The meeting of the PAL partners made it possible to confirm areas of common interest in the development of a collaborative and integrated approach to technology-assisted and online learning for Ontario’s French-language and bilingual educational institutions. These areas of common interest include:
- Supporting an organic development process;
- Developing and reinforcing strategic oversight;
- Offering targeted incentive funding and taking part in current provincial initiatives;
- Mitigating the risks associated with innovation;
- Seeking common areas of interest and governance for a Centre of Excellence;
- Focussing on joint work based on concrete projects;
- Extending the reach of hybrid courses.
This represents a substantial agenda for change and development for the institutions engaged in this process.
Supporting an organic development process
“The organic development process is real. In some cases it also followed strategic choices in various programs that did not originate in academic departments, while in others, projects emerged from provincial government funding. It is important to support organic processes but it is also essential not to cast aside the possibility of developing a significant number of online courses arising from strategic initiatives.”
Individual initiatives and flagship innovation
The development of technology-assisted, hybrid and online learning was an organic process that arose through individual initiative in almost all the participating institutions, no matter their size. The faculty who were early users (“early adopters”) of new technologies made major personal investments in time and energy. The larger institutions set up centres of expertise and invested significant dollars in specialized infrastructure and operations. However, the smaller institutions still depend almost entirely on personal initiative rather than a focused strategic thrust. Initially, the consequence of this organic development was a helter-skelter mix of online courses or educational resources serving the needs of some students in selected courses. The development of complete programs online was often propelled by targeted external investment.
Targeted initiative and strategic interests
Later on, many initiatives were implemented to respond to strategic institutional decisions. An online course developed by three institutions to help grade 12 students make the transition to university was offered as an example. The partners explained that this project was not the product of support for an organic development process but, instead, was a strategic choice in the sense that the idea did not emanate from a single academic department, university or partner. A concrete need was identified and the stakeholders worked to generate course choices directly.
The expansion of the use of technologies is an organic process within institutions that is accelerated by the investment of resources resulting from strategic choices. The more technology-enhanced learning is seen to be core to the strategic intent of institutions, the more technologies are used to enhance and deliver learning.
Support for innovators and faculty training
More extensive use of teaching and learning technologies will require support for this organic process. Ideas and best practices spread through peer adoption and adaptation of best practices, availability of relevant and appropriate expertise, and pressure from students for greater flexibility.
The institutions expressed their willingness to benefit from the sharing of strategies and implementation models to accelerate the adoption of technology by their faculties. Individualized approaches are necessary to respect collective agreements and unionized environments. Faculty often are concerned about weakening traditional teaching methods by offering online programs and/or courses. In the context of decision-making in colleges and universities, concerns expressed by faculty have a crucial impact on strategic planning for online and hybrid/blended learning.
"The institutions expressed their willingness to benefit from the sharing of strategies and implementation models to accelerate the adoption of technology by their faculties. Individualized approaches are necessary to respect collective agreements and unionized environments. Faculty often are concerned about weakening traditional teaching methods by offering online programs and/or courses. In the context of decision-making in colleges and universities, concerns expressed by faculty have a crucial impact on strategic planning for online and hybrid/blended learning."
Institutional organic development and dialogue
Institutional organic development and dialogue
The conceptual framework proposed by the Ministry targets particularly online learning as opposed to the more generalized term distance education. Most of the institutions stress that their preferred approach is the hybrid/blended model. They emphasize the importance of using all available modes, media and technology supported by personalized student services and various approaches to classroom or mediated human interaction, in real time (synchronous) or asynchronous mode.
Incorporating organic growth into a concerted approach that takes advantage of “start-up” and early adopter dynamics poses a challenge, particularly in the context of existing provincial initiatives and their resourcing. The current funding formulas and timelines leave little time to develop major inter-institutional cooperation. PAL partners are also concerned that a governance framework is emerging that does not take full account of the specific circumstances and needs of Francophone students.
Developing and reinforcing strategic oversight
Online learning and technology-assisted learning must respect the pedagogy and meet the needs of students
“Online learning should not be an objective in and of itself. The institutional reflex must rather be to identify its students and their needs, and what educational means of support are needed to meet these needs. Distance training is part of this reflective process.”
For many institutions, distance education – whether online or otherwise – addresses the issue of access to postsecondary education, with the specific objectives of student retention and academic success. In addition, distance education enables students to remain within their cohort and on their diploma/degree track when they are missing specific courses.
Among the strategies for student success and retention, the quality of human interaction is paramount. Technology choices must always support the teaching strategy appropriate for each course and student population. The benefits of online learning need to be explained and promoted to students who perceive it as inferior to classroom teaching.
Institutional strategic planning
All of the participating institutions have articulated technology-assisted and online learning oversight strategies or are in the process of doing so. The larger institutions have recently completed strategic planning initiatives which nonetheless remain largely peripheral to the major institutional challenges. Technology-assisted learning is not yet part and parcel of the core institutional “reflex” when considering the strategic choices to be made.
