Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Professor and Associate Vice-President
Learning Resources & Innovation
University of Waterloo
Scholarships and Fellowships Division
Jacquelyn Thayer Scott
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
|CIHR||Karl H. Tibelius
Research Capacity Development
Program Policy Officer
(writing and editorial support)
This report completes the first stage of an inquiry being conducted by a Task Force composed of senior researchers, administrators, and other specialists knowledgeable about emerging trends in online approaches to graduate study and research training. The initial inquiry focus was defined by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, around the opportunities and challenges presented by “virtual” graduate programs – programs using information and communications technologies to mediate interactions amongst students and research scholars (and thus to potentially replace some, or all, of traditional campus-based interactions).
The Discussion Paper presents an analysis of issues and a set of recommendations, in the initial focus area of online research training and in related issues for online research communities and our understanding and application of online approaches for research and research training. In the next stage of the inquiry, the intent of the Task Force is to circulate the Discussion Paper among Canadian researchers, post-secondary institutions, and other stakeholders for comment and reaction. As a final step, the Canadian research granting agencies will be asked to consider the implications for their policies and programs.
The Task Force findings, reasoning, and recommendations are given in this report. The Task Force concluded that the emergence of new forms of graduate study was one aspect of a larger trend to distributed online research communities. As a consequence, our recommendations bear on all three areas in the mandate of the granting agencies: (1) supporting Canadian research communities, (2) research training to recruit and prepare the next generation of scholars and researchers, and (3) research-based innovation, specifically to ensure that Canada takes full advantage of the new opportunities for learning.The recommendations are listed in Appendix A. The following is an overview of the contents.
The new forms of electronic communication are encouraging research projects to become much more collaborative, as scholars in separate locations share not only the research findings but even the research process itself – the data and analytical steps – often in real time. The result is that the research community for a project expands beyond the walls of a single institution to encompass an online network of researchers located anywhere, even travelling. A project can therefore draw upon physically distant expertise; and an expert can take part in a physically distant project. Project participation is facilitated as electronic presence supplements physical presence.Research communities are therefore increasingly geographically distributed and more mobile in composition and duration.
The Task Force notes that Canada has a competitive need and a national strategy to greatly expand its research potential, a deep pool of underutilized research resources, and an exceptional penetration of broadband Internet access. These needs and advantages can be put together through distributed online research methods and groups. The Task Force therefore calls for a national program of support for distributed online research collaboration , suggesting several promising initiatives, and touching on various issues such as security and privacy.
Research is inseparable from the training of researchers. Research sites are also training sites for graduate students and others acquiring proficiency in the disciplines involved. As research gets distributed online, so does research training. It is in promoting this growth of online research training, the Task Force concluded, that the granting agencies could make their greatest contribution both to scholarship and to national objectives.
On one hand, the national Innovation Strategy requires Canada to double the number of researchers in its labour force over the next decade – the very period when universities expect a wave of retirements of senior researchers. On the other hand, Canada has a broad population of university graduates already in the workforce who are able and eager to improve their research skills, provided they do not have to attend classes full-time. The new availability of online research training is key to matching the supply with the demand. Online technologies will enable learners to upgrade their skills in a fully flexible variety of ways while these learners support new research projects in a form of on-the-job training. Compensating for the part-time nature of their research training will be a set of advantages that come from greater experience, and often from doing daily work directly in their research fields.
The Task Force emphasizes (with illustrations) both the variety of these new research recruits and their diverse needs. Prominent among the latter are access to well-developed forms of online interaction with colleagues and instructors to compensate for their otherwise solitary situation and access to improved online learning resources of many types. The Task Force also discusses various kinds of support and resources that would help research faculty improve the training experience they offer. An array of recommendations details initiatives and strategies by which the granting agencies can accelerate the development of online research training and radically extend the active population of Canadian researchers.
The field of online learning itself constitutes an emerging and crucial area for Canadian innovation and leadership. The leading edge is the development of new online methods within each discipline, conducted by scholars in that discipline to make their instruction more effective. Whereas international innovation in online learning has focused on education and undergraduate training, Canada has the opportunity to provide innovation leadership in online graduate instruction – research training. Such a strategic focus would coincide with other priorities discussed in this report and utilize particular Canadian advantages: existing initiatives, a convergence of interest among agencies and potential partners, and the long-term perspectives of the research granting agencies. The Task Force emphasizes the importance of sharing best practices, calls for a special program to promote discipline-based online learning, and recommends a three-year demonstration project.
This opportunity comes at an excellent moment for Canada. It enables research collaboration to begin to conquer geographic limitations. It provides the key to a radical expansion in the national research effort. And it opens doors for Canadian leadership in innovation for online learning. This report shows how the granting agencies can be catalysts for these changes.
The three Canadian granting agencies sponsoring this report must remain responsive to broad technological and cultural changes that may affect their constituencies and policies. These agencies provide grants in support of research and scholarship in three areas:
The granting agencies have become aware that all three of these areas are increasingly influenced by an important change in landscape. The recent rapid evolution of electronic communications technologies is beginning to shift certain existing balances and is creating emerging opportunities that link up excitingly with national priorities.
One such link occurs between:
Another possible link can be seen between:
These potential opportunities, and others associated with them, are clearly important new factors for federal granting agencies to take into account in their policies and programs.
The Task Force was therefore asked to survey these opportunities and the challenges involved in realizing them, to assess the implications for agency granting programs and policies, and to recommend actions for consideration by the granting agencies.
