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Attacks on Science

By Stephen Murgatroyd -

Science – the use of evidence to build an understanding of the ways in which the worlds and the people, animals and other species live and work within these worlds – is critical for mankind. It saves lives, it helps us coexist with other species, it helps us sustain our environment and biodiversity, it helps us understand and navigate space, oceans and land, and it enables discovery.

Science is not about establishing truth, though occasionally it stumbles on some (gravity, for example). Science is about providing a current understanding (which can have a very high degree of probability) of something based on evidence. For example, we used to understand that disease was caused by “rotting organic matter which produced miasma that affected the blood” until science was able to demonstrate that germs caused disease, something we are beginning to now see is only part of the “truth”. We used to believe that the earth was the centre of the universe until we came to understand that the earth, as a planet, revolves around the sun and that our solar system is just one of thousands of such systems. Science uses evidence to build theories and understanding which are tested and challenged all the time. This is how science progresses.

Those who disagree with current scientific theories, such as the current models from neuroscience about the plasticity of the brain or theories from physics about sub-atomic particles, are representatives of the true nature of science. They are not “denialists” or “dissenters” – they are scientists with a different view.

Take the link between extreme weather events and climate change as an example. Some scientists are clear that there is a link between climate change and extreme weather events, yet the dominant view of science is that the link has not yet been established. Different groups use either the same evidence or some of the same evidence and additional evidence to come to different conclusions. This is to be welcomed rather than attacked. Those who attack climate change sceptics and want them imprisoned or debarred from practice are the enemies of science – true denialists. Science is a broad church in which many apostles flourish.

But there are clear attacks on science. These occur when access evidence on which certain scientific conclusions are reached which have major implications for public policy, health or education and which have been publicly funded are not made available to third parties for independent examination by the scientist who collected them. This is a “denial of evidence” attack on science. – without peer review of actual data, a theory cannot be independently verified.

A similar attack occurs when a Government  – in this case the Government of Canada – decides to close access to a library, which contains a vast array of original data sets on which many scientists depend. Or when a government – in this case the Government of Canada – decides to no longer collect the long-form census data, thus denying social scientists and others access to data on which their scientific work depends. Or when evidence relating to the efficacy of a drug or treatment is withheld because it either showed no significant difference between the drug and a placebo, or had negative results (see here for Ben Goldacre’s critique of this practice).

A second kind of attack on science occurs when scientific findings have to be altered to meet political or commercial expectations. The International Panel on Climate Change Summary for Policy Makers makes subtle changes to a document initially prepared by scientists such that it no longer correctly reflects the nuances of the science it purports to describe. The Bush administration was also known to “adjust” findings to suit their agenda.

A third kind of attack occurs when scientific funding only goes to those pursuing a particular theory and is denied to those pursuing alternative explanations for an area under study.  This occurs in  many fields, most notably in physics and in climate science.

A fourth kind of attack occurs when scientists whose views differ from the mainstream are vilified and attacked not just by their peers (a form of science cannibalism) but by politicians and the media (goading) just for being different. While some sceptical views are clearly deviant – for example the idea that standard childhood vaccines “cause” autism or that homeopathy is an effective treatment for cancer – and are not supported by the available evidence, as several meta reviews of the available evidence demonstrate, a scientist conducting honest studies who makes their data freely available to others has a right to explore such a view.

A final kind of attack on science is when science is corrupted by financial gain. China in 2014 will outspend the US in its investments in scientific research – spending $465 billion. What is interesting is that there are some 50 cases of corruption now being prosecuted in the Chinese courts – cases against scientists. Indeed, as Guilford observes, given the amount spent, it is surprising that so little outcomes have resulted. But, the financing of science can corrupt in ways other than just plain theft – it can also impact what it is that scientists find, as has been the case in some studies of drugs and their efficacy.

So, should we be concerned about the state of science? Yes. Are there obvious ways we can act to improve the state of science? Yes – we need to do much more to educate scientists on the nature of science as a practice and the nature of their professional responsibilities as scientists. While scientists are well trained in method, they are not well trained in ethics or the philosophy of science. This is a serious gap. Much more needs to be done to ensure that our scientists understand their social, ethical and legal responsibilities.