Smaller institutions are beginning to acquire technology, often in conjunction with the university with which they are federated or affiliated. Several of these institutions see the personalized approach they offer students as their competitive edge and look at learning technology as a possible distortion of their strength.
Implementation planning strategies proceed on two main tracks:
- Asynchronous – involving a tutor or teacher using variable degrees of available technological potential (audio and video clips, online questionnaires, “serious gaming”, etc.) to reach students who participate according to their own schedule within the parameters of the course timelines.
- Synchronous – using web conferencing, videoconferencing or audioconferencing technology to provide remote access to traditional classroom teaching on campus, with distance students participating in the real-time class.
- Hybrid courses (blended learning), which divide the contents of a course between classroom and online content and which may or may not be “flipped classes” where more time is spent online than in class.
Online learning should not be an objective in and of itself. Instead, the institutional reflex should be to identify each program’s students and their needs, and the most appropriate support to meet these needs. Online and distance education, as well as hybrid learning, are options in this reflective process.
Each institution has its own strategic challenges and responses. Cooperation based on respecting these individual institutional strategic frameworks can enable a sharing of best practices, rather than using a top-down approach coming from the Government of Ontario. The current conceptual model proposed by the Ministry does not include a distinct Francophone governance mechanism. The question of a strategic response from the PAL partner network was raised, along with concern about potential flexibility in designing models that meet the Francophone needs.
Institutional centres of expertise
The PAL partners share a vision of the importance and potential of teaching and learning technologies to support pedagogical projects. Centres of expertise and working groups have moved the issue forward, seeking to make it ever more central to overall strategic planning in their institutions. External players can contribute by highlighting best practices and supporting inter-institutional and project team dialogue and communication. The exchanges among these centres of expertise may include a sharing of “learning objects” and materials (open educational resources), of tools for gathering online student feedback and approaches and strategies for the adoption of technologies.
Francophone differentiation within provincial initiatives
The provincial online learning initiatives and, in particular, the recently announced investment of $12 million are centred on developing online courses with the largest enrolment, providing full credit transfer amongst Ontario institutions. These are introductory courses in various disciplines that are of interest to thousands of students in the major Anglophone institutions.
The Francophone reality is different. In any differentiation strategy intended to meet these needs of the Francophone community in Ontario, innovation and support are required to complete program development, course recognition, program articulation and other student mobility initiatives. Some of the demands and needs will look very different from the needs of Anglophone communities and institutions.
General education courses offered to students in multiple college programs are the first ones targeted by online training in Anglophone institutions. It is also here that we find the most flexibility in Francophone institutions, much more so than in specialized college and university programs, and consequently could be the initial locus of cooperation.
Offering targeted incentive funding and taking part in current provincial initiatives
A strategic positioning vis-à-vis current provincial initiative requires a “Francophone champion” to put forward joint “products” and promote the interests of Francophone students and institutions. Fundamental work is necessary in order to outline these potential collaborations for the development of entire online programs, current program articulations, credit recognition, and transferability. The differentiated needs of the Francophone community and institutions need to be reflected in the strategy being pursued by government and in the governance of its strategic investments.
The partners have various views on the question of a separate budget for Francophone initiatives, since the consolidation of Francophone requests might result in access to more substantial resources within the framework of invitations to submit proposals to language-independent budgets. The institutions have a strategic interest in building the major partnerships that will be needed to move forward with a coordinated approach. A participatory framework for collaborative institutions will also be needed.
“When grants are received, one develops the courses as much as possible. The greatest challenge faced by colleges is related to operating costs. Developing courses is great, but the real issue involves maintaining the technology and continuing to advance.”
Funding new initiatives in technology-assisted and online learning should start by pointing out the role of “angel investors” to support start-ups. These investors contribute start-up capital and mobilize expertise to support new enterprises, while seeking to minimize their administrative footprint. They also acquire an equity position in the capital of the business, which means that they are both interested and active owners. Many operational parallels exist when considering the creation of a public investment fund.
Incentive financing must make it possible to free up content experts and provide them with techno-pedagogical support to fully benefit from the possibilities provided by teaching and learning technologies. Reduced course load for faculty and instructors and/or the awarding of development contracts are also necessary.
Investment choices can also provide leadership for the organic development process mentioned above. Piecemeal development observed in the first wave of exploration can be more widely focused on the basis of the shared interests of the institutions.
Mitigating the risks associated with innovation
The business models must be well-tuned and their intended or unintended impacts on government funding formulas need to be better understood. Above and beyond investments in capital assets (infrastructure) and operational expenses (human resources and systems management), the institutions are currently exploring initiatives that could have a significant impact on their revenue structure, either through new funding formulas or income generated by registration. The support provided by the Government could make it possible to directly compensate for the immediate costs of innovation in educational technology or could mitigate their impacts over a longer period of transition.