This report examines the three support areas in turn. Distributed online research communities focuses on the implications of new methods of electronically mediated research. Online research training analyses how the Internet could be used to expand the national research effort. Online learning looks at a field in which crucial research and research-based innovations and opportunities are emerging.
The federal government has recently declared as a goal that by 2010 Canada will move from 15th place to 5th place among the world’s nations in the rate of innovation. Since our national competitors will themselves be working hard to improve in the same way, this will be no small challenge.
Quite simply, it will be vital to realize the full research potential within Canadian society. Much of this research potential resides in post-secondary institutions and government agencies. A great deal more resides in other public sector institutions, corporations, institutes, and consulting companies, and among research professionals in all parts of the private sector. These areas of research potential are already in use; the challenge will be to enhance their capabilities. In this section we outline how online distributed research communities will play an indispensable part in this effort, by enabling the creation of more vibrant, better supported research environments engaging more Canadians.
Further potential research resources lie in educated Canadians currently not engaged in research or research training, who will be eager to develop and use their research skills to upgrade their qualifications, find more interesting work, or become trained as scientists and researchers. Once again, distributed research networks will be indispensable in allowing them to undertake advanced training, a topic covered in the next section of this report.
This proposed strategy takes advantage of the fact that Canada now enjoys an international lead in Internet adoption, particularly in access to the high-speed broadband networks that are especially useful for data communication. Canadians therefore have a head start in creating the kind of research communities that could involve and unite researchers from all types of institutions and locations. Because of the new contacts they make possible, such distributed online research networks would create an exceptional and exciting environment for Canadian research. A world-class, network-based, national research environment could invigorate distributed research teams and offer new opportunities in smaller communities, as well as help Canada retain and attract new faculty and researchers.
The face of research in Canada is changing. Improvements in electronic communications technologies are creating new forms of “distributed research communities,” that is, computer-mediated collaborations between data collectors and analysts in separate physical locations. These changes have been under way for many years. Every discipline now uses computers and the Internet for sharing and processing information. On large projects with research teams, data analysis is subdivided among specialists from different disciplines, and the results are reviewed in shared electronic work spaces. Even in more traditional settings, findings and reports are normally now shared and discussed by researchers communicating by email. The development of a communications infrastructure of hardware, software, and electronic links has been progressively permeating Canadian research and reducing barriers across the disciplines. Using this infrastructure, scholarly collaboration increasingly takes advantage of web-based communications and information technologies, including real-time, or “synchronous,” online interactions.
For example, the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study (CASES) currently supported by NSERC is a massive network of researchers and students who will be simultaneously active on a ship in the remote Beaufort Sea, in laboratories at many universities, and in private facilities. The procedures and analyses undertaken will be open to a number of partners for direct discussion and as a training tool. International scientists involved will contribute their own funding, and student researchers, although registered at one university, will receive supervision and instruction at a number of locations. Electronic access both in real time and through training modules will be available in networks of traditional universities, such as those that compose the new University of the Arctic, and in virtual universities such as the Barents Virtual University. There may even be synchronous web links with high schools.
As another example, the tri-national OPTIMA clinical trial (Options with Management of Anti-retroviral) is a CIHR-funded interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research project evaluating treatment strategies for HIV-infected patients whose anti-retroviral therapy has failed. As is increasingly the case with CIHR projects, it relies on researchers and their trainees at many different locations who must be in constant communication and for whom electronic links have become of critical importance. With funding from an agreement involving CIHR, the U.S. Veterans’ Administration, and the Medical Research Council of the United Kingdom, the OPTIMA trial has begun recruitment of both subjects and researchers in the three countries. The Canadian HIV Trials Network is coordinating the Canadian component of the OPTIMA trial, which has 22 participating hospitals. Also taking part are approximately 22 U.K. hospitals and 26 U.S. veterans’ hospitals.
Many distributed research groups are also integrating information and communications technologies to enhance their research transfer and knowledge mobilization activities. For example, the Resource Centre for Evidence-based Policy and Practice is funded by the U.K.'s Economic and Social Research Council to foster the exchange of research-based evidence between policy researchers and practitioners. Appendix C outlines a new Canadian initiative for an online research institute to study supply chain collaboration. Academic researchers from around the world will collaborate online with each other and their partners from the business community. The Internet technology will allow researchers to build a repository of research resources and will serve as an area for the presentation of research results.
The emergence of distributed research teams using online interactions and resources has several potential benefits in the “15th to 5th” research agenda. First, physical proximity has become less important among researchers and scholars. Internet linkages allow them to review one another’s analyses and findings as easily across the country or the world as down the hall. Indeed, an email may be sent across the world and down the hall simultaneously, reaching one team member as quickly as the other. Responses and contributions may be gathered and assembled so that source locations are indistinguishable. When travelling team members remain in touch through the Internet, physical locations may not even be known.
Second, costs and delays of collecting and transmitting data are radically reduced. For example, a modern polar scientist may have a stream of data transmitted from an instrument on a remote glacier via satellite to his or her office computer. This kind of capability makes possible types of research that simply could not have been conducted previously. The nearly instantaneous communication speed opens electronic access and accelerates low-cost data distribution. Often distance ceases to impose a penalty.
This dramatic reduction in traditional communication barriers broadens the basis of research by allowing the spontaneous formation of research teams less reliant on physical proximity. When research team members no longer have to work side by side, the benefits of collaboration are available anywhere. Moreover, team composition can change easily from project to project. This enables researchers not located at a large institutional research centre to take part in, and even create, large projects that previously would have been out of reach. It also enables individual scientists and scholars to enjoy the often significant local advantages of smaller universities without losing access to and status in the most advanced research enterprises in their field.
