Online Tutoring: Education Trend to Watch in 2015

One of the new trends in higher education that is likely to become mainstream in 2015 is online tutoring. The year that just ended saw the launch of several tutoring start-ups, across the world – including Canada. The interest in this type of online service will undoubtedly increase, given the disruptive nature of these new Web 2.0 businesses, their technologically savvy customers, along with the ease of access to and affordability of online tutoring.

There are several business models, and the market will decide in the end which ones are most viable. They range from a pay-per-minute service to monthly subscriptions, although most involve connecting live with an actual person via phone, video conference or other on-screen interface (interactive whiteboard).

Some of the larger – and more significant – differences in terms of the quality of service received by clients are due to the location of the tutoring firm or independent tutor. Several service providers have outsourced the work to Asia (e.g., India), given significantly lower labour costs and potentially higher profit margins. If you’re to choose, do your research and select the firm/tutor that makes most sense for you; remember though the old saying, usually you get what you pay for.

Online tutoring services to consider – particularly for American and Canadian students – include:, Twitter: @firsttutors (EduNation LTD, Morecambe, Lancashire, UK), Twitter: @HelpHubHQ (HelpHub, Vancouver, BC), Twitter: @InstaEDU (InstaEDU, Inc., San Francisco, CA), Twitter: @nettutor (Link-Systems International, Inc., Tampa, FL), Twitter: @tutordotcomHE (, Inc., New York, NY), Twitter: @TutorUniverse (Tutor Universe, Inc., Iowa City, IA) (Johnson Educational Technologies LLC, Dover, DE)

Canadian Graduate and Professional Students – A Happy Bunch (Except for the Ones That Aren’t)

The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) published highlights from the latest Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey (CGPSS), administered in 2010. The Association has also indicated that researchers are permitted access to an anonymized survey dataset, “for purposes of improving graduate student experience in Canada.” Access requests, made through an online form, will be reviewed by the CAGS National CGPSS Steering Committee. Some key findings are captured below:

Doctoral, Master’s Students Are Generally Satisfied with Their University Experience

Among 13,400 doctoral students surveyed, 50% rated the relationship of their graduate program content to their research or professional goals as “very good” and “excellent” (30% thought it was “good,” while the rest rated it as “fair” or “poor”).

More than 60% rated similarly the quality of the support and opportunities received in conducting independent research since starting their graduate program. However, only 40% of doctoral students rated the opportunities for student collaboration or teamwork as “very good” and “excellent.” (The lower satisfaction scores for student collaboration/ teamwork among doctoral students should not come as a surprise, given the typical length of a doctoral program and the largely independent nature of the work).

Among 13,500 master’s students (with thesis), more than half rated the relationship of their graduate program content to their research or professional goals as “very good” and “excellent.” 56% said the same thing about the quality of the support and opportunities received. 48% thought the opportunities for student collaboration or teamwork were “very good” and “excellent.”

English: Graduate Students' Union at the Unive...

English: Graduate Students’ Union at the University of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drill Down Though and You’ll Find Differences: Sciences & Health Sciences vs. Non-Health Professions & Humanities

Mean scores by disciplines indicate that doctoral students in Business/Management valued more than all others the “program content” and “research collaboration” (but somewhat less “student collaboration” and “independent research”). On all these categories, doctoral students in Sciences, as well as those in Health Sciences had higher levels of satisfaction than students in other programs (students in Health Sciences were slightly less satisfied with “program content”).

The worst scores on “program content,” “student collaboration,” “independent research” and “research collaboration” were registered from doctoral students in Non-Health Professions (and from students in the Humanities relating to collaboration opportunities).

Master’s students (with thesis) present a more mixed picture. Students in Sciences were the most satisfied among their peers with “independent research” and “research collaboration.” Students in Education were among the most satisfied with “program content” and “student collaboration.”

Master’s students in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Non-Health Professions were more likely to indicate they were less satisfied with these aspects of the student experience.

CAGS points out that “[b]reakdown by gender and immigration status also has been considered. Differences appear quite small, however. Since representation by gender and immigration status is highly non-homogeneous across disciplines, and disciplines have a significant influence, general breakdown by gender and immigration status does not seem to be relevant. This breakdown should be studied at the discipline level.”

Doctoral Students: Do It All Again? Same Field, Different Place…

Among doctoral students, just 31% answered “definitely” to the question “If you were to start your graduate/professional career again, would you select this same university?” However, 54% would select the same field of study and 50% would select the same faculty supervisor.

