Quebec can become a 'leader in distance learning" at universities: MEI

The provincial health measures prompted by COVID-19 could give Quebec's universities the opportunity to become leaders in distance learning permanently, as the necessary technology is already in place, says a new publication from the Montreal Economic Institute think tank.

Their newest publication is How Can Quebec Become a Leader in Distance Learning?

"Quebec's universities, both English and French, enjoy a solid international reputation," says Miguel Ouellette, co-author of the new report. "This gives us the opportunity to position ourselves as a leader in distance learning. The introduction of a permanent distance learning model in Quebec universities will require increased collaboration between universities and the companies that are already leaders in this field, but it's clear that it would be worth it."

Dr. Reuven Brenner, Senior Fellow at the MEI and Professor Emeritus at McGill University, said that if universities "can attract a larger number of students without increasing the size of in-person classes, it will be a particularly profitable opportunity for our universities, and therefore also beneficial for Quebec taxpayers.

"Of course, certain programs like philosophy, in which debate plays an important role, are more suited to in-person learning, but it would be very beneficial to use distance learning to transmit our knowledge in areas like computer science or artificial intelligence, for example."

Maria Lily Shaw, Economist at the MEI, said that even locally, "the potential benefits are substantial.

"Just think of the net migration out of our rural regions, which has persisted since at least the early 2000s. By allowing the young and the less young to study all while remaining in their hometowns, we could help slow the rural exodus and ensure the presence of an even more qualified labour force in these regions."

Some of the points made in the latest publication:

• "Distance learning is not a recent innovation in education — correspondence courses in which students mail in their exam responses have existed for over 100 years."

• "Higher education in Quebec has significantly lagged behind other industries in moving toward a more digitally driven and tech-enabled environment.... Most Quebec universities dedicate between 1.2% and 4.3% of their annual budgets to information and communication technology.... But within one year, the proportion of students having had an experience with online learning has increased to virtually 100% in Quebec."

• Becoming a leader in distance learning "will not be without obstacles, as other countries and institutions are eyeing the same opportunity, but if done correctly, the benefits of pursuing such a goal far outweigh the related challenges."

• "Introducing a more permanent model of distance learning in Quebec universities will require increased collaboration and the creation of strategic partnerships between schools and key private players in the online education industry. Such partnerships could help develop a more robust technology infrastructure to support distance learning and virtual interactions."

• Institutions of higher education will need to restructure their present approach to the learning experience, establish new digital learning standards, and reimagine the compensation structure for professors. All of this, without excluding the possibility of having to form stronger relationships with entrepreneurs instead of existing institutions."

• "By eliminating the geographical barriers to enrollment in higher education, competition between universities will become fiercer. These institutions will need to compete harder to continue to attract and retain students, so the overall quality of education should increase."

• "Because universities in Quebec receive the majority of their funding through government subsidies, a reduction in the cost of infrastructure maintenance would lighten the financial burden on taxpayers. In fact, government spending on Quebec universities has increased faster than student enrollment."

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