Athabasca University's Submission to Digital Economy Strategy Consultation Process

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Soumis par Athabasca University 2010-07-13 16:19:57 HAE

Thème(s) : L'acquisition des compétences numériques, Le contenu numérique canadien, L'infrastructure numérique, La croissance de l'industrie des TIC, L'innovation grâce aux technologies numériques


Athabasca University, Canada's Open University, welcomes the opportunity to engage in the dialogue regarding our national digital economic strategy. Our primary contribution consists of two documents; the attached Response document that directly addresses the Consultation Paper questions that most closely related to Athabasca's mandate and mission, and this Paper, which seeks to provide an overarching response to the relevant issues.

The main points reviewed in this document are summarized below for ready reference;

  • The digital economy is based on the creation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge.
  • E-learning is an essential component of a modern learning and research infrastructure.
  • Government should not pick winners; fair dealing is as important as the IP economy.
  • Every Canadian needs to be proficient in digital economy skills; e-learning supports this.
  • Accessibility to quality content is an economic driver. Rural citizens should be able to access this content online.
  • Policy should not create silos but support all innovation, including non-traditional "outside the box" initiatives.
  • Portability of credentials and accreditation among provinces should be national, supporting economies of scale.
  • Supporting Open Educational Resources can be a cost-effective means of supporting learning and training.
  • A national "cloud" network to support e-learning would demonstrate Canadian leadership.


July 9, 2010

Hon. Tony Clement
Minister of Industry
235 Queen Street
Ottawa, ON KIA OH5

Dear Minister;

Attached you will find the following documents which we are providing as Athabasca University's submission for the Digital Economy Consultation.

  1. Paper
  2. Responses to Questions raised through the consultation process
  3. Background on Athabasca University (Appendix A)

We appreciate your consideration and would welcome any questions that you or your staff may have.

Yours truly,

Frits Pannekoek, Ph.D.

cc: Hon. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology Mr. Brian Jean, MP Ft. McMurray - Athabasca and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister ofTransport, Infrastructure and Communities Mr. Brent Rathgeber, MP, Edmonton - St. Albert Dr. Darrel Reid, Deputy Chiefof Staff, Prime Minister's Office Hon. Doug Homer, Minister for Advanced Education and Technology and Deputy Premier Mr. Jeff Johnson, MIA, Athabasca - Redwater, Parliamentary Assistant Treasury Board

Executive Summary

Athabasca University, Canada's Open University, welcomes the opportunity to engage in the dialogue regarding our national digital economic strategy. Our primary contribution consists of two documents; the attached Response document that directly addresses the Consultation Paper questions that most closely related to Athabasca's mandate and mission, and this Paper, which seeks to provide an overarching response to the relevant issues.

The main points reviewed in this document are summarized below for ready reference;

  • The digital economy is based on the creation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge.
  • E-learning is an essential component of a modern learning and research infrastructure.
  • Government should not pick winners; fair dealing is as important as the IP economy.
  • Every Canadian needs to be proficient in digital economy skills; e-learning supports this.
  • Accessibility to quality content is an economic driver. Rural citizens should be able to access this content online.
  • Policy should not create silos but support all innovation, including non-traditional "outside the box" initiatives.
  • Portability of credentials and accreditation among provinces should be national, supporting economies of scale.
  • Supporting Open Educational Resources can be a cost-effective means of supporting learning and training.
  • A national"cloud" network to support e-learning would demonstrate Canadian leadership.


As a Canadian university that teaches more than 40,000 students online who live in all provinces and territories, Athabasca University has a special capability and interest in promoting the digital economic strategy. We start from the premise that the digital economy is based on knowledge, and as such it is often referred to as a "knowledge economy". Many people use this term without understanding its real significance, which is that the overwhelming majority of economic activity and value generated no longer depends on physical goods but rather on knowledge. Knowledge does not enable the digital economy; it IS the digital economy, which is based on the creation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge. This knowledge value can stand alone as in the banking and information economic sectors, or it can be embedded in physical objects. For example, when you buy a finished good like an automobile the real value rests not in the metals, plastic and rubber, but in the knowledge that has been harnessed to create it. The Alberta tar sands would just be sticky mud if not for the educated engineers, trained workers and other professionals who know how to extract the oil, transport, distribute and market it.

This knowledge economy is increasingly being led by countries with no natural resources such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. Their successful economies rest squarely on the back of their educated population. These countries recognize learning - and particularly online, or e-learning - as being central to their economic prosperity, especially in an international context. Australia too is focusing on an enabling strategy that supports the export of e-learning products and services by providing international opportunities for their e-learning companies to demonstrate market leadership. Their national economic policy focuses on profiling Australia as a leader in quality, innovative e-learning solutions and sustaining its international reputation in this sector. Canada needs to move in similar directions.

"Fair Use" Economy

The Canadian government has a unique opportunity to create a policy framework in which business can be competitive. In the digital economy, these policies should not be seen as favouring one economic sector over another, but rather they should create an environment in which various businesses can be competitive. In this light, to date there has been little understanding of the crucial role being played in the Canadian economy by the "fair dealing" economy. In essence, we need to recognize that while the government has a duty to help protect the "intellectual property" economy, it should not discriminate by supporting older companies' IP over the new emerging companies that need fair dealing in order to operate. These new companies include internet information, web hosting, software development, and digital device businesses. A recent report about the US economy shows that this sector is almost as large as the IP sector itself, and is growing much faster. Fair dealing is crucial, but in Canada it is in danger of being severely impacted by overbroad copyright legislation. The report (available at estimates that the US "fair use" economy has generated more than $4.4 trillion in wealth, equal to one sixth of their entire economy, employing more than 17 million workers.

