The Ontario government will invest $42 million over three years in ‘Ontario Online,’ an e-learning platform and consortium set to launch in the 2015-16 academic year.
Brad Duguid, the province’s minister of training, colleges and universities, announced the initiative on Jan. 13. The centre would offer centralized online courses for credit, transferable between participating institutions across the province, although universities and colleges are not mandated to sign on.
“Right now we have what I would call a hodge-podge of online learning technology,” Duguid said. “Some institutions are global leaders. Others are holding back. I think we want to get to a point where every student in the province has access to this learning technology.”
Ontario Online will consist of a course registry, an instruction hub for institutions to share best practices for course development and a support hub to offer assistance to students and instructors.
“The MSU definitely supports McMaster joining Ontario Online for a number of reasons,” said Spencer Graham, vice-president (education) of the MSU. “We think it will provide students with a lot of increased options and flexibility in terms of how they want to learn.”
The centre is the result of various consultations between the ministry and stakeholders over the past several years. The centre will not be a degree-granting institution, which student and faculty groups opposed in roundtable discussions.
“I think this has definitely been refined from the initial proposal,” said Alastair Woods, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario. However, the organization remains skeptical of the ministry’s direction on e-learning and mandate to offer students more of a choice between in-class learning and online learning.
“I think it’s important to ask who is being presented with that choice,” Woods said. “In many cases, if you live in an urban area like downtown Toronto, you do have a choice. But if you live in rural or northern Ontario or you’re a francophone or aboriginal student, I actually think this reduces your choices because you still may not be able to leave your community to go to school.”
“I think what’s more important for students in those communities would be to have more financial support for them to go to a brick-and-mortar school should they choose to do so,” he said.
According to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which supported the ministry’s announcement, postsecondary institutions in Ontario saw nearly 500,000 online course registrations in 2011.
Ontario Online was developed in tandem with the province’s ‘differentiation’ policy framework, which was redefined in November 2013. The current framework emphasizes minimizing duplication in course offerings across the province and building a globally competitive system.
Duguid said the new online learning centre “isn’t driven by cost savings” though it would result in savings for some institutions and potential revenue for others.
“Some students will learn better in an online course, and some students may have other obligations outside of school life that make it necessary to go online,” Duguid said.
Woods supported the idea of knowledge-sharing online but said more needs to be done to improve access to postsecondary education.
“What worries me is that there are a lot of changes coming down the sector that the government claims will produce cost savings but are not motivated by cost savings. I don’t think that’s an entirely genuine statement. I think in the absence of any new funding models, the government is trying to come up with ways to do more with less,” he said.
The University of Waterloo, which currently offers more than 240 online courses through its Centre for Extended Learning, allows undergraduate students in five programs to get their degrees entirely online. The university is expected to play a strong role in the new e-learning centre.
Catherine Newell Kelly, director of the UWaterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning, said high-quality online courses would require heavy support for faculty on the development side.
“We bring a whole project team to online course development and work with the instructor to help him or her understand how to teach in the online environment,” she said.
“I do not think that online learning will replace classroom learning. I think technology allows us to think about how students best learn and which pieces of a course might be delivered by technology.”
Details of how courses would be administered through Ontario Online and whether college and university courses would be cross-listed haven’t yet been released. More announcements from the ministry are expected in the coming months.