These trends are particularly important for Canada, given our need to fully engage the human resources in all our universities, colleges, communities, and regions. It is in regional, national, and international networks of researchers and research organizations that leading research is increasingly done. By participating in these networks, smaller institutions and researchers in local communities, no less than larger Canadian universities and centrally located researchers, will be able to conduct globally competitive research.
Canadians have proven to be good at this kind of thing. We are leaders in the Networks of Centres of Excellence concept, in which productive linkages are created among local research projects, and the collaborative research initiatives in SSHRC's Initiative on the New Economy and CIHR's networks are encouraging further research collaborations. The concept of distributed research communities online can be seen as a natural next step to the networking of the actual research work being done.
The development of distributed research in Canada so far has occurred under agency granting policies that have been passive or neutral in relation to online approaches. The research granting agencies have participated as funders in the development of new technologies as they have come to be introduced by researchers. But they have neither encouraged nor discouraged the use of new electronic technologies in their policies. We believe that explicit federal intervention and support are required for an appropriate expansion of the distributed research environment across Canada.
We therefore recommend that the granting agencies:
Such a statement should be accompanied by specific proposals. For examples of explicit support for online distributed research infrastructures and communities, Canadians can look to parallel initiatives abroad. The very diversity of approaches and models available is an advantage. At this early stage it would be unwise to outline a “perfect” model or even to try to define “best practices.” Instead, the national program should publicize the importance of and gather information and evidence on the various approaches to the creation of online distributed research communities.
At the same time, it may be desirable to focus this program in an organization, such as a national Distributed Research Community Institute, which would represent the research granting agencies and the universities, would identify and promote new ideas and practices, and would itself be able to fund research.
Potential partners in this national program include CANARIE Inc. (Canada’s advanced Internet development organization) and CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation). They are already in a position to encourage distributed online research communities through specific project criteria. Their funding arrangements could be adjusted to foster pan-Canadian access to research collaborations (a different matter from simply requiring wide geographic participation in research proposals). Other government agencies could be encouraged to endorse this thrust to distributed online research communities, both in their own operations and in partnerships with post-secondary researchers.
From our own review, therefore, we recommend that the research granting agencies:
We believe that such a package of announcements and initiatives would raise awareness of distributed online research and its potential, indicate a serious new goal for grant applicants to incorporate into their plans and proposals, and in itself accomplish tangible results in the field by helping create research clusters.
We considered whether funding bodies should require some degree of adoption of distributed online research in the proposals they support. We conclude that until the importance of distributed online research communities and collaboration technologies is more fully accepted by Canadian researchers it would be premature to impose such requirements as part of existing programs. Nevertheless, we hope that the growing importance of research communities, shown both in this report and by an increased interest on the part of the granting agencies, will encourage project proposals and funding applications to incorporate a continually increasing role for wider research participation.
Security and privacy
Another issue raised by the growth of distributed online research consists of a set of concerns involving confidentiality of commercially sensitive information, network security from espionage and vandalism, and international restrictions on dissemination of strategic information. After some consideration, we believe we can only acknowledge the existence and importance of such concerns. These issues will not always be easily resolved, and there may well be a possible future role for government and the research granting agencies in addressing them. At present, however, it is too early to discern clearly either a need or a solution, so we can make no recommendation at this time.
A final issue involves government itself. In future steps, the granting agencies, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the federal government should promote the development of electronic links between all public sector institutes and agencies to facilitate the advancement of distributed online research environments. This would include formal collaboration between the funding agencies and the government to provide all institutions with equivalent technology, development of national archiving and meta-data policies, expansion of the accessibility of online information (including journals), and greater national support for the indirect costs of research (universities, colleges, institutes, laboratories, and communities). The Government On-Line initiative is a promising example in this area, and initial consultations around research archives have already begun. 1
Because research sites are normally also training sites for graduate students and others acquiring proficiency in the disciplines involved, the emergence of distributed online research collaboration has inevitably entailed a corresponding emergence of distributed research training. And in fact the rise of “virtual universities” and electronic distance learning programs has been just as visible in recent years as the rise of distributed research communities. We quickly determined that, even more than in distributed research itself, granting agency strategies may have most to offer in online research training, where electronic collaboration has vast potential benefits for Canadian universities and innovation.
The new electronic infrastructure that is opening doors for researchers is doing the same for students. If faculty can participate in research projects over the Internet, so can their graduate students. If researchers can do research in their offices, students can learn at home. The electronic networks being built not only link large research centres but also can extend to students in all universities and graduate schools, and researchers in industry and communities. These changes bring a range of opportunities, which are accompanied by some challenges and issues that the research granting agencies should address.
To achieve Canada’s innovation goal, Canada will have to double the number of researchers in its labour force in the next decade. How can that be done, and so quickly?
It will mean recruiting a much larger population of researchers, which in the beginning will mean a strong expansion of graduate research training. We have identified a vast underutilized national resource of candidates for this training in the great variety of graduates and professionals across the working population who are eager to upgrade their qualifications, to change careers, to follow new interests, and in general to pursue goals associated with further research training.
The brief biographies inserted in boxes throughout this section (based on actual Canadian students and faculty researchers individually and as composites) indicate how varied and widespread these interests are and show why we see these people as indispensable to Canada’s innovation goals.
Universities face a significant challenge to replace the substantial proportion of senior faculty who will retire in the next decade. Shortages of researchers will occur not only in universities but also in community colleges, the school system, government, and business – all of which face this demographic retirement wave. The problem is shared with other nations around the world, many of which will offer favourable employment terms to Canadian graduates.