Universities also depend on fair dealing and their impact on the economy should not be underestimated. Universities act both as creators and transmitters of the knowledge that underpins the economy and also as economic drivers in their own right, generating substantial dollars in teaching foreign students. With e-learning, this role can be greatly expanded to allow Canada to compete with other countries such as Australia, the UK and the USA, all of whom have been expanding their e-learning capacities internationally. The support for digital locks in recent national legislation will be used to prevent fair dealing businesses from operating effectively and will as a result heavily skew the economy against this emergent sector. Government policy should not pick favourites, but rather facilitate the development of a legal environment that paves the way for all legitimate enterprises.

The Digital Divide

The present policy framework has also been heavily skewed in favour of the big cities to the detriment of rural and isolated communities. This digital divide makes it difficult for smaller communities to prosper - and is not just about bandwidth, but also about access to knowledge databases. At present, small businesses and professionals working in outlying regions do not have the same access to quality digital content as do those in the cities; for example, business men and women in cities can access proprietary knowledge databases by visiting their local university libraries. However, while this information could be made easily available to businesses in rural areas over the internet, government policy prevents this - again limiting fair dealing and thereby creating a disadvantage for rural communities. Opening up access to knowledge to all Canadians regardless of their geography is essential if Canada wishes to be a leader in the digital economy. Economies like Brazil, China, India, and Russia are positioned to overtake Canada and other countries by making such information readily accessible.

We need every educated person in Canada to be highly proficient in using digital media accessing information and making effective use of it by using a wide variety of knowledge engines and devices including the latest learning object repositories, mobile devices, and tablets. The idea that learning with technology is an "add-on" must be dispelled. Technology is an intrinsic part of the modern economy, society and culture and should be viewed as central to education.

Telework and Online Skills for Life Long Learning

A good example of the importance of technology in the economy is the growth of telework in many industries. A large gulf remains between the desire of employees to telework and their ability to do so. In support of their education and training, lessons should be offered using online knowledge repositories and digital media applications and devices including social networking tools, online educational resources, and telecommunications. Online learning should play a greater role in the lifelong education and training of all our citizens. The skills required to learn online are necessary to be an active participant in the digital economy, as well as for becoming a proficient learner.

Mass personalization of learning using social networking tools, multimedia displays, and web conferencing is now possible. Personal learning environments can be used to ensure that each and every learner gets the education or training that is relevant to his or her needs. All full-time students should take at least one course online so that they can learn how to learn in the e-world, a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives and careers. We will then be able to ensure that labour market entrants have the digital skills needed for participation in the knowledge economy by having e-learning become a part of everyone's educational and/or training experience - we cannot have a robust economy if our schools and other learning/training institutions are not participating. We also need to develop ways of testing minimal digital competencies for students who are leaving our high schools, colleges, universities and other training centres. This will motivate all institutions to increase the online components of their courses and programs.

Digital Literacy

The primary national strategy should be to ensure that all Canadians have open access to learning by making effective use of broadband and wireless networks. With e-learning we can ensure national parity in education and training, meeting diverse needs and bridging the digital literacy gap to create digital citizens. We need to ensure that all our citizens reach a basic level of numeracy, linguistic, and digital literacy so that they have the ability to make effective use of the advanced infrastructure that is available. A focus on the development of basic literacy skills in our two official languages would be an effective means of encouraging the creation of digital media and content among our minority and Aboriginal communities, whose low participation rates can be explained in large part by their lack of access to educational opportunities in our two official languages. Any national solutions to illiteracy simply must include broadband wireless access to e-learning.

Canada has a responsibility to ensure that First Nations communities have access to learning. E-learning can be an efficient and cost-effective means of reaching the widely distributed Aboriginal communities, while at the same time training learners in the digital skills that are essential. Moreover, if the current population boom of First Nations youth is not workforce-ready, our First Nations people will remain caught in the "low-to-no-wage/skill" poverty trap.

Innovation Infrastructure

Governments can play an important role in the innovation ecosystem. Providing the foundations for innovation is more important than trying to pick winners by favouring one sector or discipline over another, something that governments historically have not been strong at including supporting research that overlaps between different disciplines - arts, social sciences, medicine and science. The overemphasis on "Science & Technology" tends to compartmentalize research into specific categories and marginalizes a great deal of really innovative research that, through technology, lies on the cusp of arts and science. The value of research today rests on the ability to effectively access, manipulate, visualize and analyze vast amounts of research data often contrasting information from widely disparate fields; these new approaches are essential components of a digital research environment.

To illustrate the point further - is the economic value of television in the technology or the art? Is the monetary value of the Internet in the software or in the social and other human activities that occur there? Government can augment its existing investment in research by funding for innovation in whatever form it takes, in the arts, sciences, social sciences or technology. Canadian companies and researchers working on innovations in social sciences, education or training are currently forced to minimize the social, pedagogical and psychological aspects of their work, however important and innovative, and retrofit their proposals in scientific or technological terms like "software" "applications", "database" development or "human-computer interfaces".

Credit Recognition

Federal support is required to help overcome the isolationist mentality of different provinces and create a national agenda for skills training and learning. This support is particularly important with regard to overcoming interprovincial barriers such as academic credit recognition and transferability. A national initiative supporting digital learning would go a long way in overcoming provincialism and help focus efforts on education and training using digital technologies - online learning. Such an initiative should provide support for e-learning research into how we can best train and retrain employees in the workforce from coast to coast. This would be one way of creating the conditions for the adoption of new ICTs as they become available. The provincial regulations currently blocking interprovincial e-learning and open educational resource initiatives must be addressed; current funding and other transfer mechanisms are now based on the assumption that the learner's residence is the same province as the learner's university or college, but on-line learning is nationally based and does not fit this model. The most innovative e-learning institutions and their students, who are often faced with resulting technology deficits or out-of-province fees, are paying the price - and our separate provincial e-learning markets are too small to support major post-secondary undertakings. A federal policy review would also highlight the policies in different departments that inhibit the growth of e-learning.