The development and maintenance of a minimum capacity for participating in the partnerships are necessities for smaller institutions – the transaction costs of such partnerships are high. Without this threshold capacity, these institutions will be excluded from the development from the very start and will find it difficult, if not impossible to “join in” at a later stage.
Seeking common areas of interest and governance for a Centre of Excellence
The purpose of this initiative is to benefit Francophone students. The goal must be to provide access for the greatest number of students who go directly from secondary to postsecondary education, as well as for adult students already in continuing education or who wish to return to studies. However, institutional constraints and, in particular, the university senate approval procedures and conditions set in collective agreements place restrictions on both the extent and speed of development, as well as the disruptive nature of these developments. OntarioLearn has developed a well-tuned model of governance and business association. Overall, quality control parameters, course update processes and content alignment with programs that are specific to individual institutions remain challenges that must be addressed.
“Four principles form the basis of secondary school policy applied by the 12 CAVLFO board partners: coherence, flexibility, autonomy and cooperation.”
The organizing principle for cooperation must be common areas of interest, i.e. partnership in any joint initiative must be voluntary and contribute to meeting clearly articulated institutional interests. The possibilities for project team membership are numerous and varied, drawing from among 12 potential partners, and it is important that all options are considered. Partnership configuration and reconfiguration should be dynamic and function on the just in time principle. The duration of partnerships can also vary widely with joint projects lasting a few months to a few years, until the desired goals are achieved. The institutions anticipate that there will be few joint projects that interest all the PAL partners simultaneously.
The consortium experience of several initiatives – in particular the French-Language Virtual Learning Consortium of Ontario (CAVLFO), the Consortium national de formation en santé (a national consortium for health education) and the pedagogical resource development consortium in New Brunswick – demonstrate the importance of maintaining relationships among both decision makers and content producers. The high-level engagement makes it possible to provide the relationship with a strategic focus, whereas working together on specific projects enables tangible advancement. The creation of communities of practice for technology and pedagogy is essential to the development of an interdependent relationship and effective knowledge sharing.
Focussing on joint work based on concrete projects
The core focus for future joint projects seems to be at the program level, where commitment to action and tangible results provides mutual benefits and leads to a well-rooted interdependent relationship.
“It would be of interest to share winning practices, create a Francophone learning community in Ontario and create a virtual French-speaking identity. It would be useful for our students to see that they are not alone in this universe.”
The following examples of joint projects are listed in no particular order:
- Exploring technology adoption strategies by faculty;
- Developing complementary courses at several institutions aimed at constituting a common program or filling specific resource gaps at a particular institution;
- High school–college–university alignment through shared online tools, modules and adapted courses;
- The use of technologies to meet special needs of students as understood in the Education Act;
- Exploration of the international offering of French-language hybrid or completely online programs and courses;
- Setting up a consortium for acquiring technology and establishing a repository of open educational resources and effective practice models;
- Preparation of a development strategy for French-language e-books.
The experience of the Consortium national de formation en santé (CNFS), a nationwide health education consortium, illustrates the importance of resources to coordinate cooperative efforts. Dedicated resources are necessary to support the joint initiatives that can mobilize the professorial, educational and technological resources of the institutional partners. It would be beneficial to develop a model for cooperation and to identify the conditions for success in such joint work.
Extending the reach of hybrid courses
While some institutions set ambitious goals for the development of hybrid courses, others emphasize personalized support for their students and a strong presence in their community. In both cases, the goal is the same: optimize the benefit technologies provide to extend the range of the course access and delivery, while maintaining the quality of human contact and interaction between student and faculty member or instructor. A given institution may focus on campus delivery in which classrooms bring several students together around a single subject or, alternatively, choose to deliver to rural and remote communities, where contact is individual and may involve several different courses. Some may offer both.
The initiative being envisaged could help to support the invention of “delocalized” hybrid courses, in which the contents and structure of courses developed by an institution and that are available online are accompanied by a local human presence provided under the auspices of another institutional partner. Several questions need to be explored here, as the tasks of faculty and instructors will have to be redefined and technology and legal issues clarified, etc.
Such hybrid courses, with or without “flipped classroom” features, could unite technology, content and the human relationship on campus and in the wider field. The experience of several PAL institutional partners has led to the consideration of new models that take full advantage of the potential of technology, structure of hybrid courses and infrastructure in place in the field throughout the province.
Laurentian University’s Social Work Program, which is jointly delivered by Université de Hearst and Nova Scotia’s Université Sainte-Anne, is an interesting example of a program delivery and revenue-sharing formula. OntarioLearn funding formulas can also serve as useful models.
Contact North I Contact Nord’s network of 112 online learning centres supporting 600 communities provide students who use distance courses with the opportunity to be part of a “study centre” in communities that are isolated or not served by postsecondary institutions. Library and teaching support resources could also be dispensed in such centres. Cohorts could be comprised of students who take different courses but help each other in their studies. Such models are currently being tested for Aboriginal communities.