Do you speak Spanish, yet?

I was reading MacLean’s magazine last night and came across an advertising supplement for distance learning in Canada. Several pages of writing and numerous advertisments – not one mention of New Brunswick or New Brunswick post secondary education institutions (or advertisments).

It’s times like these that I really start to feel old. It doesn’t seem that long ago – maybe 1996-1997 that I was sitting in a room in Fredericton and the speaker was saying that the next ‘call centre’ style growth industry in New Brunswick was to be e-Learning (or Web-based learning). He said that thousands of people would be employed in good jobs doing content develpment, graphic design, software development, content translation/localization, etc. New Brunswick was to lead the world.

Now, not even a mention in a MacLean’s article. What happened? Where did the promise of e-Learning go?

Some say it left with Rory McGreal. Some say it was the meltdown. Some say it was a political failure – the 1999 Tories had no interest in e-Learning.

On a side note, whatever happened to Bernard Lord’s one foray into e-Learning? Remember? All of our kids were going to take Spanish via e-Learning because Lord said our future was not only being bilingual – it was being trilingual. Does anybody know if that course is still running? Has the vision of a Spanish New Brunswick gone the way of the Dodo? Maybe that should be worked into the terms of reference for Lord’s new language commission.

But I digress.

I would say that it was a multifaceted problem. The poster yesterday was right when he/she implied that most of the industry’s work was for government clients. But that’s not a bad model – the Ottawa model – use government contracts to get good at something and then take it to the world.

Certainly the 1999 Tories didn’t seem to be interested in ‘sector’ development – but if you think it through – most of the McKenna efforts beyond call centres were mostly smoke and mirrors too.

I hate to sound like a broken record but the only e-Learning firm that has survived from the early 1990s was the large multinational player – SkillSoft (formerly SmartForce) in Fredericton.

That, essentially, was the problem. We based the sector development strategy on a bunch of small, local firms with almost no cash, virtually no clients outside New Brunswick and no real niche in the market. So when the sector hit the early 2000s downturn – they all collapsed. As for the post secondary institutions, I never thought they had any real interest in e-Learning and were not really interested in it. Sure you can take some courses through ‘distance’ education in New Brunswick – but we are nothing compared to Athabasca or some of the others.

There was a small, private online university in Freddy but that too went out of business.

If we had to do it over again, here would be my advice:

Focus a considerable amount of R&D funding into the sector (technology/usability at UNB, language/localization at UdeM, etc.).

Attract a number of large, global players (Ireland, India, California and Alberta are good target markets) to seed the industry.

Use NB as a testbed for e-Learning usage – in the colleges, universities, private sector, etc.

Government plays a lead role in usage (not just that silly Spanish course).

Our education system should have started churning out specialists for the sector.

It’s too late now – most likely. Once again, we were leapfrogged by several other jurisdictions.