The new online distributed research and teaching infrastructure reveals alternatives. As electronic access and participation open up, a junior researcher in a small department or team will be able to collaborate more fully with researchers in other centres. Physically distant senior researchers can be made electronically available to smaller centres whose researchers participate in the same project. Smaller communities can aspire to develop excellence in appropriate sectors and niches as part of larger distributed research networks while drawing on selected distant support. Universities and colleges can look for potential new researchers beyond traditional students to highly educated and skilled members of the community who for many practical reasons until now would not have considered graduate research and teaching.
In this broader sense, distributed online research methods make it possible for regional centres to tap more of the nation’s intellectual resources for the kind of knowledge work and innovative activity needed to support prosperity and advance social well-being. Universities and colleges will find that the new collaboration technologies expand their presence in their regions to include a new research-facilitating role. This new outward-looking partnership focus will be the main adjustment universities (especially) will have to make. The research communities they will foster and host will pay little attention to their boundaries. The graduate training they offer will be received in part by people who are not their students, and who will move on to positions in other institutions, sectors, or industries. And yet these very networks will also support their own researchers and provide recruits for their own faculties.
There is another way to look at how the growth of distributed online research and online research training is affecting Canadian post-secondary institutions. It is changing the market for graduate training. Increasingly, Canadians will be able to become online students at graduate schools in other countries; students in other countries will be able to become online students at Canadian graduate schools; and research training will become generally available internationally. The cyber market is a global market. If Canadian graduate schools want to retain or expand their student base, and if a larger proportion of the global student base is online, then it is in the competitive interest of Canadian institutions to create especially attractive and effective online research environments.
David, a 40-year-old information technology consultant with a software company based in downtown Toronto, has decided to do a doctorate and eventually move to the academic world. However, the PhD programs offered in local universities all require regular full-time university attendance. With his financial commitments and young family, David cannot do that. He needs to keep working while he earns his degree.
His work life is unpredictable. Often he needs to work long hours at short notice to solve a client’s problems, and sometimes he has to travel to support projects in other cities – more so recently as his company tries to spread its specialized resources more widely. With his already hectic work life, he treasures all the time that he can get with his wife and two school-age children.
David chose a new PhD program with significant online components. It allows him to work at the times of day that suit him – and yet, being collaboratively based, ensures a high level of interaction with his fellow research students and easier access to the academic faculty. Though he has to put in about 20 hours a week, he has a lot of flexibility about when to do this.
He is also able to remain close to the subject of his research – IT implementation within the business world. He has access to live research sites and values the mix of applied and theoretical knowledge he gets from combining the business and academic worlds.
The Task Force was asked to consider whether the granting agencies should provide new support mechanisms for graduate training in “virtual universities,” that is, universities whose programs are all delivered online. We conclude that the granting agencies should not focus on virtual organizations as such. The wide range of Canadian universities with a mix of high-quality traditional and online programs will continue to be the primary source of new programs with online elements. The granting agencies should therefore concentrate on encouraging new electronic methods in all post-secondary institutions with access to appropriate research infrastructures. By promoting distributed participation in research communities wherever possible, the granting agencies will help generate new online programs, or new online components in more traditional programs, at every institution. This will also keep all organizations on an equal footing, because proposals for virtual programs would be similarly encouraged whether they came from traditional or virtual organizations.
The Task Force was also asked to consider whether special arrangements should be made for the assessment and accreditation of virtual programs. Again, we conclude that they should not. The assessment and accreditation of programs should remain the responsibility of existing provincial and territorial approval bodies. Students registered in any provincially or territorially approved graduate-level program should continue to be eligible to apply and be considered for grant support.
We thus recommend that the granting agencies:
For 10 years, Lola has been with an engineering firm in western Saskatchewan, where she lives with her two young children on the large farm her husband operates. At nearby University College of Western Saskatchewan, where she teaches some courses, the Dean and VP Academic both say they would hire her if she got a PhD and pursued her research interest in new crops for the regional agricultural industry. This will be possible only if it can be done from home. She would like to directly enter a high-quality PhD program, be able to complete any required coursework online, and tailor her research to her future field. Valuing Lola’s skills and character, her Dean will help her meet the associated costs, provided she selects an appropriate program, completes her degree within a specified time period, and agrees to repay the contribution with interest if she decides to move to industry or another university.
Finding an institution and a virtual graduate program to meet her needs will be a tough challenge for Lola and the College. They will need to consult academic experts in her field of study to select the best program. It will be helpful to Lola if she can work with the College and with local industry and government agents to identify possible topics and parameters of dissertation work at the outset, so they can be discussed and pre-approved by the offering institution in a “learning contract.” If travel is required to assess the final choice, or for part of a “mixed mode” learning requirement, additional costs may be incurred and “time away” issues with family or employer will need to be pre-negotiated.
New kinds of students
Few working Canadians want, or can afford, to leave work and family, and in some cases move to a distant city, to attend graduate school full-time. But there are a great many Canadians with high skills, much work experience, and undergraduate degrees who would like to participate in graduate research in their own community, perhaps on a part-time basis. Canada needs these people to contribute to the national research effort and so must help them achieve these goals.