Energy Costs in Europe and Manufacturing

By Stephen Murgatroyd -

European manufacturing is in crisis. Take one example. Germany’s manufacturing suffered €52bn in net export losses for the six-year period from 2008 to 2013. This is why some 137 of Germany’s industrial leaders have signed a document demanding an end to current energy policies in Germany and to align the EU’s climate change policies with a strategy for industrial growth and energy management, since climate policies have a direct impact on energy prices.

Energy prices in Europe are about double those in the US. Governments in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany are all green-lighting the expansion of coal mines and Britain is committed to a rapid adoption of shale gas. These developments represent an attempt by Governments to stave off energy cost rises, which have already cost over four million manufacturing jobs since 2008 across Europe. Relative to other players in the global manufacturing export business, Europe’s share of global markets has dropped 10% in this same time period. Germany’s exports would have been €15bn higher last year if its industry had not paid a premium for electricity compared with international competitors.

Energy costs have risen as solar and wind power have been expanding. In part, this is because the cost of Government sponsorship of these energy sectors is being funded directly by consumers, the largest of whom are manufacturing firms. It is also in part because climate change policies penalize manufacturing more than some other sectors, such as tourism and services.  Going “green” costs jobs. Indeed, several studies show that the net job loss resulting from green policies is higher than the “green job gains”.

Until energy policies, climate change policies and industrial strategy are aligned, we will see continued dislocations in manufacturing – especially in Europe.



Rethinking Colleges and Universities

By Stephen Murgatroyd -


What is happening in post-secondary education is quite remarkable and is creating the conditions for change. Here is a quick summary of some of the things our observatory is tracking, with a focus on Ontario:

  • Changing student demography & demand for flexibility – Shifts in the demography of the student body in Ontario – especially in the North – are affecting recruitment and retention of students. Students are now coming from a variety of different socio-economic groups, including a growing number who have part- or full-time employment. So as to increase post-secondary participation, there is a need to offer more flexible opportunities for learning, especially for mature or working students.
  • New funding – A commitment of the Government of Ontario to invest over $42 million over three years in online learning with strong focus on first year courses at colleges and universities (so-called “gateway” courses.
  • Northern Alliances – Growing agreements for joint course and program sharing (development and delivery) between colleges, especially in the North – leveraging the resources of Ontario Learn and Contact North.
  • Substantial growth of online learning in Ontario – Ontario has the largest number of online courses (over 18,000), programs (over 1,000) and course registrations (over 500,000 registrations annually) in online courses of any jurisdiction in Canada, which also makes it one of the leading centres for online learning in North America.
  • Growing demand for online learning from students – students are looking for increased flexibility in their studying options and are making online learning one of their choices. In 2012, in North America some 6.5 million students took one or more fully online course as part of their college or university programs. Online registrations are growing at app. 12-15% per annum while registrations for classroom based courses are growing at app. 1.5% per annum in North America.
  • Arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – Colleges and Universities in North America are offering the general public college and university level courses for free. Video instruction, online testing and peer to peer communications provide the basis for study. Over 4 million individuals in North America “signed up” for a MOOC in 2012-13 and over 230,000 completed a MOOC and obtained a letter of completion from the host institution. Major “brand” universities (including the University of Toronto, UBC and MIT) are offering such courses.
  • MOOCs for Credit – The Gates Foundation, in partnership with the American Centre for Education, are offering College “gateway” courses (courses needed for University Transfer) as MOOCs and then providing opportunities for the MOOC to be converted into transferable credit.
  • European Union committed to total learner mobility by 2020 – credits may be transferred from any institution to any other institution with full equivalency so as to encourage and recognize the new mobility of learners and labour. The EU is leveraging the work of the Council of Europe on the Bologna process which “standardized” the nature of college, apprenticeship and degree programs among all Council members. Similar developments have occurred in the Commonwealth, among the 32 small island states.
  • Ontario Transfer Credit – the Government of Ontario has committed resources and created support infrastructure to facilitate the greater transfer of credit amongst colleges and between colleges and universities.
  • Modularized Credit – The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is providing an opportunity for students to complete modular courses in 2-3 weeks for credit (.25, .33, .75, 1 and multiples thereof) and makes these modules available with start dates 365 days a year – students, once they start, have a fixed end date. This has significantly grown registrations and accelerated course completions.
  • Competency Based Learning for Credit – The Western Governors University uses competency based assessments for the award of credit – a student who successfully masters a competency based assessment is awarded credit, irrespective of how that student was able to secure the knowledge, skills and understanding required to secure this “pass”.
  • Significant Growth of Prior Learning Credit – the use of PLAR for credit (through challenge examinations, portfolio assessment and competency based assessment) has grown considerably since 2000 and continues to grow and develop, especially now that an increasing number of students arrive in colleges and universities with foreign credentials.
  • Significant growth of Work Based Learning for Credit – a number of colleges and universities (especially in Europe) are making extensive use of program agreements between an employer who offers training and development and the institution where the employers’ programs are recognized for significant credit, from the Diploma to the PhD. For example, it is possible to earn 90% of a Master’s Degree entirely through an agreed program of work based learning with just one course and a dissertation being required for successful completion.