In support of the digital economy, Canada must increase its labour force and the proportion of workers who are well trained and highly skilled. To do so we must modify our post-secondary educational systems to allow immigrants and part-time learners in the workplace to become credentialed anytime, anyplace - without sacrificing the quality of their education or training, so that they can enter the labour force more quickly. The typical "all or nothing approach" employed by too many credentialing authorities and institutions is becoming ineffective in face of the future of education, where students will experience a blend of traditional and technology-enhanced learning, at a distance or in the classroom. In addition, both formal and informal learning can be assessed and credentials awarded, using Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR). Athabasca University is a Canadian leader in PLAR.

Economies of Scale

Canada needs to develop a federal/provincial approach that achieves an economy of scale through the support of national high quality online offerings so that all under-represented students can bridge the digital divide in either official language. Taxpayers would have a better return on their investment if resources were shared across provincial boundaries and governments would then be well-placed to address emerging challenges in technological literacy, student funding, effectively breaking the barriers to post-secondary learning.

Open Educational Resources represent another way that governments can save money by pooling resources. Educational institutions could develop the world's "best" courses online, and by sharing content we would not have to keep buying and re-buying resources, often from outside the country. The federal government can stimulate inter-provincial and interinstitutional sharing of learning resources by promoting the development of open lessons, learning applications, and courses. With the imposition of digital locks by publishers, this may be the only cost-effective way that innovative e-learning initiatives can move forward.

The Knowledge Cloud

A Canada-wide distributed collaborative co-ordinating network to support knowledge building for the digital economy would be one way of promoting Canada's leadership by maximizing a digital infrastructure that is built to defined, high quality interoperable specifications. Cloud computing, in which services and storage are provided over the Internet, is becoming more widely used. Such a Knowledge Cloud would take full advantage of Canada's advanced network infrastructure and could serve as a platform to support pan-Canadian initiatives in the creation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge. The Knowledge Cloud could:

  • promote the innovative use of technologies to improve learning, workforce productivity and global competitiveness;
  • provide inter-provincial co-ordination for e-learning collaborations and development;
  • actively seek out and respond to international (tender) requests and enquiries, refer these to appropriate companies or institutions;
  • maintain a database of information on Canadian research in e-learning;
  • serve as a centre for contacts with visitors from abroad and for organizing visits abroad (conferences, expositions);
  • support blended learning, distance education, and hybrids of both, either asynchronously and/or synchronously;
  • independently support French and English language initiatives;
  • support the development, adaptation and sharing of open educational resources;
  • provide a range of social networking educational tools;
  • maintain high quality standards and avoid duplication;
  • provide information, training, and support for staff and students in the use of e-learning tools and facilities in collaboration with businesses, universities and provinces;
  • promote the use of appropriate international standards and specifications in e-learning;
  • promote the use of accessibility guidelines and standards;
  • provide support to companies and institutions in their evaluations of e-learning initiatives and, where appropriate, conduct evaluations on request;
  • establish baselines to serve as standards for courseware development;
  • establish a national credit bank to enable the free movement of students among provinces and public post-secondary educational institutions;
  • support the inter-provincial and inter-institutional acceptance of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition of skills and knowledge gained in the workplace;
  • provide an international window to Canadian e-learning companies and institutions for marketing; and
  • work with companies and institutions to encourage the export of Canadian e-learning products and services.

Submission (continued)

Digital Economy Strategy Consultation Athabasca University - July 9, 2010

Responses to select Consultation Paper Questions

The Consultation Paper is very welcome. Many of the facts and issues raised in Athabasca University's August 2009 Pre-Budget and June 2010 Senate Standing Committee submissions (available upon request) are echoed and explored in greater detail in the Paper. What follows are responses to the questions raised in the Paper that apply most directly to the mission and mandate of the University, which define our role as Canada's open University. Together with our students, we live and work in the online world, so we welcome the directions raised through the Consultation process (for further information on Athabasca, please see Appendix A).

Section 1 - Capacity to Innovate Using Digital Technologies

Second question (incentivize and promote ICT in all sectors)
Increase government and public recognition of the shift to a knowledge economy

As stated by the Works Foundation UK in their July, 2009 Knowledge Economy Research Programme, industrialized economies have undergone significant change; half of current jobs are in the knowledge sector; companies spend more on "intangible" assets (people, software, design) than on ''tangible'' resources (buildings, equipment); and the vast majority of the workforce (90%) now presents formal job qualifications, up from 40% in 1970. In short, ICT is changing the face of the economy in much the same way as the industrial revolution did several centuries ago - and, to put it simply, Canada is not keeping up.

The World Economic Forum's Global Information Technology Report (March 2010) demonstrates the need for change on a national level; they rated the importance of ICT to the Canadian government's vision of the future as 26th in the world (behind Jordan and Tunisia), government prioritization of ICT as 33rd (behind Barbados), and government ICT promotion as 29th. As stated in the 2009 Report, the Forum emphasizes the role of ICT in enabling "socioeconomic progress and development, enhancing productivity and therefore economic growth, reducing poverty and improving living standards." Both production processes and social interactions are being revolutionized and government efficiency is being impacted, together with public transparency in communications and services. The 2009 Report makes an observation that helps to frame the task ahead; "Both public- and private-sector leaders now fully accept the important role of ICT in stimulating growth and enabling the development of economies by significantly increasing productivity across sectors and industries."

In Canada, research on how ICT can transform our unique society has not been a priority in the last few years. While Athabasca University has been a leader in attempting to determine how social and economic conditions in rural, remote, northern and Aboriginal Canadians might most appropriately benefit from ICT by restructuring to participate in the new knowledge economy, support for this research has been marginal.