As the accompanying brief accounts show, among these potential students there are as many situations as there are individuals. And yet common themes appear:
There is also demand for non-traditional research programs in smaller institutions:
University faculty should appreciate that these potential graduate students, though working in society rather than occupying classrooms, fit well with the professed aims of graduate education. Graduate education has been described by the Council of Graduate Schools as characterized by three principal attributes:
These characteristics precisely reflect both the situation and the goals of the potential research students we have identified, including those seeking part-time study and those living and working at a distance from prospective supervisors and centres of expertise.
However, special steps will have to be taken to reduce or eliminate the barriers that have kept part-time and non-resident students from being full participants in research training. The key to their participation, we find, is to involve them fully in the emerging distributed online research communities. Recommendations 4 through 11 lay out mechanisms by which the research granting agencies can open and widen that access. Recommendation 4 outlines the overall direction, which will then be elaborated in the recommendations that follow.
We recommend that the granting agencies:
This direction aligns well with the emphasis on “learn while you earn” in both the Knowledge Matters and Achieving Excellence reports. 3 Current granting policies may already allow such mechanisms in some cases. But financial support for these new initiatives will require new funds so as not to detract from the success of existing programs.
These mechanisms are of three kinds: promoting institutional involvement, ensuring and demonstrating high quality, and reaching out to new students.
Promoting institutional involvement
Universities, colleges, and other research organizations have to be encouraged to develop and support distributed online research projects with flexible scheduling and online activities. Examples from other countries, notably the United Kingdom, show that support for program development can provide a critical stimulus to the creation of high-quality new opportunities.
We recommend that the granting agencies:
This would extend current efforts, such as the CIHR Strategic Training Initiative in Health Research, to include part-time study and graduate-level programs less extensive than full degrees.
Jayne worked for several years as an RN in critical care nursing. She taught the occasional specialty nursing course for the local community college and decided she would like to teach full-time, but learned that she would need to take a master’s degree. The universities in her city all demanded that she become a full-time student, but with school-age children and a mortgage she felt this would be impossible.
Fortunately, she found an American university that would allow her to take most of her courses at a distance. By working through two courses a term and spending four weeks on-campus for two successive summers, she found she could keep working and still finish her degree in a little over two years. The courses were more expensive, and it would be a bit of a grind, but the American university offered the flexibility she needed to meet both her family and professional needs. She wonders why no Canadian university offered this approach.
Ensuring and demonstrating high quality
The contrast in learning situations between traditional classroom students and this new population of online students raises the issue of educational quality for the latter – both for the institution, which must ensure the quality of achievement it is expected to certify, and for the students, who face the unusual educational needs of part-time and distance learning.
Essential in the quality of graduate education is the engagement of the student both with the subject matter and with research colleagues – faculty, fellow students, and other scholars. The depth of graduate education requires active and constant interaction in a learning and research community. Educational quality involves not only a curriculum of study and research but also students’ interaction with a critical mass of others in their discipline.
Reviews of graduate programs conducted by many individual institutions and by external quality assurance bodies have commonly identified the following quality criteria:
All of the above quality criteria must be met regardless of the delivery mode of the graduate program – a virtual graduate program must be held to the same quality standards as a conventional on-campus program. Students must have the same level of entry qualifications, faculty must possess the same scholarly and research credentials, and academic requirements must be as high.
In the case of online learning and distance delivery of graduate education, there is a particular need for further assurance of quality in both facilities and learning interactions. This implies the following additional quality criteria:
We therefore recommend that the granting agencies:
Ensuring that the quality of online research training will be equal to the quality of traditional campus-based residential training will go far in securing its reputation and productivity.
Joe, a First Nations student from a remote community in the Yukon, has a BSc from the University of Alberta. Aspiring to work with the Council of Yukon First Nations and the Arctic Athabaskan Nations in natural resource management and environmental protection, he would like to upgrade his qualifications by pursuing an MSc program. But he wishes to remain in his community during his research to maintain links with the elders. He also wishes to develop the links between Western academic approaches to science and the First Nations approach to science as reflected in traditional knowledge. He will be able to do this through online courses delivered from an established university and supervision through interactive web links and email.
Reaching out to new students
The potential new graduate students we identify differ from traditional graduate students in three respects: they are usually part-time rather than full-time, they are often located at a distance from their research colleagues, and their interactions with research colleagues are primarily online. The proposed strategy must be about reaching out to attract and retain these new students with special kinds of support to address their needs (see also Appendix B).
The following are examples of such support systems:
These and similar initiatives all have the common aim of reducing the isolation of the distance learner. We have emphasized the importance in research training of intense interactions with colleagues – other students, faculty supervisors and instructors, and members of wider research communities. We are not suggesting that face-to-face interactions will cease to be an important component of research training, particularly in critical periods for the advising and mentoring of research theses and for participation in larger national and international gatherings of researchers. Our point is that the new electronic infrastructure now makes it possible for distance learners to be more fully included in forms of research collaboration that are themselves evolving electronically. These new forms of interaction can be made available to students outside of a traditional on-campus residency, providing a mix of interaction methods that will allow many more Canadians to participate in graduate research opportunities.
We therefore recommend that the granting agencies:
For example, NSERC could extend the existing opportunities in its Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships, of which a very limited number have gone to part-time students.
Ivona, who recently completed her MSc in geology and is working in arctic diamond exploration, would like to do a PhD thesis on exploring the permafrost and its relationship with the substrata. She has to continue to work in the north for a couple of years to clear away her debts, but she has researched the telecampus for part-time PhD programs to get started (and to while away the long winter nights). There is no single centre of expertise in this area, but she thinks she can approach a Canadian university to host her self-directed studies, with additional help from a couple of American professors who have expressed interest in following her work and comparing her surveys with results from similar explorations around the arctic.