Are colleges and universities ready for the changes which these (and other) developments imply? We dont think so. Which is why Janet Tully and I wrote the book Rethinking Post Secondary Education – Why Universities and Colleges Need to Change and What the Change Could Look Like.


By Stephen Murgatroyd -

The European Union is slowly backing away from its commitment to climate change policies which would place emissions reduction and environmental policy at the heard of economic policies. Rather than pursuing growth at any costs and industrial development using fossil fuels, the EU was committed to a future economy which was less dependent of fossil fuels and made much more use of knowledge based firms to spur growth.  They have weakened such strong political commitment because the economic conditions demand that they do and there are unintended consequences of the policies they were pursuing – rapid rise in energy costs impairing economic growth and leading to energy poverty, vulnerable energy systems which are unreliable and a decline in global competitiveness.

Environmental organizations are upset with the lack of development in climate change policies and related environmental policy: they are looking for a post-carbon economy in which environmental concerns are not only “taken into account” but drive social and economic policy. Caring for the planet is as important as caring for people.

Part of the problem is that the focus has been so relentless on a single issue – reducing CO2 emissions – that many other environmental issues have had scant attention in comparison. For example, one of the most critical issues for the planet and people is clean, fresh water and our access to it. A second issue is the health and extent of our forests. A third issue is the balance between our need for food and the needs for quality land and biodiversity. No one of these issues is more important than another and they are all connected.

CO2 secures a great deal of attention, despite the fact that the link between CO2 and climate change is now in question (CO2 continues to rise but surface temperatures are “flat” since 2000). All efforts since 1990 to reduce CO2 emissions by global agreement have failed, but cost billions. Another attempt to secure global agreement will be made in 2014-15 but all evidence suggests that no binding and enforceable agreement will be secured before the Kyoto expires in 2015. Maybe then we can focus on a more inclusive strategy for  our environmental future.




Transforming Education – What are The Routes to Change?

By Stephen Murgatroyd -

“Transforming education” is part of a lexicon of education systems around the world. But what kind of “transformation” are we looking at?

One route is to strengthen the role of the professional in designing, shaping and leading education systems at the level of school, school districts and systems. The idea is to equip teachers and school leadership with the skills and resources they need to create meaningful and mindful education appropriate to the students and the community. This route is one which champions learning and pedagogy as the driving force for the work of schools. The measures of success are: the engagement of learners; learning outcomes across a range of subjects and skills; and the satisfaction of those who teach with their work and conditions of practice.

A second route is to introduce market forces and outcomes based management practice to improve outcomes of school systems as measured on standardized tests. Scores on tests shape investments and activity. Teachers and school administrators are held accountable for measurable outcomes which they don’t set or assess directly. Sanctions are applied to those schools and teachers who underperform. Like business, outcomes are always measurable and engagement is of less importance than test scores.

The third route is a compromise between the two: student engagement and outcomes are important; assessment is used for improvement; and investments are made in improving performance, especially in science, engineering, maths and technology.

Each of these routes to transformation has risks and downsides. Each of these routes has consequences for our understanding of key roles – Teachers, Principals, Superintendents, Trustees, Ministers – and for their relationship.

The underlying issue with all of these routes is trust – who trusts who to do what? The related issue is what are the evidence signs of trust in action?

These are difficult questions. Our Centre for Public Policy will explore these issues as they relate to school systems.  We will explore evidence driven arguments about the routes to change and transformation.


Education – A Contest of Ideologies

By Stephen Murgatroyd -

Public education is a disputed area of public policy. There are growing concerns, fuelled by evidence of the performance of students by jurisdiction on international standardized tests, that students are not performing as well as they could and that the design of our education system is not “fit for purpose” in the twenty first century.

