conventional course," the researchers concluded. They also warned that "young students without good independent study habits" would find an online course particularly challenging.

Distance education is not universally beloved. It raises the often-debated questions: Who owns the courses-the professors who help create them or the universities for which they are created? Are professors fairly compensated for extra workloads created by the increased pace that the Internet allows? Underlying these questions are concerns about how best to educate people.

One of the most outspoken critics of distance education is David F. Noble, history professor at York University in Toronto. In a series of articles about what he calls "digital diploma mills," Noble has blasted distance education as "the commodification of higher education," almost entirely profit-driven in his eyes.

Noble's articles are posted online at In one of them, Noble reminded readers that whenever people recall their educational experiences, "they tend to remember above all not courses or subjects or the information imparted but people, people who changed their minds or their lives, people who made a difference in their developing sense of themselves." The relationship between people, he wrote, "is central to the educational experience."

Distance educators, Noble added, "have always insisted that they offer a kind of intimate and individualized instruction not possible in the crowded, competitive environment of the campus... To make their enterprise profitable, however, they have been compelled to reduce their instructional costs to a minimum, thereby undermining their pedagogical promise."

Murray Goldberg, a University of British Columbia computer sciences instructor, has developed software that enables faculty members to place their courses online. 
Noble recently has been involved in a dispute with Simon Fraser University, which recently declined to hire him because its officials said that he provided insufficient references and that there were flaws in the hiring process. Noble has said that he was denied a humanities professorship, for which he had been recommended by a faculty committee, because of his anti-technology views.

Critics and misgivings notwithstanding, distance/online education doubtless will be a factor in higher education for years to come. Has it peaked? What lies ahead?

"It's a ten-year process of change," Tony Bates said. "The technology changes faster than individuals are able to adapt, and individuals change faster than institutions do." Universities must respond to change more quickly than they have in the past, he added, noting that their program approval processes do not move quickly.

Some businesses are competing with universities in the field of for-profit online learning. "The university's edge over business is its accreditation-its quality control," Bates said. "If you don't maintain that, you shoot yourself in the foot. You lose your reputation. Yes, the faculty has to agree to what it is asked to do. The senate needs to look at how it's being done. You have to be true to the process, but you have to find better, slimmer ways" of accomplishing those tasks.

There are some real blocks to development of sound online learning programs at universities, Bates admitted. "When you have a rewards system that focuses more on research than on teaching, why should someone want to innovate in teaching when it's not rewarded?" he asked. "It will be interesting to see what happens as we lose the older staff. They are the ones that we've used to develop courses, because the younger staff has been warned off and told to do research- 'get your tenure.'" But universities and their faculties need to be involved in distance education-even in areas such as teaching that don't seem as though they would be lucrative, Bates said.

  Simon Fraser University, founded in 1965, embraced distance learning as part of an effort "to break new ground," says Joan Collinge, who runs the university’s Centre for Distance Education
Businesses are especially interested in competing to provide corporate training and to sell courses to people interested in lifelong learning. "One of the big areas for universities to look at is continuing professional education," Bates said. "I think universities will be very foolish to leave that to commercial companies. If they don't serve that market, they will lose faculty who've developed the research for higher salaries to those companies."

Enough money will flow into this field, Bates believes, and sooner or later big companies will get it right. He predicted that universities have about three or four years before successful businesses develop the quality control necessary to capture the big potential market. "Then I think universities do have to worry," he said. State universities may feel more pressure than research universities because the latter have the brand name, the expertise to sell, he added. "If your big item is English 100, I would be worried. If you can go to Oxford (online), why take it (from a state university)?"

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