The Canadian supervisor would like to apply to NSERC for grants to support her work, but there are no assistance programs for part-time studies, and particularly for help with the costs of travel, communications, and data collation. Ivona is still working full-time and doesn’t expect a stipend. But her work takes her to the data collection site every day and gives her far more opportunity for hands-on research than she would get in an urban university. She wishes some money could be found to offset the costs of travel to the occasional academic meeting, and that tuition fees could somehow be defrayed – as might happen if she were supported and studying in full-time residence.
Some faculty are naturally predisposed to traditional classroom methods and are disinclined to adopt electronic technologies, no matter how well-founded in best practices. However, we heard opposition to online techniques that was not based on any careful evaluation, and some opponents seemed unaware of the rapidly accumulating evidence of the benefits of electronic methods in teaching and learning. We expect that, as the advantages and effectiveness of online research training come to be more widely understood, it will cease to seem flawed and threatening and will instead become appreciated as a substantial addition to the repertoire of higher education and research.
We also expect that the understanding and implementation of online learning will benefit if best practices are revealed and publicized and if continuous improvement is encouraged. We recommend that the granting agencies:
This initiative could be undertaken in partnership with post-secondary institutions and associations. For example, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is planning a survey to obtain information on existing and proposed virtual programs and outcomes. This work could form the basis of a wider partnership to monitor outcomes and identify best practices.
Erica manages a marketing group for a Canadian software company. She has become aware of the potential for an online community to enhance the product's success by linking users together to share expertise. Erica wants to extend her knowledge in this area, both to benefit of her current product and to open further opportunities for her own career path. In interactions with faculty at a nearby university, Erica discovers that the knowledge in this area is distributed across Canada and that no single centre has the critical mass required to offer a high quality graduate program. She also discovers that some of the questions arising from her workplace will require new approaches to be developed, and that her work context presents an attractive venue for an applied research thesis.
Several of the Canadian social science researchers contacted expressed keen interest in engaging with her in research around supporting knowledge exchange within the community of practice of her product's users, and they are aware of graduate programs elsewhere which combine intensive face-to-face interactions with ongoing engagement online. However, they also pointed out that no resources exist to support the initiation of a collaborative graduate program across disciplines (and provinces). They also feel that their local infrastructure is inadequate in both equipment and personnel support for them to fully participate in online research training. Erica is encouraged by their interest but discouraged by the absence of any way for them, or her, to move forward.
Our recommendations make up a strategy for using new online technologies to increase the involvement of Canadians in research and research training. This will support Canada’s innovation agenda by extending participation in research to new complements of students, scholars, and working professionals. Our recommendations so far will have that effect, but there are also more direct things that can and should be done to expedite the adoption of online methods and accelerate recruitment of new researchers. We propose that extending participation should become an objective to be sought with deliberate measures.
We therefore recommend that the granting agencies:
The desired result will have a double benefit. First, some of these new participants will go on to become the additional researchers needed as replacements for the senior researchers who are part of the approaching retirement wave, as well as constituting a broadened basis for national research. Second, these recruits will provide new channels by which innovations in research and practice will move beyond university walls out into the community to become commercialized and accepted in wider practice. This double improvement, in participation and in outflow of ideas, will be vital for national well-being and competitiveness.
At the same time, Canada’s innovation agenda can benefit from the rise of distributed research communities and of online research training in a different and more direct way, because these are fields of innovation in themselves, a matter to which we now turn.
The third area of the research granting agencies’ mandate is research-based innovation in support of national economic competitiveness and prosperity. Innovation is the process by which the results of research become applied and commercialized and thus contribute materially to public good. Research that encourages innovation, and therefore the well-being of Canadians, receives priority in grant evaluations.
Distributed research communities and online research training programs will be indispensable in facilitating the growth of Canada’s innovative capacity in other fields. But the field of online learning itself is an emerging and crucial area for research-based innovation. The granting agencies should set an example by encouraging research and innovation in online learning. We therefore recommend that the research granting agencies:
Such a program, and a demonstration project also to be recommended, will help accelerate the growth of the Canadian research base and position Canada internationally as a leader in a vital new area of research and innovation.
Research into methods of online learning was begun by social and behavioural scientists, joined later by researchers in human-computer interaction and interactive media. More recently, each discipline has been researching ways to make online learning more effective as a tool. It has become increasingly clear that innovation in online learning occurs within a discipline and depends on scholars in that discipline acting as catalysts. This is because each discipline has its own criteria and approaches to learning and its own ways of evaluating evidence of the effectiveness of learning. 4 This trend is particularly noteworthy in the United Kingdom and in Australia, and follows a similar development in the United States, focused more broadly on undergraduate education (“the scholarship of teaching in the disciplines”).
Support for such research initiatives in other countries has not come primarily from their national research agencies, but rather from national departments of education (United Kingdom, Australia) or foundations with a mandate to improve education (United States). As a consequence, discipline-based research of this type has not developed as quickly in Canada. But a Canadian development initiative now seems urgently needed, especially when we appreciate the challenges of expanding the Canadian research base through online research training and distributed learning communities. Furthermore, we can see the importance of an initial focus on advancing research training for distant and part-time students.
Several factors about online learning in general make it a promising area for research-based innovation in Canada at this time:
Alan is four years into his career as a faculty member in biology. His work in biotechnology is in a hot area in the field; his research program is attracting very good students; and he has established a steady pipeline of publications. Alan gets frequent requests to provide professional updating for the industry partners who co-sponsor the university's research and graduate biotechnology programs. He enjoys giving seminars in the workplace, partly because working professionals offer a fresh insight into the subject matter and its applications. But many workplace students need a refresher on background knowledge they have lost touch with.