ICT readiness and the digital divide

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) new definition of literacy is "the interest, attitude, and ability of individuals to appropriately use socio-cultural tools, including digital technology and communication tools, to access, manage, integrate and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and communicate with others in order to participate effectively in society." (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies).

There are many aspects of the digital divide, each of which will need attention if all Canadians are to be enabled to participate fully in the e-economy. These areas include improved digital infrastructure (both in terms of quality/speed and geographic ubiquity), increasing comfort with learning new technologies to facilitate the acceptance and application of new technologies (key to business innovation and success), and improved access for under represented groups (Indigenous peoples, rural populations, people with no workplace internet access). A related need is increased online provision of French-language information and services.

One element of the divide is socio-cultural, as noted in the OECD definition above. In that context, it should be noted that 74% of Athabasca's graduates are the first in their family to achieve a university degree, which is much higher than the Canadian norm. This has huge implications, since that demographic has the greatest need to bridge the divide. In addition, many of Athabasca's students stay in their communities helping to build a richer knowledge based there. Student loan funding needs to be changed to better fit these life long learners (it is largely targeted to traditional eighteen to twenty five year old cohort).

Increase life long learning levels

Another divide impacting adoption, that between work and learning, no longer applies in the digital economy - a fact that needs greater acceptance across the private and public sectors. Indeed, work and learning are integral to each other and are inseparable; ongoing development and maintenance of subject expertise is now an expected and required employee attribute. All participants in the new knowledge economy have one thing in common: they need to continue to learn. Learning opportunity and incentive programs, including focused student loan envelopes as mentioned above, are needed for part-time students, life long learners, and new immigrants. Workplace training and professional upgrading programs need to be encouraged to support businesses, including those with a distributed workforce. Canadians need to change how we think about post-secondary education and increasingly view it as part of a normal, healthy adult lifestyle.

Athabasca University took the initiative to undergo research into single resource communities (particularly the oil sands industry) to determine how it could assist workers regardless of their background to act as on site mentors to help people move to the next level of learning.

Research integrated with industry to determine how to be certain that workers are ready for the next stage of their career is critical in the Canadian context. We need to recognize that resource industries are also knowledge-based (as described in the Paper submitted together with this Response), and require increasingly knowledgeable and skilled workers.

Increase ICT R&D

Canada lags behind other industrialized countries in the research and development of ICT and its impact on our socio-economic world. As noted in the Globe and Mail in 2009, Canadian corporate ICT investment stands at 60% of US levels (relative to company revenues) and spending on business R&D is consistently below our competitors.1 While the reasons for that are complex and some are beyond government control, it is critical that policies and initiatives be put in place to reverse that trend as well as to increase government-sponsored R&D. The World Economic Forum's March 2010 Report provides further cause for alarm; Canada is listed as 21st in company-level technology absorption; 20th in capacity for innovation; 22nd in company spending on R&D; and 31st in high tech exports. If we want to lead, we need to invest.

The impact of Canada's low investment in ICT R&D is clear - loss of opportunity, loss of revenue, and loss of the kind of people who are attracted to innovative environments and will go on to shape our global future. If our national R&D spending is improved and the needed infrastructure is strengthened, we will be able to keep and attract knowledge workers and begin to realize the economic and social benefits. Considered from any angle, R&D needs to serve as the foundation of our ICT vision and implementation plan. Three R&D elements needed are to grow R&D expenditures; incentivize ICT R&D; and research learning in the virtual environment. Equally critical is engagement of the nascent ICT sector. Athabasca has made it a priority to work with the e-learning sector in Canada, among others. There are well over 10,000 businesses in Canada, including 743 in Alberta alone, dedicated to e-learning. Research in collaboration with industry to resolve key ICT issues - particularly in e-learning - is critical if Canada is to resume its leadership role.

It is important that some of that research is conducted in urban areas. To a large extent the digital divide is a rural and northern problem, so some of the research activity needs to be based in those communities. With the research backbone CA Net4 and Alberta's SuperNet, a research node could readily be established in somewhere like Athabasca, an exemplar rural community solidly rooted in the new knowledge economy with the required research capacity that could illustrate the capacity of rural and northern Canada. It may well be that Canada would be best served by pulling together a network of rural and northern communities to encourage solutions that are meaningful in those areas.

Grow teleworking acceptance

ICT adoption is both a requirement of, and critical aid to, teleworking. Teleworking employers and their staff are highly motivated to accept new technological innovations. However, "According to Canadian teleworking studies, a large gulf remains between the desire of employees to telework and their ability to do so."2 Teleworking should be encouraged and facilitated by government and industry where ever possible. While there is considerable research on telework, no large Canadian industry has had the experience that Athabasca University has had with over 50% of its work force teleworking. It would be useful to engage in a full exploration of the benefits and problems associated with telework in all sectors.

Section 2 - Building World-Class Digital Infrastructure

Fourth question (ensuring rural communities are not left behind)
ICT infrastructure and distance opportunities

As stated clearly in the Paper, Canada's ICT infrastructure needs to grow and be supported. The benefits will be realized for people and companies alike, as more people in rural and remote areas are able to participate in the digital economy and more companies are able to partner with people in those communities (see our response to the final question below for more on broadband access). One clear benefit of greater infrastructure is in increased teleworking access for rural and remote residents; "By reducing the need for geographic proximity to jobs, telecommuting enables geographic population dispersion, especially to rural, small urban and other non-metropolitan areas that have been generally bypassed by economic growth. Telecommuting also may promote economic development in smaller and/or rural communities by opening the door to geographic dispersion of some businesses as well as workers."3

Increase e-learning opportunities and high school completion rates

The new learning environment includes wikis, blogs, podcasts, and 3D simulations - together, they represent a significant shift from both face to face and text-based learning, and need to be accessible to all Canadians. This will require content conversion support, the development of new learning objects, and the creation of a mechanism (within or between several postsecondary institutions) that is large enough to provide an economy of scale for Canadian online learning in both official languages. In addition, provincial and federal governments need to partner to increase high school completion rates/readiness for further study. "Noncompletion of high school impedes many rural students' access to a post-secondary education.