CAGS notes that doctoral students in Business/Management give on average higher marks for “research training and career orientation.” On the other hand, doctoral students in the Humanities give on average higher marks for “quality of teaching” but lower marks for ‘“research training and career orientation.” Engineering students give low marks for “supportive dissertation advisor” and for “quality of teaching.” A summary of benchmark scores by disciplines, at the doctoral and master’s level (with thesis), can be found on the CAGS website.

Survey responses were obtained in 2010 from 38,618 students at 38 Canadian universities (19,199 from Ontario, 10,208 from Quebec, and 9,211 from other provinces). “The survey originated from joint US/Canadian efforts to survey graduate students, parallel to the similar study of undergraduates, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).”

Education as a Driver of Regional Integration: Not in North America

“Education should be the foundation of a North American community,” US academic Robert Pastor argues in his book “The North American Idea” (2011). This is a proposition that he presents in several of his publications: acknowledging that North America is still a loosely structured construct, the educational sector would present the potential of bringing together citizens and institutions from Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Robert Pastor is modelling his plan on the role placed on education in a different regional context – the European Union (EU). In a previous book, “Toward a North American Community” (2001), he pointed out – without providing supporting evidence – that “the consensus among analysts is that the funds [for regional assistance in the EU] were most effectively employed in projects aimed at infrastructure and higher-level education.”

Cover of "Toward a North American Communi...

Cover via Amazon

North America could presumably learn from EU realities and replicate on this continent some of Europe’s policies and programs in the area of education. Pastor looks at education – along with other areas of international cooperation – and notices both a disappointing reality in terms of limited levels of student exchanges and the concrete potential for improving this situation. If the latter would happen, it might equally lead to spillover effects and closer regional integration in other sectors – from politics to energy to border issues.

In “The North American Idea,” the US academic notes that Canada ranks only fifth and Mexico seventh “in sending students to the United States – much fewer than from China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. About one thousand Mexicans study in Canada, and Americans study much less at universities in their two neighbors than in Europe or Asia.” Proximity doesn’t equal curiosity, he concludes in a somewhat disappointed tone.

Critical voices call Robert Pastor the “father of the North American Union” (for observers unfamiliar with the discourse around regional integration, the label “North American Union” carries with it negative connotations, particularly in conservative political circles. Pastor himself prefers the term “community”). He was and largely remains one of the strongest proponents of closer ties, across a variety of sectors (including education), between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

This being the case, it is only natural for him to recommend that the three governments “promote exchanges, research, and studies on North America,” support three-way collaboration between post-secondary institutions, establish “language immersion” programs, streamline standards on credit transfers and professional credentials, and increase their efforts in promoting North American ideals.

These are all excellent ideas and Robert Pastor should be commended for his efforts in promoting a more deeply and broadly integrated higher education sector on this continent. His proposals however face tremendous challenges, mostly of a structural nature. I will just list here three of them and elaborate more in future blog posts:

(i) North America is *not* the European Union. Any student of European history and politics will tell you this. The underlying conditions that contributed to the creation of the EU do not exist in North America. The EU itself may be more of a fluke than a model for other regional entities. Trying to replicate EU approaches elsewhere is an unfeasible scheme. Moreover, European integration is largely stalled – European themselves question the value of some of the existing multi-level arrangements.

(ii) The differences between Canada, the United States and Mexico – looking at political and socio-economic indicators – are so large and so diverse that across-the-board integration between them is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future. The US remains the world’s sole superpower and Mexico suffers from very significant social, economic and law-enforcement crises – all of them strong reasons for Canada to be cautious in promoting further integration with its neighbours.  Simply put, there is no will at a federal level to spend political capital and resources to advance deeper regional cooperation. Furthermore, education is not the most exciting sector to focus on, for both politicians and the citizens.

(iii) Finally, all three countries are federal political systems and education is largely a sub-national (state/province) responsibility. Even if they wanted, in most cases the federal governments would not be able to influence significantly patterns of cooperation between private organizations and professional associations across the continent.

Robert Pastor is right when he points out that education should be the foundation of building a meaningful regional entity. Yet “should” is the key word here – it denotes a normative position more than a realistic suggestion. If North America were to follow the evolution of the European Union (an unlikely course of events), the place to start may need to be sought elsewhere.

