Government searches for national e-learning agenda

While individual jurisdictions across Canada are making great strides in the field of e-learning, stakeholders say there is a need for an overarching national e-learning strategy to bring all that effort together.

The federal government had led the way in recent years, with Industry Canada

championing programs like SchoolNet, which brought Internet connectivity to schools across Canada. However, with a new Industry Minister in Lucienne Robillard and a new Prime Minister in Paul Martin, the department’s e-learning strategy is currently in a state of flux.

Susan Margles, director general for policy, planning and promotion in the Information Highway Applications Branch of Industry Canada, said the department is currently reviewing its e-learning programs as part of a government-wide program review, and is working to synch themselves up with the new government’s political agenda. The next incarnation of SchoolNet is also being discussed.

“”We’re still in thinking mode, we’re putting forward our ideas and our ideas would certainly include collaboration with the other stakeholders and trying to work in a more coordinated fashion,”” said Margles. “”We really don’t know quite yet because we haven’t had the opportunity to have the decision-makers have a look at that stuff.””

Margles said while Industry Canada always consults with the provinces and the private sector when they’re planning a program, there really is no formal, nationwide e-learning strategy at this time. Most of the collaboration has been on a program-by-program basis, such as SchoolNet’s national advisory board.

“”There’s much activity going on across the country, but there is no national strategy which we’re all working towards,”” said Margles. “”There’s a lot of good stuff going on, and we may be able to leverage that better if we work a bit more closely at it.””

The federal government first got involved in e-learning in 1993 with the Connecting Canadians agenda, and Industry Canada has created programs like SchoolNet, GrassRoots, and the Network of Innovative Schools.

“”We’ve worked in collaboration with provinces, territories, and the private sector to ensure connectivity got to places where it needed to for learning,”” said Margles. “”We didn’t pay for that connectivity ourselves, we invested in programs that showed people the value of connecting.””

Margles said Industry Canada has also been involved through some standards work with e-learning on the post secondary level, and through Campus Canada, which brought together a number of post secondary institutions across the country to provide online courses and accreditation.

“”We need to take a lifelong learning approach to this, not just look at K-12 or post secondary in isolation,”” said Margles.

For some, the problem goes beyond just the lack of a national e-learning strategy. Until the end of 2003, Catherine Henderson was CIO of the Community Services I&IT Cluster for the Government of Ontario. Henderson said remove the “”e”” from e-learning and the problem is still the same, the lack of a national learning strategy. E-learning is a part of that.

“”Part of it is constitutional, the provinces look after education and the feds have been reluctant to step in,”” said Henderson. “”I think we should have a national learning strategy, and as part of that a national e-learning strategy.””

While she worked for the Ontario government, two of the seven ministries that fell under Henderson’s responsibility as CIO were Education and Colleges and Universities. While she said she doesn’t want to criticize, Henderson said she feels Ontario is lacking a unifying e-learning strategy at even the provincial level.

“”I don’t think Ontario has been able to get its act together in terms of clear policy direction and clear will to make this happen,”” said Henderson. “”Absent that, a number of excellent things have grown up because students and teachers wanted it and researchers were interested.””

Henderson said she thinks a lot of what is happening is happening in isolation. A lot of parents and teachers aren’t aware of some of the things happening around e-learning, and the government hasn’t been working to bring it all together.

“”Other things took precedence, but there’s just been an election and it could well be that things will change,”” said Henderson.

One example Henderson gives of a program that has worked is the Ontario Knowledge Network for Learning, which is dedicated to promoting the use of technology as a learning tool and helping teachers, students and parents to take advantage of technology.

“”It’s not well funded, but it’s done a remarkable job,”” said Henderson. “”In a quiet way, they’ve done some astounding work.””

It also created the Pathfinder schools, four elementary schools and three secondary schools that have integrated technology into the classroom environment as a model for other schools of how it can be done.

“”Absent the plan, people get strong and do good work, but one thinks given the good work they’re doing they could do better if there was a plan and some stable, predictable funding,”” she said.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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