During 2006-2009, the average high-school dropout rates for small towns and rural areas in Canada were 14% and 16% respectively-nearly double the rate of large cities, which was 8%."4 The need to become more aggressive in e-learning in support of the digital economy is apparent. However, as Canada becomes more aggressive in e-learning it should also recognize that there are increasing national barriers that prevent cost-effective and efficient delivery. As demonstrated in both international experience and research, populations the size of Canada's can only support one English- and one French-language full-program university with the online academic and student services required to help students and provide the quality expected of Canadian public institutions. We need to engage in dialogue about how our national funding formula can best reflect that reality so that everyone from coast to coast can be provided with high-quality online programming. Only then will we be able to provide "scaled" distance learning such as that available to residents of the UK and other countries with one online-focused public institution. To date, Canada has marginalized its ability to be aggressive and internationally effective in e-learning by its failure to partner with the provinces to develop a national and international strategy; the time has come to address that situation.

Focus on Aboriginal needs

As stated recently by an Assembly of First Nations report, "If the current population boom of First Nations youth is not mobilized out of poverty by educating them and ensuring they are workforce ready, First Nations people will remain in poverty for generations to come."5 The 25% gap in post-secondary attainment in comparison with the non-Aboriginal population must be addressed, particularly as the Aboriginal population grows. One in five Aboriginal adults took distance education in 20066; with more laddering pathways and specifically targeted programs and opportunities such at Athabasca's Learning Communities study circles, barriers such as location, the need to work or care for children, attitudes about and experiences at residential campuses, etc, can be overcome. A Conference Board of Canada May 2010 Report7 makes a number of observations that demonstrate the potential for First Nations e-Learning:

  • "The education gap is set to widen as the First Nations population grows and its younger cohorts continue to show little improvement" (pg i)
  • "Many First Nations communities do not have access to high schools or libraries, and residents do not have access to computers." (pg ii)
  • "E-learning.... allows students to access learning opportunities from their communities and homes by sharing connectivity, technical support, and teachers, as well as resources for students with special needs." (pg ii-iii)

"...if only 1,500 more students eventually graduate every year from hight school, the public sector savings just from that cohort would be about $375 million over their lifetime.... more than paying for the public sector costs" (of providing that education) (pg 4)

Athabasca University is working with both Cree and Blackfoot peoples to develop online Aboriginal business credit courses as well as courses in Cree language and Kaini studies. However, in light of the low enrollments typically associated with these type of offerings. financial support continues to be highly problematic. Careful research is required to determine how e-learning can be best adapted to meet the needs of Aboriginal peoples. Athabasca University has undertaken some, but more is required - and it has not until recently been supported by granting councils or significant government supports.

Section 3 - Growing the ICT Industry

First question (how R&D programs could be improved to lead to increased innovation)
Tri-Council Funding

A cursory glance at the distribution of Tri-Council research funding paints a clear picture of current federal government funding priorities, one that is further reinforced by the question asked of this Committee (to specifically investigate scientific R&D and commercialization). Canada's natural science and engineering researchers have access to 44% of funding, health researchers 45%, and all of the social sciences and humanities - business, law, education, communication, sociology, psychology, Aboriginal studies, and many other disciplines - share the remaining 11% through the SSHRC allocation.8 This is in contrast to the fact that industries that draw on SSHRC-based research represent 62% of the annual GOP and 76% of total employment.9 While investment in scientific fields is necessary for economic growth, it needs to be paralleled with investment in innovations based in the social sciences. SSHRC President Dr. Chad Gaffield summarized the situation well; "Today's most pressing issues, whether economic, political, technological, or social, have crucial human dimensions that must be well understood if we are to respond effectively."10

There is a great global social need for and real money in - innovation, a process largely based on fields of research and development that are seriously under-funded in Canada. Further, many research ideas that are critical to innovative potential fall between the cusp of funding agency mandates (such as e-learning), thereby forcing researchers to either modify their innovation ideas to fit one "side" or the other, or simply giving up on their chances of being supported in Canada.

Overarching R&D Changes in Support of Innovation

(See the ICT R&D response to the question in Section 1 for background information)

  1. Grow Canada's R&D expenditures

    Government leadership is needed to provide an environment that encourages companies to grow their R&D spending; this can be accomplished through tax incentives, matching and support programs, and an R&D-friendly support environment. One key issue is the capital to move companies from small-medium research-based enterprises to large ones; RIM is an exception.

  2. Create R&D incentives into all aspects of ICT

    The e-world presents a number of areas that would benefit greatly from increased R&D including infrastructure, hardware and software, Web 2.0 and mobile applications, economic impact and applications, high tech healthcare, and digital social infrastructure. The virtual world provides a wide spectrum of new knowledge and applications that can - and will - greatly impact our lives. If we want Canada to take the lead, we need to invest in focused R&D. As emphasized earlier, this research need not be done exclusively through major urban centres to demonstrate that successful research can bridge the geographic aspect of the digital divide.

  3. Research learning in a virtual environment

    One of the greatest impacts of the knowledge economy is the need for lifelong learning, and the need to deliver that learning in new and innovative ways. As technological innovations emerge, learner expectations as well as their learning potential grow, and learning tools and pedagogies evolve accordingly. If we want to have an innovative workforce we must lead in this crucial area. A key commercial cluster is the e-learning industry, where Canada has the potential to be a world leader providing research funding is available for both content and software.

