Canadian Education Faces Technology Tipping Point

Canadian universities and colleges have undergone a remarkable technological transformation over the past decade.  Ten years ago laptops were relatively rare in classrooms, yet today virtually every student comes to buildings outfitted with electric outlets and Internet connectivity at each seat equipped with one.  Course websites were once little more than places to post a syllabus and a list of readings, but today they feature podcasts, webcasts, the actual course readings, and space for ongoing discussion and debate.

While technology has become a core part of the educational process, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes it has often been treated as a complement – rather than a replacement – for traditional educational materials.  Libraries still spend hundreds of millions of dollars on physical books and journals, some professors still generate paper-based coursepacks, and the schools themselves still pay millions of dollars in copying licensing fees.

The two-track approach may have made initial sense, but the costs of maintaining both are increasingly forcing universities to consider whether technology can replace conventional approaches. The tipping point toward using technology as a replacement may have come this year when Access Copyright, the copyright collective that licenses copying on Canadian campuses, demanded a significant increase in the fees associated with photocopying articles and producing printed coursepacks.

The increased demands – which would cost students millions more in fees – has forced universities and colleges to examine whether these copyright licensing costs are still appropriate in light of alternative means of accessing and delivering educational materials.  The answer from a growing number of schools is that they are prepared to chart a new path that relies more heavily on emerging technologies and electronic access [as Howard Knopf notes, however, some schools are adopting a very restrictive interpretation of the law in charting this new path].

Universities point to the development of the Canadian Knowledge Research Network, which provides electronic access to tens of thousands of books and journals from over 5,000 publishers worldwide.  Together with funding from the federal and provincial governments, seventy-four Canadian universities have paid millions for licences to access the database content.  That content can now be used to develop electronic coursepacks and provide campus wide access without the need to pay an additional licence fee.

Similarly, the emergence of open access, where researchers make their works openly available online, provides a second major source of materials for teaching and research. Thousands of journals make their content freely available, creating a treasure trove of materials that can be incorporated into classrooms without the need for further licences.

As a result of these developments, universities have announced initiatives to base their future instruction around alternatively licensed electronic materials.  For example, the University of British Columbia is creating a database that tracks the licensing status of journals and articles for professors and students.  Athabasca University, Canada’s leading distance learning university, has announced that it plans to aggressively promote the development of open educational resources that can be freely used by faculty and students around the world.  Other schools have indicated that they will pursue individual licenses with rights holders where specific materials are needed that are not otherwise available.

The net effect will result in trading some short term pain for considerable long term gain.  Professors and students will experience some immediate challenges as the use of traditional course packs disappears alongside the expiry of the copyright licences.  Yet the longer term benefits are enormous since publishers and authors will continue to be compensated through mechanisms such as CKRN and Canadian higher education will be able to leverage their massive investments in technology to provide students with better, more engaging and interactive learning experiences.


  1. transition
    Being a current university student I am psyched for this change over. I agree that the licensing fiascoes teachers must go though to populate their course packs is excessive. At the same time, I (nor do I think anyone half way through law school) don’t want to suffer these growing pains in the middle of my education. I’m also one of the few that prefers to leave my laptop at home during class. Will I suffer as a result?

  2. Heads to roll?
    In light of the changing landscape of accessing educational resources, it makes you wonder why Access Copyright came to the copyright board with such a large fee increase request? Did they recognize that their ‘product’ would be decreasing in use and thus needed to boost the price to make up for the approaching income shortfall, or was there something else in play? I was hoping when they recently changed out their main lawyer that their approach would also change, time will tell.

    Either way, it does not seem to have been a smart tactical move as it just highlighted the need to consider other options. I do hope that as the move to more digital delivery will not have an negative impact on creators. While there may be some decrease due to using open source materials, it would also be good if more direct licencing can result in greater ratios of renumeration to the writer over the publisher. I would encourage the educational institutions to not just go the most cost effective route but to make an effort to support educational resources that reflect Canadian content and support our home grown authors.

  3. Spellcheck
    OK, once and for all: In Canadian English, licence is a noun (license isn’t). License is a verb (licence isn’t), hence the gerund licensing is invariably spelled thus. The word “licencing” doesn’t exist.

  4. Merry Christmas!!
    A very Merry Christmas to you Michael and all the forum regulars … IamMe, Napalm, Oldguy, End User, Eric, Chris, Jason & of course Degen (plus anyone else I forgot). And a new year filled with hope and prosperity for creators and consumers both.

  5. Happy New Year folks!

    Nap who is wondering how this will work with Internet caps:

  6. Sandy Crawley says:

    Nice sentiment there re; creators income sources. Just to consider your perspective on increased licence fees for collectives, they are intending to increase access to great volumes of works, hence, increased (still very manageable by post-secondary institutions without passing on the pennies a day to students) fees.

    Here’s t a positive, constructive discourse on copyright in 2011 in this space.

  7. Sandy Crawley says:

    I highly recommend the emergence of John Degen in 2011 on our favourite topic at :

  8. Moving forward in the new year …
    Sandy, of course writers need to be paid and compensated for their works. I disagree with anyone who says it’s a free copying spree that should be in place. The problem, in my view, was the amount that AC was requesting, and no it wasn’t 1200% or whatever but it was still higher than it should have been considering the increased use of other sources and open licences. Then the legal tom foolery to try and quash dissenting views at the copyright board hearings just put the final stick in the fire. AC is just reaping what it has planted, whether or not through good intentions or greed. I do not believe, because of the poisoned relationships, that they will be able to move forward as the vehicle of choice for copyright control.

    I just hope that as licencors of educational resources look elsewhere for their permissions that creators do not again get the short end of the shaft. May it even be so that better contractual benefits may come out of the new negotiations and possibly the use of different delivery systems.

  9. Sandy Crawley says:

    Thanks Crokett, for your perspective. But if AC didn’t exist, creators would have to re-invent it. The only practical way for individual writers, photographers and visual artists to collect royalties for copies of their works is collectively. The Not-for-profit model makes eminent sense.

  10. Sandy Crawley says:

    Please don’t abuse this site.

  11. A bit late reading this, but enlightening and informative piece as usual.
    My concern however is this. While I totally despise the increasingly restrictive/inaccessible copyright licensing regime, I have serious reservations about equity in moving forward with greater reliance on technology. I T.A. courses that do have heavy reliance on electronic materials, and notice a stark inequality in students’ abilities to meet performance requirements in the course. There are several students (a minority, but a significant one) who cannot afford up to date computers, who rely on old ones that break down frequently, who rely on the cheapest (and therefore least reliable) repair firms when their systems break (one student left her laptop with a cheap repair company and wound up fighting literally ALL semester to even get it back), and so forth. Also students with disabilities face a range of challenges both in accessing online academic technologies (which seem designed still with a normative user in mind) as well in some cases with access to the technologies in the first place. Universities provide some limited laptop loans to students but we’re talking maybe 10 borrowable laptops for a student body of 50,000. The students who face all these challenges are overwhelmingly low-income, single-parent, racialized and students with disabilities. If I didn’t give them complete and utter leeway (and most professors don’t), and if we didn’t still have a university system which preponderantly relies on academic print works accessible in the library, many of these students – who are often the brightest, but just don’t have the money to compete equally in the academic environment – would suffer academically. A lot of this about shifting to technology makes sense from a purely technological perspective, but I worry that if applied to our post-secondary system (as it presently exists, which is one that severely disadvantages students on the basis of income and other factors) it will only result in dramatically increasing inequities in access to post-secondary education.