Higher Education in North America: In the Regional Village, All Education is Local

I recently reviewed three books on North American affairs, two on Canada-US, the other one on Canada-Mexico relations:

  • “Doing the Continental: A New North American Relationship” (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010) was written by David Dyment, an Ottawa-based academic, with a foreword by Bob Rae, currently interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
  • “Big Picture Realities: Canada and Mexico at the Crossroads” (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008) is edited by Daniel Drache, a specialist in global trade governance and North American integration, who brought together for this book a set of leading experts on Canada and Mexico.
  • “Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State” (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2002) was written by Stephen Clarkson, one of Canada’s pre-eminent political scientists.
Stars representing the 3 North American countr...

Stars representing the 3 North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of this review was to assess these authors’ views on the concept of “North American education.” Perhaps not surprisingly – while there are many calls for an integrated approach to education amongst Canadian provinces and Mexican and US states – the reality is that such a system does not exist. Each sub-federal jurisdiction creates its own rules and regulations related to formal education, which are not always aligned with those in other provinces and states, even as part of the same country.

In the Introduction to “Big Picture Realities,” Daniel Drache argues that “leading, pace-setting institutions such as the labour market, education, and health systems are being required to change and adapt to the new power dynamics” in North America. He also makes a case that “these forceful expressions of national interest and domestic priorities have reappeared as the new authoritative agenda-setting priorities for all three signatories” of NAFTA (Canada, the United States, and Mexico). The articles in Drache’s book do not substantiate however the assertion that education is one of those leading, agenda-setting sectors for the North American nations, contributing to closer alignment of continental processes.

A 2007 Strategic Council poll indicates that education is not one of the most important concerns for Canadians (health care and the environment are) and provides further evidence that it is not a key area of international collaboration either. Similarly, education (post-secondary, at least) doesn’t seem to be high on the list of national priorities of the peoples of Mexico and the United States. Tri-lateral discussions, such as those at the North American leaders’ Cancun summit in 2006, referred to education in passing, touching on joint research and specific teaching initiatives, at a high level. Duncan Wood (“Big Picture Realities”) points out that education is one of those sectors that “would benefit from a less macro, and more area-specific, approach.” While acknowledging that harmonization of educational systems is an unrealistic proposition in the foreseeable future, he recommends concrete collaboration initiatives between Canadian provinces and US and Mexican states, universities and colleges, and professional organizations in this area.

Stephen Clarkson highlights the distinction, in the Canadian system, between education and research. While the former falls entirely within the provinces’ authority, responsibility for research is shared between the provinces and the federal government. Authorities at the federal level have “paid attention to promoting science and technology since the Dominion’s early days” but “[have] long had an ambivalent attitude to [the promotion of education].” Unlike the United States (with its US Department of Education) or Mexico (with its Secretariat of Public Education), Canada doesn’t have a federal department regulating educational policies and programs. This contributes to a situation in which establishing and consolidating education-related initiatives in North America is a very challenging endeavour.

In any case, David Dyment makes a strong and compelling case that “continentalism is a force of nature that we have to be wary of and tame for our national [Canadian] interests.” In other words, while many sectors (including education) may present the potential for closer collaboration and deeper integration between Canada and its North American neighbours, Canada should only pursue such as line of action when it serves its strategic objectives, not for integration’s sake. The author also points out that “by placing Mexico centrally in our relations with the US, we are not achieving the benefits of multilateralism.”

These positions are consistent with the evolutions of Canada-US and Canada-Mexico relations in recent decades, including interactions and initiatives in the area of education. While still distinct from their US counterparts, Canadian higher education structures, processes, and standards are similar with those south of the border. At the same time, differences are significant between Canada/US and post-secondary realities in Mexico. Overall, just like politics, all education is “local” in North America – understanding realities in this area means understanding national, regional, and community-level contexts.

Students and parents in search of a university for undergraduate or graduate studies should study carefully all the factors involved in a decision, as contexts vary widely from country to country and from city to city. They can also consider working with experienced educational consultants, who can guide them through the maze of considerations and decisions, particularly when they explore different options in different parts of the continent.

Integrating Education in Canada’s Foreign Policy on Asia

Canada has not yet developed a comprehensive strategy towards Asia-Pacific. It may need to develop one in the current context, in which Asia’s influence and economic and political clout continue to rise.

