In their mandate submissions offered to the Government of Ontario last year, 18 of 21 colleges and universities said they would significantly increase their investment in, and use of, online learning. Given this environment what are the major opportunities that online learning offers for the institutions themselves, the Ontario post-secondary system as whole, and the student population?
There are three highlighted here: collaboration, innovation and the opportunity to leapfrog.
While many of these opportunities will require up-front investment of time, imagination and resources, the “pay off” could be that Ontario not only sustains its leadership position in Canada for online learning, but blazes a pathway for online learning innovation in North America.
The first opportunity is to the lower the costs of program development, increase the speed at which courses required by the program are made available, and pool the instructional capacities of institutions to deliver the program.
Colleges already collaborate with Contact North | Contact Nord for marketing and delivery, leveraging their 112 online learning centres located in communities throughout the province.
This kind of collaboration needs to be extended to the design, development and deployment activities for online learning. Of particular importance could be the pooling of instructional design, technology support, student services and related supports for online learning as well as professional development for faculty.
Two other levels of collaboration would accelerate the growth and development for online learning in Ontario. The first is if all institutions shared a common platform for learning delivery – the learning management system. Currently, there is a mixture, with Desire2Learn and Blackboard dominating... For seamless service, province-wide support and integration it would make sense for all institutions to use the same platform as all of the Ontario school systems: Desire2Learn. This would also permit a lower cost for this infrastructure.
The second opportunity is to pool the learning resources developed within the post-secondary system. Rather than see value in the intellectual property developed by a single faculty member within a single institution, many other jurisdictions have treated such resources as common property for the state or province (in Ontario it was created using public funds) and is managed through a commons license. In this way, more use could be made of scarce resources and the degree of duplication in the system could be reduced over time. Different institutions have different policies and collective agreements with respect to intellectual property management – over time, a commitment to open learning and open resources for learning will change the way such policies are written.
Collaboration is now seen as the “DNA” of the knowledge economy. It is a means for building jurisdictional advantage in Ontario. Rather than compete to create courses, Ontario colleges and universities should collaborate to create programs and courses which compete with the best in the world.
The arrival of MOOC’s, a new focus on learning analytics, and the emergence of adaptive learning technologies and tablet technologies has enabled a conversation about online learning and innovation more robust than we have seen for some time.
Some have focused on what the technology can do. For example, a great deal of attention is being paid to simulation, “gamification,” and adaptive systems which change the experience of the learner (the learning materials, the style of learning and the assessment methods) based on their assessment and online behaviour.
But the real challenge here is pedagogical: what is the nature of learning and teaching in the twenty first century, given who our learners are, what it is we are seeking to enable and what resources we can bring to bear on the learning process? That is, rather than focusing on technology, we should focus on the intent and experience of learning.
Some real innovations are taking place in pedagogy. Students of entrepreneurship are using crowdsourcing for entrepreneurial ideas and funding, project-based work as well as video-based instruction. Students of art are using a variety of online tools to understand both the history of art as well as technique, and are using virtual galleries to display their work. Apprentices are using video-based practicums for applied learning of skills. The challenge is that that they are not as widespread as they need to be so as to increase learning outcomes, engage students in their learning and encourage faculty to adopt e-learning as a core teaching strategy for their institution.
Faculty professional development clearly is part of the response to this opportunity, and some significant work is taking place here too. But this is not enough. What is needed is a system focused on learning and teaching so that we can dramatically improve learning outcomes, learner engagement and faculty satisfaction. This requires a shift from Vice Presidents, Deans and department heads from being “administrators” to being instructional leaders – engaging in a powerful, focused and evidence-based approach to pedagogy. This is a tough challenge – in times of austerity, bureaucracy tends to dominate. But if online learning is to be as transformative as it holds the potential to be, instructional leadership is a critical requirement for success.
Also needed is a rethink of the governance models required for online learning. A great online program is the product of many different hands – faculty, instructional designers, technologically talented creators, editors, librarians and students. A major shift that would make a difference is to see these course or program teams as deciding agents of change within an institution.
The Reut Institute in Israel has done a great deal of work defining a strategy for Israel so that it can leapfrog economically. In addition to developing the strategy for their own country, they have helped shape a theoretical framework to understand how jurisdictions or industry sectors, such as online learning, can pursue and successfully achieve leapfrogging and build strong and sustainable jurisdictional advantage by doing so.
Online learning is already a major achievement for Ontario as a jurisdiction. It is not just the 18,000+ courses and 1,000+ programs available online from colleges and universities, it is also the presence in Ontario of a significant technology sector dedicated to online learning and the presence of a major device developer – Blackberry.
The conditions in Ontario – a high concentration of post-secondary institutions; anchor companies (Blackberry and Desire2Learn) and a cluster of supporting firms; a highly educated and skilled workforce; and a focus on innovation – all point to the opportunity for Ontario to be a leapfrog player in online learning. What we know from a range of studies of “leapfrogging” is that this requires a very high level of collaboration between colleges and universities, genuine and authentic partnerships between industry and institutions, and a government strategy that it sees itself facilitating rather than controlling. Leadership requires courage and vision. The question is: who will show this kind of courageous leadership?
There are challenges and barriers to success for any venture and the opportunity for online learning in Ontario also faces such challenges. But opportunities abound. The time is right for a clear and focused development which seeks to secure 1,000,000 annual registrations for online courses, 45,000 online courses and 3,000 online programs all of which are world class within a decade.
Are we up to the challenge?