At the heart of this policy debate is a tension between two forces: (a) a focus on market-based solutions where competition, performance targets, and teachers being compensated against outcome measures are seen as the only way to improve the performance of the system; and (b) a focus on equity, where investment is needed to enable all learners, whatever their background and social status, to have an equal chance of positive learning outcomes (not just opportunities). The first of these choices enables privatization or the use of social enterprise mechanisms and the second requires major investment of public resources to equalize outcomes for all learners. The policy debate is thus about ideology (neo-conservatism versus a more liberal/socialist ideology) and money.

England is pursuing the neo-conservative ideology with a vengeance. English schools are largely now in the hands of social enterprise organizations, many of whom hope to be “for profit” after an election, in 2015, if the Conservative Party secures an overall majority. Teachers in social enterprise schools do not need to be qualified as such and Head Teachers (Principals in the US and Canada) are free to organize their schools in any way that their board of management supports, provided they are seeking to achieve nationally agreed curriculum outcomes. Such schools replace schools which were largely publicly funded (Church schools and private schools being the exception) and managed by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). There is no compelling evidence to support the shift from public to social enterprise.

We will see how this debate unfolds. Many engaged in the policy debate are not optimistic about the outcome of these experiments. But time will tell as will evidence. So far, the evidence suggests that those jurisdictions, with a greater focus on equity, outperform those who seek to use market mechanisms – the evidence comes from OECD’s analysis of the available international standard test data. Not that evidence guides many policy makers. Equity is a tougher and more expensive route for governments to pursue, particularly since it means empowering and resourcing Head Teachers / Principals and their professional staff to make decisions “nearest to the learner” which are intended to benefit the learner and, by doing so, society. As we approach Education Week (May 5-9th, 2014) we should engage in understanding these two different approaches to the design of education systems. It matters, especially if we want to run a great school for all students, not just some.

An Action Plan for Canada’s North

By Stephen Murgatroyd -

Rethinking the Future…

At the heart of any strategy for the North must be a focus on a different kind of relationship between the Canadian South and the Aboriginal people of the north. This is not about rhetoric or law, it is about values, attitudes, and relationships.  Any strategy should be developed in partnership with the sovereign Aboriginal nations of the North and should reflect a commitment to sustaining the culture, concepts, language, and values of these nations. How decisions are made, how decisions are implemented, and how the benefits of those decisions are shared should reflect a 21st Century commitment by all Canadians not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Canada and its Aboriginal people should take the chance to show the world how Aboriginal people can be fully engaged as partners in decisions which vitally affect their future.

Having made a commitment to a meaningful partnership and relationship with the Aboriginal nations of the north, there are seven actions that need to be taken to secure the future of the Arctic North. Each requires new thinking and new resources, but all leverage strong committed people already living in the North and their values.

First, the Canadian Arctic needs a University which fully reflects the concerns of the north and its people. A University which will not simply try to be the Harvard of the True North, but a University of the people for the people. A University which blends traditional and contemporary learning methods; a University which recognizes and builds on the culture and traditions of the North; a University which is flexible in its programs, its methods of credit recognition, and in its teaching. A University that deals with the issues which affect the economic, social, and cultural life of the north and which seeks to earn its place in the hearts and minds of all northerners.

A University needs students and these should come from a strengthened school and college system. So as to enable the growth of the University, there will be a need to strengthen and expand the school system and focus that system not just as a “feed” to the University, but as a source of inspiration, skills, and encouragement for the young of the north. Schools make or break a society. In this case they have the chance of stimulating cultural growth and developing a momentum for a sustainable future.

Second, as the Government of Canada has recognized, the north needs a strong, focused economic development agency. This needs to focus not just on the exploitation of natural resources, but on strengthening traditional skills and industries, innovation in terms of polar transportation, energy ,and health care and the development of a skills strategy for the region. Part of this work needs to be to allocate funds for the Business Development Bank of Canada for exclusive use of northern people.

Third, the region needs a strong focus on energy self-sufficiency. Energy costs on the region are high and yet there are potential opportunities for the region to make use of emerging energy technologies – especially local nuclear power, geothermal energy, and hydrogen based transport. A plan for the region to be energy self-sufficient, by 2050, should be a major thrust of the new thinking.