Section 4 - "Digital Media"

Sixth question (ensuring that all Canadians including those with disabilities can join the digital economy)
Technological innovation in support of improved supports for disabilities

As the Canadian Council on Learning discussed in their 2009 Report, "Students with disabilities - such as mobility, psychological, learning, hearing and visual - can benefit from the flexibility of time, location and instructional mode that is made possible through learning technologies."11

Athabasca University was highlighted in the Report as a case study of the kinds of services that can be provided to students with disabilities. The work of AU faculty like Dr Kinshuk helps to advance the potential for technological supports through the development of adaptation and personalization applications that benefit all students, particularly those with disabilities that impact their learning experience. These include learning environments that adapt to the student, increased use of mobile learning technologies, and other elements that facilitate personalization. The same Report goes on to note that, "A major finding was that students with disabilities who received more types of support services - ranging from assessments for interactive technology to help with study skills and organizational strategies - tended to have higher completion rates, and that certain types of assistance were particularly helpful for certain disabilities."12 The support and application of the work of education and computing science researchers from across the country would empower many more Canadians to fully participate in the emerging technological and economic world.

Section 5 - Digital Skills for Tomorrow

First question (challenges developing the skills needed for a digital economy)
A growing number of Canadians do not quality for future employment

The mismatch between available employment opportunities (jobs industry and the public sector need filled) and applicant skills is an emerging problem; one study from last month found that the general, the publicized unemployment rate of 8.7% failed to tell the whole story. The rate for highly skilled jobs sat at only 3.0%, painting a very different picture of the situation and highlighting the skills gap. In short, many of those looking for work simply do not qualify, a situation that stands to get more severe as retirements increase in the next few years.13 In addition, our employers are simply not keeping up with the learning needs of existing staff; we have seen "a 40% reduction in spending on formal learning by Canadian organizations over the last 15 years. In 2008, Canadian organizations spent an average of 1.5% of payroll or $787 per employee, well below the expenditures of our U.S. neighbours."14 Yet there is an appetite for work placed learning. The government of Singapore through UniSim has an industry-post secondary partnership that could be explored to determine its applicability to Canada. Athabasca has also done work on industry learning models.

Ontario: A case study

Rick Milner has released several documents in the last few months about how these realities will play out in Ontario alone during the coming years; some of his projections include:15

  • By the year 2021, 74.5% of the jobs available will require skilled workers (pg 9)
  • The percentage of the labour force that will have completed post secondary education in 2021 will be 64% (pg 9)
  • "By 2016 there will be almost 450,000 unskilled workers who will not be able to qualify for the skilled vacancies that will exist. Again, unless something is done to correct the situation, this figure will rise to 700,000 in the years that follow. At the very same time, we will have some 500,000 skilled vacancies by 2011." (pg 11)

Clearly, action - and leadership - are needed, at all levels of government. Milner's summary of the situation is strongly worded; " ...if we stay on our present trajectories, and assuming the medium population growth model, we are heading to a situation where large numbers of people will be looking for work but cannot find it because they lack the skills required. At the very same time, an even larger number of jobs will go unfilled because there are not the skilled workers qualified to fill them." (pg 11)

Second question (the best way to address those challenges)
Supporting online learning opportunities so adult Canadians can acquire online skills

Through employers, colleges, universities, or continuing education, all adult Canadians who lack the technical (ICT) and soft (processing, collaborating, interacting) skills for the digital economy need to have the opportunity to learn - and thereby think and work - online to achieve the OECD's definition of literacy described in the first section above. Online (including blended) learning courses and programs provide students with the same skill set required for employment in the present, and for early adoption of emergent technologies and applications in the future. As highlighted above, government needs to partner with Canadian companies to substantially increase learning programs for employees across the country - particularly those with lower levels of education (many PO programs are targeted primarily at people who already possess the skills to change positions and remain competitive). Rick Milner puts it succinctly; "We have a two-fold task ahead of us. We need to increase our labour force, and we need to increase the proportion of the labour force with post-secondary education or training." (pg 17)

Third question (ensuring labour market entrants have digital skills)

E-learning holds great potential to facilitate change Technology-enhanced educational opportunities are already providing skills for those in the K-12 system, as many of our (particularly better-resourced urban) schools are doing a great job of providing through blended opportunities in and out of the classroom. Other labour market entrants need attention as well however, including rural, remote, First Nations, and new Canadians. Many people, particularly those in First Nations and immigrant communities, face the challenge of entering the current labour market as adults - often because they lack the soft and technical digital, employment readiness, formal education, and linguistic skills they need to be competitive in today's job market. Progress can be made, but we have work to do if we are to catch up with our neighbours; "In Canada, research shows that rates of adult participation in education and training activities have stagnated. Those who most need learning opportunities are, ironically, the least likely to obtain them... (despite an) aging workforce, pending skills shortages and an increasingly competitive and demanding workplace. Furthermore, adult learning in this country remains underdeveloped, largely because we do not have a concerted, comprehensive strategy to address the needs and aspirations of the adult learner."16

Fourth question (ensuring the current workforce gets digital skills)
Build on what we know we need to do - and take stock relative to other nations

Many elements of this issue are addressed throughout this document. However, it is also important to dig a bit deeper and consider where we are at relative to our global competitors, to help inform priorities and the level of response needed. Consider the following statements and statistics from the Canadian Council on Learning.17

  • "Though Canada leads Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries with the highest proportion of adults aged 25 to 64 (60%) with university or college or trades attainment, one-quarter of Canadian adults have only a high-school education or less. Nine million adults (42%) between the ages of 16 and 65 lack the literacy skills considered essential in today's economy and society, and recent projections suggest that over the next decade, the situation will not improve, particularly in light of an aging population."
  • "Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan and Australia, have recognized and seized upon the importance of lifelong learning and are devising ambitious strategies to help their citizens become lifelong learners. Canada does not have a lifelong learning system in place, nor a plan to transform the rhetoric of lifelong learning into a coherent vision and a plan for action."