Alan knows that there is a growing body of high-quality interactive resources available online to support undergraduates, but there is a lack of resources appropriate for his workplace students. He would like to find some way of supporting graduate students in a systematic program to develop learning objects for part-timers and workplace students in biotechnology. He believes this kind of study will advance the knowledge of his biology colleagues as much as the more traditional research he is doing – and therefore is equally worthy of research grant support. Naturally, Alan is also concerned that any such work should receive appropriate recognition when the tenure milestone appears.
Alan is convinced that an NSERC research grant would signal the legitimacy of this line of research – probably as an interdisciplinary research program that would include some of the education faculty. He is also confident in his ability to publish the results and expects that the growing interest in the area will ensure that the results get disseminated among other biologists.
The new Canadian opportunity for international leadership in online learning research arises from advantages in programs and strategy, a convergence of interest among potential partners, and a number of emerging Canadian initiatives that can be brought together in a larger agenda.
The Canadian granting agencies are highly regarded for their strategic perspective, which provides long-term support for researcher-directed initiatives. Initiatives in other countries, by contrast, may depend on the interests of particular program officers or political priorities. Canadian researchers can therefore develop long-term career paths with the expectation that their support will be determined solely by the excellence of their work and its contribution to knowledge in their discipline.
Although certain other countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, have a head start in discipline-oriented online learning research, their initiatives in post-secondary institutions are almost exclusively targeted at undergraduate education. A Canadian initiative targeted at postgraduate research training would therefore be an international leader. It would improve the learning and accelerate the growth of the population of researchers that is of national interest. In the longer term, a focus on postgraduate training could broaden into wider areas of adult learning and undergraduate education.
Convergence of interest among Canadian partners
Across the spectrum of government agencies, several complementary initiatives offer further support for the development of a thriving academic community in online learning scholarship:
Eva is a mid-career historian at a challenging career crossroads. After 20 years of well-regarded research, her area of interest is beginning to dry up as a source of interesting research questions. Some of her senior colleagues are moving to new “hot” areas, while others will be content to mop up the smaller questions that remain open or take on more administrative work within their universities. Considering options for an approaching sabbatical leave, Eva is struck by the satisfaction she felt when she introduced into her teaching some new historical simulation software developed in the U.K. She was impressed by the development team’s research, which yielded rich insights into the ways students grasped, or failed to grasp, deeper insights into the historical period and historians' methods for understanding it.
Eva's university has various mechanisms available to help faculty build software to help students learn more effectively, including undergraduate courses in which student teams produce some quite sophisticated software under a faculty member's direction. However, Eva wants to approach any such work with the same rigour she has customarily applied in her historical research. She knows colleagues who are keen to adopt e-learning solutions as long as they are new and innovative, and others who have an “over my dead body” attitude. Eva thinks of herself as representative of the majority of faculty who invest some time each year in improving their courses, and would consider an e-learning solution if there was a convincing case for its value.
Eva wants to develop a research program to explore the uses of software for historical simulations. She knows perceptual and cognitive psychologists on campus who would be glad to assist her, and they are aware of the need for deep knowledge of the discipline which Eva would bring (Eva also know a lot about statistics and experimental design from her own work). She knows that the SSHRC research grants group to which she has always submitted her grant proposals has no record of supporting research in learning about history, nor would its members have the expertise to evaluate any such proposal she might submit. Eva hopes she can find a way to get both financial support for graduate students in the research project and a community to evaluate and apply her research.
In addition, most provinces and territories have targeted online learning as a development priority: the Council of Ministers of Education co-sponsored with Industry Canada a report from the Advisory Committee for Online Learning, 5 which called for “a pan-Canadian action plan to accelerate the use of online learning in post-secondary education and in lifelong learning.”
Existing Canadian leadership initiatives
Emerging Canadian initiatives demonstrate the potential for leadership:
To build an online learning research community and exploit its expertise in research-based innovation, a number of components must develop in parallel:
Jay is a senior professor of electrical engineering with an exemplary record of high-quality research in microelectronics. He has attracted excellent graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from around the world and is regarded by his university as an outstanding candidate for a Canada Research Chair.
Jay’s lab has acquired well over $100,000 worth of world-class equipment. The most up-to-date components have been donated by one of his industry partners to support advanced training of research students. Jay knows that the actual time the equipment is in use for a student experiment is much less than the time it is booked for that experiment. The idle time represents training time, setup, corrections, and the physical movement of students into and out of the lab space. Jay has heard about software that mediates lab access through an Internet interface. This approach would extend the capacity of the equipment and allow more students to make use of it. If Jay could give access to students from other institutions, he could negotiate matching access at their institutions to specialized equipment not currently available to his own students.
Jay is concerned about how this more efficient Internet method might affect the students, who would then not get to use the lab equipment “hands on.” (Some of his colleagues are downright dismissive of the validity of such methods.) But he is motivated to try because he estimates he could more than double the learning impacts of his lab. As an experimental scientist, Jay wants to construct an experiment to determine the impacts of a virtual lab setting on his students as well as on others in distant locations. He knows that reliable experimental results – about successful or unsuccessful aspects – are needed to persuade his colleagues and himself.