Fourth, action on climate change needs to be taken by all nations with a strong emphasis on mitigating its most damaging impact on the arctic. 193 countries met in Copenhagen to discuss a successor treaty to the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change. There is a great deal of speculation that a fund will be needed to compensate India and China for slowing the growth of their emissions and supporting technology development for these countries – Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, has suggested that the fund should be $100 billion annually to 2050. No one is talking about the need to support climate change impact adjustments to the people of the Arctic. They should be.

Fifth, plans need to be developed now to look at how royalty revenues from the exploitation of the natural resources of the Arctic region can be both defined, collected, and distributed – Nunavut has 10% of Canada’s oil reserves and 20% of its natural gas reserves. Investors will need to know what the deal is and the people of the north, whose resources the investors will exploit, need to know what return they will receive for the use of their property. They should not look to Alberta for ideas, since the Government of Alberta has allowed the investors to define the rules of the game and the government itself has singularly failed to use the royalty revenues wisely. There is a chance to learn from Alberta’s mistake and create a sizeable sovereign fund aimed at supporting the social and cultural development of the north as well as its economic infrastructure.

Sixth, the people of the north should have access to the communication technologies that have become the lifeblood of modern society – broadband broadcast quality infrastructure that permits every person to be a producer of ideas, innovation, or insight and every person to be a learner, communicator, investor, educator, historian, film-maker, linguist.  Given that the North has high per capita GDP – the Northwest Territories has the highest per capital GDP of any territory or Province in Canada and the Yukon is not far behind – the people of the North are significant entrepreneurs and revenue earners who could leverage this technology for business, community, culture, and learning.

Finally, a relentless focus needs to be on the health of the people and creatures of the north. Extreme climates challenge health and animal welfare, especially when climatic conditions appear to be changing. Working to make the north the healthiest place on earth through prevention and quality care needs to be a priority. Seeking to preserve, sustain, and grow the wildlife populations of the region is important too – not just for traditional hunting, but for the well-being of the eco-system.

The Government of Canada has focused much of its northern efforts on strengthening the effectiveness of its military presence at its base in Alert on Ellsmere Island and investing in new equipment to monitor the use of the seaways. It has also invested in joint research efforts on climate change. Canada is also working with other countries to map the ocean floor, by 2013, so that title to the resource-rich seas of the Arctic can be divided up and governed peacefully. In many senses, this is catch up work – work to better position Canada when the battle for access to natural resources, especially oil, heats up. While the Government of Canada speaks of this as a Northern Strategy, it is limited in scope and focused on a few tangibles. What is needed is a comprehensive, imaginative approach to the north which is founded on a spirit of partnership with the people of the North.

Blended Learning and the Future of Colleges and Universities

By Janet Tully -

The most substantial leverage of technology in support of learning at Ontario’s colleges and universities is for “blended learning”, this is where some aspects of a course are accessible through online study and others through classroom activities.

Blended learning is not new – in one way or another, instructors have been using experiences, video, audio and other media in classrooms for a very long time – what is new is the extent to which this is now being practiced.  Blended learning is the fastest area of growth for online learning in Ontario.

More specifically, there are some courses which are making use of what is known as the “flipped classroom”. This describes the process by which instruction and the exploration of content takes place online and the classroom is used for project work, discussion and dialogue and other activities which bring the online content to life.  Such courses require less classroom time than would occur in a more conventional class. The “flipped classroom” is an advanced version of blended learning and is used less frequently than more conventional versions of blended learning.

Why Blended Learning is Attractive to Colleges and Universities

Blended learning is attractive to colleges and universities for five basic reasons:

  1. It is relatively inexpensive. All institutions have access to learning management systems (LMS) which can deliver the online content and there is an abundance of audio, video and other materials available online which students can access.
  2. It requires no substantive changes to faculty roles and responsibilities. Faculty have been using web-based resources and materials for a considerable time. Blended learning provides a framework for them to do so.
  3. In some cases, courses use less classroom time since students have access to their learning online, which could lead to increased capacity – more students could be using the same physical space.
  4. It creates flexibility for students – they can study substantial components of their course anywhere, anytime.
  5. If designed well, blended learning can provide a higher level of student engagement. Classroom actiivties are more active, less passive. Students are engaged in projects, teamwork, active discussion rather than listening passively to a lecture.

What is also occurring, albeit by stealth, is enabling faculty to experiment and engage with online learning at their own pace and in their own way: they are each discovering the range of their digital repertoire.