Similarly, the OECD points to Canada's low levels of employer-sponsored training as problematic, leaving us well behind the pack of other countries with comparable economic structures. Their conclusion is simple and speaks to the need for immediate attention; "Canada needs a consistent federal policy and better-funded programmes to promote skills upgrading through co-financing arrangements."18 Initiatives such as the potential of mobile learning technologies and applications, the model provided by Singapore (as referenced above), and the need for a national e-learning strategy to address the digital divide, should all be included.

Fifth question (how will the digital economy impact the learning system, how we will teach and learn)
Online education highlights the potential for the new digital world

The changes to education are now, and will continue to be, considerable throughout Canada and around the world. At 17% annual growth, distance education continues to lead the sector as the increased accessibility it provides merges with the ever-growing world of ICT. When technological innovations emerge, learner expectations and potential grow and learning tools and methods evolve accordingly. The new learning environment includes mobile devices, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and 3D simulations - together they represent a significant shift in learning, one that needs to be available to all Canadians if we are to both maximize learning outcomes and have the innovative workforce of tomorrow. These innovations are important for young learners who expect them - and life long learners who need the technological skills they provide.

Online education provides new opportunities for learning

When, properly developed, online learning offers strong learning outcomes, increased soft skills for the e-world, and the technical expertise students need. The US Department of Education's 2009 Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning includes many conclusions that underscore online learning's potential for all Canadians:

  • "Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." (pg xiv)
  • "The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types." (pg xv)
  • "Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection." (pg xvi)
  • "The meta-analysis findings do not support simply putting an existing course online, but they do support redesigning instruction to incorporate additional learning opportunities online." (pg 51)

Governments, institutions, and industry need to work together to determine how best to encourage both K-12 and life long learning through online and blended learning environments to encourage the types of technical and soft skills referenced in the first question in this section (above). Another issue for consideration is the type of funding model that can support strong national online offerings.

Sixth question (strategies to address the digital divide)
Support the skills people need, and increase broadband access for all Canadians

Many important strategies have been discussed both here and in the Consultation documents themselves. These include promoting professional development, e-learning, and life long learning across all economic and social communities across the country, and the need for increased broadband access - particularly for rural and remote areas where internet use is at 65% (well below urban residents levels of 76%).19 The Globe and Mail summarized the impact on rural residents and businesses in an article this spring; "This growing digital divide makes rural economic prosperity increasingly elusive. Canadians living in rural areas already have incomes well below their urban counterparts (14 per cent lower than the national average, according to a recent study that used earlier census data), and the earnings gap exists in every province... Communities that cannot plug into the high-speed digital economy cannot attract new businesses that rely on basic services such as electronic invoicing, Internet conferencing and large digital file transfers."20 Canada once led the world in internet access; we need to catch up if we are to reach all of our citizens and foster social and economic growth in rural, remote, and First Nations communities, keeping young people in their regions both for more of their education and throughout their careers. Indeed, if the thousands of unemployed Canadians in non-urban areas had the infrastructure and skills they needed to participate fully in the digital economy of today, what would the potential be for the Canada of tomorrow?

Athabasca University thanks the Government of Canada for this opportunity to speak to the digital economy of tomorrow. As described here and in the Paper provided with this Response, we hope that the link between the worlds of e-learning and e-commerce has been demonstrated as unavoidable - and full of potential for people and businesses throughout the country who have yet to cross the digital divide and become e-citizens of tomorrow. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the research, collaborative, and academic tools available to us to make that happen.

Digital Economic Strategy - Appendix A
Athabasca University - July 9, 2010

Established in 1970, Athabasca University (AU) is Canada's Open University. AU a fully accredited, internationally recognized institution that delivers exclusively online and distance-education courses and programs. As formalized in its mission statement, the University "is dedicated to the removal of barriers that restrict access to, and success in, university-level studies and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide." The University is structured to remove barriers associated with time and space, past educational experience, and level of income.

Any person aged 16 or over is eligible for admission. AU's prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) process enables individuals to seek credit for learning acquired through work and life experience. Admission (except where a prerequisite is required) is not based on prior academic achievement. Students can use AU courses to "top-up" credits from another post-secondary institution, and over 350 transfer agreements are in place with many partner colleges and universities throughout Canada.

The university offers more than 700 courses as well as bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees as well as many undergraduate and graduate certificates and diplomas - with a focus on liberal arts, sciences and professional programs.

All courses are complete, modularized packages, rather than hybrids that blend in-class and e-learning. Courses are individualized to enable students to learn at their own pace. Considerable emphasis is placed on alignment of course materials with online student support including advising, counselling, technological support and library services. Individualized accommodations and support services are available to students with physical, sensory, psychological or learning disabilities. To meet the needs of Aboriginal scholars and communities, and to preserve indigenous knowledge and culture, AU has also established the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research.

Athabasca University's story is one of remarkable growth. In the University's beginnings in the 1970s, students numbered in the hundreds, and the inaugural graduating class of 1977 consisted of two graduates. AU now serves over 40,000 students per year. The most rapid growth has occurred since the 1990's, and growth has slowed only recently in light of environmental factors such as the economic downturn. Nonetheless, since 2004-2005, the student complement has grown by 21%, the staff complement by 34% and the annual operating expenditures have grown by 57%.

AU operates under the province of Alberta's Post-Secondary Learning Act, which proclaims the institution to be one of four publicly funded comprehensive academic and research universities in Alberta. AU is also recognized by the province of British Columbia's Degree Quality Assessment Board.

