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Canada needs an online education strategy

I've been asked several times in the past few months, why I started the Wide World Ed initiative. I started it because I have deeply held personal values about global education, and a strong passion for empowered, collaborative research. I have observed, with great interest, the formation and evolution of edX, Coursera and Udacity in the U.S., as well as Australia's Open2Study, and the UK's FutureLearn. I have come to believe that Canada needs its own space.

Here's why. Our education systems are different from those in the rest of the world, and differences between our education systems matter. In Canada, we have unique languages, social values, and past and present cultural stories to tell. I believe that our educational expertise and cultural identities should be celebrated and shared on our own terms, within our control.

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Consider Open2Study in Australia and FutureLearn in the U.K. Australia and the U.K. both have strong social mandates for public postsecondary education. Both consortiums were established as not-for-profits, extensions of their Open Universities, with funding and significant promotional support from their governments, both feature their own national institutions prominently, and both are highly regarded internationally for their foresight upholding the value of open education.

Why are Canadian policy-makers and education funders so challenged to step up and establish an initiative in alignment with what I just described? Do we believe that FutureLearn and Open2Study are wrong about their national need for greater access to open, online education? They have intentionally chosen to conduct their own research and establish their own space, rather than participating with U.S.-based Coursera, edX, or Udacity. We should explore with them their reasons and consider our own situation.

Our internationally recognized and expert Open University, Athabasca, has hesitated, for a variety of real and intimidating reasons, to take on national open, online education for Canada. I would love to see a collective national effort to make it easier for them to be our natural leader. We need their expertise.

In a continuing division of labour, and a silo-based approach, each province and territory in Canada seems to be working on its own open, and tuition-based online solutions, with a strong perception of competitiveness. This makes no sense, and may be costing us millions in redundant effort.

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In the U.K., FutureLearn did not arise as an extension of Oxford or Cambridge – neither Scotland, nor Wales determined they should each start their own consortiums. FutureLearn arose as an extension of the Open University based on clear evidence that open education enhanced student interest and success in postsecondary formal study. FutureLearn's national partners, including their national government to an extraordinary level, trust the Open University's expertise and are willing to invest in it. What about it Canada? Do we trust our Open University? Are we willing to invest?

While we do not yet know the full value of developing open, online education, benefits may include: increased access to skills and learning; and opportunities to build exceptionally high quality open education resources that benefit our K-12 programs, support our adult literacy initiatives, and increase our collective skills in numeracy and personal finance. Open, online education may improve our employment and training resources, and build our capacity to be more successful in postsecondary formal education and lifelong learning. It may expand our capacity for national innovation.

I look forward to continuing explorations and the hard, but rewarding work in all of this. Success will likely come faster if we combine our talents.

Jenni Hayman is executive director and founder of Wide World Ed, an online education initiative to promote online learning across the country.

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