The growth of blended learning is a universal phenomenon. It is taken hold precisely because there is no formulae or prescription: faculty need to adapt the available learning resources freely available online, create their own materials, design powerful in-class learning experience and think-through the learning outcomes they are looking to secure all from a learners perspective. They can share ideas within a discipline or across disciplines and they “own” this work.

From a learners perspective, they can study more of their course at their own pace, engage with instructors in a different way and, assuming classroom experiences are designed to leverage knowledge not just to reinforce, they engage with their peers in new ways.

Technologically, blended learning leverages investments already made in learning management systems, accesses free-to-use materials online, can use any other online resource (simulation, game, online laboratory, statistical solution centres etc) at little or no cost. As new technological developments occur, they can be quickly added to the blend to make the learning more focused, more engaging – a stronger blend of learning.

Challenges in Making Blended Learning Work

There are practical challenges. Looking at the rapidly growing literature, here are the five most common challenges in ensuring positive learning outcomes from blended learning:

  1. Students are unprepared for a shift in the focus of classroom based work and for their own responsibility for their learning.
  2. Instructors overload students with content rather than use principles of instructional design to rethink what and how students learn.
  3. Much of the online learning components are passive and content rich rather than engaging and challenging. A characteristic of student engagement is that they are active and challenged by their learning.
  4. Instructors are sometimes reluctant to change their classroom behaviour significantly, even though blended learning requires this.
  5. Not all learners are as adept with technology and some struggle with its use – hence the need for quality help-desk support.

Too often, faculty are left to their own devices to create effective and mindful blended learning experiences for students. They need the support of instructional designers, librarians and “expert” students to help them design memorable, effective and focused blended learning.

The Strategic Limitations of Blended Learning

The rate of adoption of blended learning permits colleges and universities to demonstrate that they are making good use of their technology investments. It also permits them to avoid dealing with some key strategic issues.

First, blended learning as currently practiced does not significantly increase access to post-secondary education. By and large, given that the extent of classroom time is not unduly affected, only modest gains in access are possible within the current financial constraints and contractual limitations within which colleges and universities operate.

This first observation relates to a second. By focusing on enhancing classroom teaching with technology there is a systematic avoidance of the opportunity to achieve significant gains in access and scale.  Class size is still limited by the ability of a single instructor to teach. A single master online learning course can have several sections, each taught by a part-time instructor enabling hundreds of students to access learning rather than just one.

A third observation is also pertinent here. The time-frame for a blended learning course is usually a semester. What is being avoided is any rethink of the length of a course (shorter courses taking two to three weeks which carry credit for example) or the speed at which students can complete. By avoiding opportunities to rethink time and scale, colleges and university “play safe” while looking to be contemporary in their use of technology enhanced learning.

These first three points lead to a fourth – colleges and universities are missing opportunities to reach new markets for their offerings. Online learning, particularly short courses carrying credit, reach new audiences – learners with limited time to learn, workers in work camps related to oil and gas exploration, overseas learners hoping to come to Canada for employment and so on. Blended learning requires campus attendance. Online learning does not.

Fourth, blended learning adds costs to the operation of a college or university. More time is spent by non-academic staff (technology staff, intellectual property managers) securing appropriate access to online materials, supporting blended learners and paying the license and related costs of LMS systems and other technology.

Finally, there is the issue of avoidance. Many who write about innovation see the current growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), the $700m invested by the private sector in online learning in 2012 and the growth of new online institutions in California and Florida since the beginning of 2013 as signalling a tipping point for post-secondary education. Sir Michael Barber has suggested that “an avalanche” of change is coming to credit granting, teaching and learning in colleges and universities. In particular, he suggests, the new demographics of who learners are and what they are looking for demands a fundamental change of pedagogy.

Whatever else blended learning is, it is not a fundamental change of pedagogy or of credit granting.  Indeed, blended learning has been the habit of instructors for many years – using film, radio, case studies, games, simulation, role-play, project-work, television, online materials has been common practice since each of these “technologies” became widely available. It is precisely because blended learning represents no significant change to pedagogy or the way credit is awarded or funding flows that colleges and universities find it attractive.


For Canada to develop a world-class reputation for innovation in post-secondary education it needs to recognize blended learning for what it is “a happy compromise” between opportunity and pragmatics.