Jay’s graduate student Joelle has taken a certificate in university teaching offered by the university and has some conceptual background to help with such a study. She also has contacts with other researchers within the university whose expertise in learning and in interface design would complement her and Jay’s own knowledge. Joelle feels that this study will help her in her own career, but she will need support as a research assistant. Another graduate student from the social sciences will collaborate on the experimental design. But Joelle and Jay recognize that their own disciplinary expertise will be critical both in getting reliable results and in communicating them to their colleagues.
As a first step, we recommend that the granting agencies:
create a joint three-year demonstration project for a developmental program in online learning research within the disciplines, possibly in collaboration with the National Research Council’s E-Learning Laboratory, CANARIE, and other appropriate agencies. The demonstration project would support discipline-oriented online learning research leading to innovation in post-graduate research training, learning experiences within distributed online research communities, and part-time graduate students in the workplace.
The members of the Task Force have conducted the review requested by the sponsoring research granting agencies and have reached the following conclusions:
The growth of electronic communications is encouraging a decentralization of research that opens new opportunities for scholars and researchers across Canada to participate in advanced research projects. The ease with which research artifacts of all kinds can be shared across physical locations is encouraging an increase in the size of research teams, a greater depth of project expertise from a diversity of specialists, and an accelerated pace of data collection and analysis. These trends are visible in all disciplines, although in some more than others.
Accompanying this spread of online distributed research is the growth of online research training. Graduate students can have effortless access at the same time as senior researchers to the same data and to the methods and principles used in analysing the data. The interactions of senior and junior scholars on research projects lead naturally to Internet-based graduate instruction. The same online space thus becomes equally available to non-traditional students and working professionals in industry, government, public, and not-for-profit sectors. In this way, post-secondary institutions can have a much broader student base and play a much more important role in their communities as the focal points for engagement in distributed research teams.
At the same time, the rise of online research training comes at an opportune moment for Canada, whose future prosperity is linked to engaging a larger proportion of the population in scientific and scholarly research. To replace the wave of retiring senior researchers and to support the growth of Canada’s innovative capacity, the government has stated that the number of researchers in Canada’s labour force must double in the next decade. To the question, “How will this be possible?” we now have a feasible answer: by a full public commitment to expand online opportunities for research training and to extend research participation to those in the community who can, and can only, do it part-time.
The growth of online research and training is creating a new appreciation of the pedagogical issues involved in using electronic means for learning. How can training using online tasks and resources be made most effective for students not present in class and on campus (and for those who are)? How can teaching methods developed for young people attending classes together full-time be modified to fit part-time individual instruction of mid-career professionals working in the community? How can online learning research results be shared across disciplines? This set of issues in online learning increasingly confronts post-secondary institutions in Canada every day. Meanwhile, online learning has become a new centre of innovation as scholars and scientists in all disciplines quietly, and with little recognition or financial support, experiment with and develop new tools and styles for teaching online.
As members of the Task Force we have tried to achieve, and to communicate, an understanding of these important trends happening all around us. Based on this understanding, we have framed a set of recommendations intended to help the research granting agencies respond effectively to a transformation that is already making its presence felt in grant applications. With vigorous action along the lines we suggest, we believe the granting agencies can play a crucial role in expanding Canadian research, enhancing the training available to Canadian students, and stimulating Canadian innovation.
The Task Force recommends that the granting agencies:
To use virtual programs and online learning to meet Canada’s innovation goals, it will be necessary to work towards levelling the playing field between distance-learning students and traditional graduate students. This will mean reversing or compensating for the array of advantages for campus residents that led universities traditionally to stipulate residence requirements for graduate students.
Factors to be considered include the following:
The costs for students to participate in virtual universities and online learning should be comparable to, or less than, those for participation in face-to-face settings:
Some evaluative criteria should be established, showing in which fields, and to what degree, it is possible for students to engage in virtual or online learning:
The availability of learner support is key: financial, program advising, library, cohort discussions, technical support:
Creation of a Research Institute for the Study of Supply Chain Collaboration
This project receives generous support from the following organizations:
The application of technology to the supply chain is one of the main features of the new economy. In recent years we have recognized the benefits that individual companies can gain from working together with their customers and suppliers. Technology now allows information to be more easily shared between organizations, but this is at a relatively early stage. Future development will make this much easier and make cooperation between customers and suppliers (supply chain collaboration) increasingly valuable to organizations. Athabasca University is leading a team of researchers to build an infrastructure that is intended to create a simulation laboratory of that new – economy world that will allow us to better understand its implications for our organizations and society.
The infrastructure that will be created with this project is an online research institute for the study of online supply chain collaboration. The first of its kind, the online research institute will exist on the Internet. Academic researchers from around the world will collaborate with each other and their partners from the business community. The Internet technology will allow researchers to build a repository of research resources and will serve as an area for the presentation of research results. This will require the creation of the following components:
1Building Infrastructure for Access to and Preservation of Research Data In Canada
http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/about-au_sujet/publications/da_finalreport_e.pdf National Research Data Archive Consultation Phase One: Needs AssessmentReport
2Jules B. LaPidus, A Walk Through Graduate Education (Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, D.C., 2000), pp. 34-35.
3Knowledge Matters: Skills and Learning for Canadians (report for Human Resources Development Canada, 2002), at http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/ and Achieving Excellence: Investing in People, Knowledge and Opportunity (report for Industry Canada, 2002), at http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/C2-596-2001E.pdf
4Cf. The Disciplines Speak: Rewarding the Scholarly, Professional, and Creative Work of Faculty (Vol. 1, 1995; Vol. 2, 2000), edited by Robert Diamond and Bronwyn Adam (American Association for Higher Education).
5The E-Learning E-volution in Colleges and Universities, 2001, p. 5.