In 2006, AU became the first canadian public university to receive accreditation in the United States, through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), one of six regional organizations in the U.S. that accredits universities. No other public Canadian university holds this level of foreign accreditation. In 2009, the University also became accredited in the European Union by Greece's National Academic Recognition . Information Center as a result of a collaboration agreement with the Technological Educational Institute of Kavala.

Our Mission

Athabasca University, Canada's Open University, is dedicated to the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide.

We are committed to excellence in teaching, research and scholarship and to being of service to the general public.

Our Mandate - Highlights

Founded in 1970, Athabasca University is a public, board-governed, open and distance education university, operating as a Comprehensive Academic and Research Institution under the authority of the Alberta Postsecondary Learning Act, which serves students throughout Alberta, across Canada and around the world.

Working as a partner within Campus Alberta, Athabasca University is committed to collaborating with other key stakeholders to ensure a seamless and responsive advanced education system that provides high-quality learning opportunities in support of lifelong learning.

The University offers a range of courses and programs leading to graduate and undergraduate degrees, certificates and diplomas in the Humanities, the Social Sciences, the Sciences, Technology, Business, and the Health Disciplines.

As an open university, Athabasca University seeks to remove barriers to undergraduate and graduate education. It offers flexible enrolment opportunities for learners regardless of age, gender, culture, income, disability, career and family obligations, geographic location, or educational background. As a distance education university, Athabasca University provides flexibility for lifelong learners who cannot or choose not to undertake residential post-secondary education. The University offers learners the opportunity to interact with students across Canada and around the world through programs in established as well as emerging areas, as it seeks to meet the needs of career professionals, develop research expertise, and create knowledge that fosters a global outlook among its graduates.

Basic Information

  • One of four Comprehensive and Research Institutions under Alberta's Post-Secondary Learning Act
  • Canada's only inter-provincial English language university (partnered with TELUQ)
  • Research university with Canada Research Chairs, Industrial Chairs, and Tri-Council funding
  • Quality assurance approval from Alberta, BC, the US Middle States Higher Education Commission, and the European Union by Greece's National Academic Recognition Information Centre
  • Dedicated to the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study
  • 2009 Headcount: 40,470 (Alberta:13,620, Ontario: 13,994)
  • Undergraduate students: 36,460 Graduate students: 4,010


  1. 1 McCarthy, Shawn; Industry awaits Ottawa's high-tech plan; The Globe and Mail; July 31, 2009. (back to footnote reference 1)
  2. 2 Jones, Caroline; Teleworking: The Quiet Revolution;; September 14, 2005. (back to footnote reference 2)
  3. 3 Cox, Wendell; Improving Quality of Life Through Telecommuting - The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation;; January 2009; pg 5. (back to footnote reference 3)
  4. 4 State of Learning in Canada: A Year in Review - Canadian Council on Learning;; March 30, 2010; pg 122. (back to footnote reference 4)
  5. 5 Assembly of First Nations; Taking Action for First Nations Post-Secondary Education: Access, Opportunity, and Outcomes; June 21, 2010, pg 16. (back to footnote reference 5)
  6. 6 Canadian Council on Learning; State of Learning in canada: A Year in Review;; March 30, 2010. (back to footnote reference 6)
  7. 7 Conference Board of Canada; Optimizing the Effectiveness of E-Learning for First Nations; May 2010. (back to footnote reference 7)
  8. 8 Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; Momentum: The 2008 Report on University Research and Knowledge Mobilization; 2008. (back to footnote reference 8)
  9. 9 As quoted in - The Impact Group; The Economic Role and Influence of the Social Sciences and Humanities: A Conjecture; March 2008; pg 1. (back to footnote reference 9)
  10. 10 Levy, P.; Collective Intelligence: Mankind's emerging world in cyberspace; New York: Kodansha International; 1997; pg 36. (back to footnote reference 10)
  11. 11 Canadian Council of Learning; State of E-Learning in Canada; May 2009; pg 72. (back to footnote reference 11)
  12. 12 Ibid; pg 72-73. (back to footnote reference 12)
  13. 13 Cowan, Allison and Wright, Ruth; Valuing Your Tl/ent: Human Resources Trends and Metrics; The Conference Board of Canada; June 2010; pg 7-8. (back to footnote reference 13)
  14. 14 Cowan, Allison and Wright, Ruth; Valuing Your Talent: Human Resources Trends and Metrics; The Conference Board of Canada; June 2010; pg 27. (back to footnote reference 14)
  15. 15 Milner, Rick; People without Jobs, Jobs Without People: Ontario's Labour Market Future;; February 2010. (back to footnote reference 15)
  16. 16 Canadian Council of Learning; State of Learning in Canada: Toward a Learning Future; (back to footnote reference 16)
  17. 17 Ibid, pg 4-5. (back to footnote reference 17)
  18. 18 Developing Highly Skilled Workers: Review of Canada - OECD;; 2004. (back to footnote reference 18)
  19. 19 Marlow, lain, and McNish, Jacquie; Canada's Digital Divide, The Globe and Mail;; April 2, 2010. (back to footnote reference 19)
  20. 20 Statistics Canada; Canadian Internet Use Survey;; June 12, 2008. (back to footnote reference 20)

Si vous ne pouvez pas accéder au document qui suit, veuillez communiquer avec la personne ci-dessous afin de l’obtenir dans le format approprié.

Guylaine Verner
Innovation, Sciences et Développement économique Canada | Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada
300, rue Slater, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0C8 | 300 Slater Street, Ottawa (Ontario) K1A 0C8
Téléphone | Telephone 613-946-7464
Télécopieur | Facsimile 613-952-2708
Téléimprimeur | Teletypewriter 1-866-694-8389

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