Until Government changes its funding formula and moves away from time based funding and to funding broad outcomes little will change; until colleges and universities decide that the challenge is to develop a new and different form of pedagogy and new approaches to credit granting, little will change; until students demand new flexibility and a stronger level of engagement; until faculty recognize that online learning and getting to scale is a critical part of their future, little will change. Blended learning is an easy resting point on a journey to change.

The real opportunity is to rethink post-secondary education in terms of: (a) how do we want students to learn (pedagogy); (b) how can we massively increase access to learning across the life-span; (c) how do we recognize learning for credit; and (d) how do we award qualifications. Doing what we have always done, adding technology, may not be enough to truly respond to the challenges implied by these questions.

The Problem With Austerity

By Stephen Murgatroyd -


Austerity aims to use harsh measures – tax increases, mass unemployment, reduction in public services, cuts to support for the poor and needy – so as to bring “balance” to the relationship between Government spending and government revenue. It is generally pursued due to the understanding by some that the debt : GDP ratio and level of annual deficit for Government is too high. Such “austerians” are committed to balanced or near balanced budgets and to the idea of small governments and the efficiency of markets.

Austerians tend also to be committed to what is known as “trickle down” economics – lowering taxes on the rich and corporations, since doing so enables them to invest in an economy and stimulate growth. They also believe in using austerity to trigger “confidence” amongst investors in the economy and its firms. They suggest that high levels of public debt reduce confidence, austerity increases confidence.

The Problem with Austerity

Austerity tends to increase unemployment and, by doing so, lower tax revenues for government. High unemployment and a government unable to meet budget targets because of lower than expected revenues leads to a lowering of investment, protests by citizens and a lowering of market expectations and confidence.

This in turn leads to a lowering of spending on goods and services, which further reduces economic activity, tax revenues and growth. Governments generally miss targets, as can be seen in the case of the UK, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland and Portugal. This sometimes leads rating agencies to lower their ratings of Government bonds, which further adds to economic pressure and increases the need for austerity in the eyes of austerians.

At the present time, only Canada and Germany has maintained the highest possible rating by all of the bond rating agencies.

The second problem with austerity is that it leads to massive unemployment. This is both a moral issue – how can government take actions which knowingly increase inequality, poverty and misery? – and an economic one. The higher the level of unemployment the lower the demand for goods and services. This is a vicious cycle, triggered by austerity. In Europe at this time, there are some 20 million unemployed and many young people aged between 18 and 24 have no realistic prospect of employment and have been unemployed for two years or more.

The third problem is the unintended consequences of austerity measures. For example, major cuts in capital expenditure on roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and infrastructure leads to major infrastructure deficits, overcrowding in schools and hospitals and lower educational performance and health outcomes, lowering the attractiveness of the social infrastructure. In the US at this time, a large number of bridges are so fragile that they may soon be declared unsafe.

Another example is that of wage freezes. When Britain imposed wage freezes on all workers during the Callaghan era, employers used “perks” (cars, vacation time, benefits packages and pension deals) to attract and retain workers. When the wage freeze ended some time later, these “perks” were embedded and workers now sought to “catch up” wages “lost” during the freeze. This led to inflation and the lack of competitiveness of many sectors of the UK economy. A temporary austerity fix led to long term challenges for employers and industry.

A related problem is that there is no compelling evidence that trickle down economics works. Lowering taxes on the rich so as to encourage investment simply means that they are richer and they will find more places to stash their cash which they don’t have to invest.

The final problem with austerity is that it doesn’t work. Greece is no nearer to being a stable, vibrant economy than it was before the EU bail-out and austerity measures. Neither is Spain or Portugal. The UK is probably the leading example of austerity as a failed strategy.

An Alternative to Austerity

The Keynsian approach to the recessionary forces at play at this time is not to cut public spending, but to increase it in focused ways so as to stimulate demand. Focused public spending on infrastructure and needed long term investments – education, for example, but also science, technology and innovation – leads to a growth in economic activity, employment and demand for goods and services. This in turn creates employment which increases tax revenues, in corporate taxes, in sales taxes and income taxes. If non future focused spending patterns are adjusted and lowered  – holding the growth of  spending on health, for example – occur at the same time, then balance can be restored.

There is also no such thing as the “confidence fairy”, as the Nobel prize winning economists Paul Krugman likes to point out. Markets do what markets do and their behaviour is rarely a rational response to public policy, evidence or the strategic intentions of firms or governments. Psychologists can better explain herd behaviour.