Canada’s International Policy Statement (IPS, 2005) was an attempt to provide an integrated framework for relations with various regions of the world, but it suffered from a lack of implementation mechanisms and an over-emphasis on security issues in shaping the country’s global priorities and positions.

The IPS was the first document of its kind to try to integrate all the state’s major international tools. Inspired by the idea of a more active Canada on the international stage – a country that has to reposition itself in relation to a new global environment – the document articulated Canada’s priorities in four key areas of interest: defence, diplomacy, development, and commerce. References to education (e.g., attracting international students for study in Canada) were few and far between.

The IPS was designed as a novel lens offering enhanced reflections of a changing world in which Canada reinvents itself, and as a platform for further conceptualization of government positions on international affairs. It focused on (i) a more dynamic diplomacy and the rethinking of relations with emerging world powers, including China and India; (ii) a stronger emphasis on development cooperation and a clearer set of criteria for providing bilateral aid; (iii) the reconfiguration of Canada’s priorities in the area of commerce; and (iv) the overhaul of the country’s security and defence priorities. Specialized but promising areas of cooperation – services such as education, tourism, finance, etc. – were largely left out of this framework.

As a blueprint for action in the international realm, the IPS was a useful addition to Canada’s policy toolbox, received positively by practitioners and scholars alike. The defeat of Paul Martin’s Liberal Government in 2006 would, nonetheless, minimize the impact of this document within official circles. The Conservatives’ Canada First outline replaced the IPS as the key security and defence blueprint, but no corresponding policy instruments have been proposed in the areas of trade, diplomacy and development – or an overarching framework bringing together more specialized areas of international cooperation.

The media reported in late 2011 that Canada is crafting a new, comprehensive foreign policy strategy. This would be a welcome development, allowing the country to establish a whole-of-government roadmap for international engagement, which would also provide the conditions for close coordination of federal initiatives with those of other stakeholders (provincial, territorial and municipal governments, educational institutions, NGOs, etc.)

Canada may be able to not only realign and streamline its foreign priorities, but to also identify areas of cooperation and coordination with its main trading partner and ally – the United States – in relation to Asia-Pacific. Canada must consider in the context of a foreign policy review the fact that the United States considers this region as crucial to its own future. In this context, it is preferable to streamline initiatives than to compete directly with US actors in a new world market, whenever possible.

Clinton speaks on Asia Pacific policy

Clinton speaks on Asia Pacific policy (Photo credit: East-West Center)

Many analysts, in both Canada and the United States, perceive a need to develop relations with Asia starting with a solid economic foundation, which will shape the nature of those relations and prioritize the two countries’ specific interests in the Asia-Pacific region. A Canadian strategy toward deepening relations with Asia should be, in Wendy Dobson’s view, “multifaceted, with regional, bilateral and security […] dimensions. It should include a new commitment to Asia’s evolving and increasingly significant institutional architecture” [International Journal, Autumn 2009].

Dobson’s analysis indicates however that Canadians “don’t give any signal of Asia as an enduring focus of our foreign policy,” while Jack Austin points out that Canadians “are not negative about Asia, they’re just not aware of their own self interest in terms of what’s going on” in the region [International Journal, Autumn 2009]. To change this state of affairs and effectively promote Canadian interests across the globe, but particularly in Asia, a new impetus is needed to engage Asia-Pacific countries forcefully.

This could be accomplished through a new Asia-Pacific strategy and the identification of well suited implementation mechanisms. This strategy should concentrate not just on high-level objectives, but also on the promotion of specific Canadian interests, in those sectors in which Canada holds a competitive advantage. Considering the importance of developing and deepening trade relations with Asian partners, Canada needs to give special attention to establishing and developing linkages in key areas such as education, financial services, tourism, and the knowledge-based economy.

A new international policy framework or a set of coordinated policy positions would provide an integrated roadmap to engaging various regions around the world, particularly Asia-Pacific. Given the rising importance of this region in global affairs, a foreign policy review that would elevate its position in Canada’s list of international priorities would provide coherence to current ad hoc efforts to strengthen Canada-Asia relations.

An Asian strategy should establish the principles for engagement, while being implemented through flexible mechanisms that would allow for sector/country re-prioritization in light of changing developments occurring across the region. A nationally coordinated strategy would also allow Canadian stakeholders to realize “economies of scale” in their overseas promotion and investment efforts and, consequently, to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their initiatives in an environment of financial restraint.  Education is, from all these perspectives, a great place to start.