One interesting aspect of being an austerian is that evidence that austerity is not working makes no difference to the view that it is the only option. Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winning economists and journalist, frequently observes that very serious people who support austerity are so convinced that they are right (after all, they are very serious people), that no amount of evidence that their claims are wrong or that there is a paucity of data to support their view will change their mind.

Daniel Kahneman, in his prize winning book Think Fast and Slow , suggests that this is a psychological problem. He says

..overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”

He also observes:

“Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them”.

So austerity is not working in Europe and yet “it is the only policy choice on the table”.  Such group think is getting in the way of sensible economic action.


Stephen Murgatroyd, Chief Scout

A Radical Agenda for the Future of Post Secondary Education in Canada

By Janet Tully -
Universities and colleges in Canada are facing three major challenges. First, the funding model on which they have operated for a considerable time is broken. They have depended on Provincial governments to fund base operating and capital and, even though capital projects continue, base funding for operational activity is declining in real terms.
Second, the demographics of the student body is changing. The strong political perception is that colleges and universities are predominantly “fed” by high school leavers. This is only partly the case. The majority of students in our post-secondary institutions are mature, part-time and in work. This means that they are seeking greater flexibility in their programming, are more demanding as “customers”, since they are paying a growing portion of the costs of their education, and they expect quality. They also expect transferability of courses, as they need to be increasingly mobile so as to sustain their earning capacity.
Third, technology is changing the nature of the learning process and the opportunities to learn. In Ontario, some 18,000 courses and 1,000 complete programs are available for post-secondary students fully online from Ontario institutions.  In a typical year, over 500,000 course registrations in these courses (app. 55,500 full time student equivalents) register in these courses. These numbers are growing. In the US demand for conventional, classroom based education is averaging between 1.5 and 2% each year; demand for online learning is growing at 12% on average. More critically, it is now the case that student satisfaction with online learning is the same or exceeds that for classroom based learning.  The arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), which some are able now to parlay for credit, is also seen as an example of technology changing the game.
But what to do?
What colleges and universities are doing, by and large, is trying to keep one foot in the past (the foot is anchored by funding models, faculty agreements and attitudes) and one toe in the future. They are pursuing blended learning – encouraging and enabling faculty to make more use of technology enhanced learning as part of their teaching activities. All well and good. But this is not likely to be an effective response to the three conditions that are changing.
Here is a really radical agenda for change. These ten items have all been in discussion in my circle of friends and colleagues during the last year (and some items for considerably longer). It is time for radicalism, before the system implodes under the weight of its taken for granted assumptions:
1. Abolish admission requirements and focus instead on outcomes and quality assessment of learning. This will create a more open, equitable system. The Open University (UK) and Athabasca University (Canada) have open admission,  why not all?
2. Abolish residency requirements (the requirement that a certain number of courses must be taken in the institution which offers a credential). These have been introduced in the name of “quality assurance” but are in fact attempts to secure guaranteed base of revenue from every student.
3. Massively expand prior learning assessment and work based learning agreements, so that knowledge, understanding and skills are recognized no matter where the learner acquired them.
4. Make the first two years of college or university free to residents of the Province in which they are offered – students pay a significant portion of the costs thereafter. College and university education is largely free in Finland, why not here.
5. Rather that the institution determining what and when students should learn,move to an “on demand” system for learning – students can register in any course from any institution at anytime. If the Kentucky College system can do this, why cant others?
6. Abolish tenure for university faculty and move instead to performance based contracts. Margaret Thatcher did this in the UK  many years ago, why not here?
7. Massively expand guidance and learning pathway advising – help learners find the route to fulfill their passion and secure the learning they need.
8. Fund universities and colleges on the basis of agreed outcomes rather than by the Carnegie unit (a measure of how many students are registered in courses over a particular time). A college or university would receive a block grant for achieving certain social and educational expectations.
9. Treat online courses as equal to in class courses for credit, funding and staffing.
10. Use tax incentives to encourage firms to invest in training and learning and individuals to learn. Canada has a deplorable record of investment in training. If we are to compete, we need to change this fast.
I don’t expect these to be implemented in any jurisdiction – the vested interests in the status quo are so great that they inhibit system innovation – but I do expect these ten items to trigger a conversation about what education and learning is critical for Canada’s future and how we need to change what we do to enable that future.