July 29, 2014

Online learning set to expand and become a core function in Ontario’s universities and colleges

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Contact North (2013) An Overview of the Strategic Mandate Agreement Proposals Prepared by Ontario’s Public Colleges and Universities: Online Learning Set to Expand and Become a Core Function Sudbury ON: Contact North|Contact Nord

The context

Ontario is the largest province in Canada, geographically, demographically and economically. It has 24 universities and 24 colleges, and hence is a driving force in Canadian post-secondary education.

In response to the challenges of increased access, higher quality, and fiscal constraint, Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities requested in August 2012 that each post-secondary education institution in the province submit a strategic mandate agreement (SMA) proposal. Each institution was asked to provide a brief submission identifying three priority objectives, and a vision of how the institution plans to implement the objectives, using a template provided by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. (The documents submitted by each institution are available online.)

Contact North, Ontario’s publicly-funded Distance Education and Training Network, has published a ‘non-exhaustive’ analysis of the institutions’ proposed priority objectives to highlight the key patterns related to educational access, flexibility, student success, and university and college cooperation – and the central role to be played by technology in the future of postsecondary education in Ontario.

Key findings from the analysis

  • goals in the mandates reflect the needs of a very diverse population and a massive geographical territory
  • enhanced services and possibilities for specific populations, including Aboriginals and Francophones
  • a planned rapid expansion of online and hybrid learning, as well as an increased use of technology for classroom-based learning
  • a rapid deployment of emerging learning technologies, such as mobile learning, simulations and virtual worlds
  • an expansion of credit transfer between and among colleges and universities, and within consortia
  • pathways being opened to more rapid diploma and degree completion
  • an enhanced focus on experiential learning, applied research and entrepreneurialism
  • new programs and institutes to address regional and provincial needs
  • an expansion of institutional collaboration and cooperation

Among the 21 universities submitting agreement proposals, 18 specifically mentioned plans for an increase in online and/or blended learning activities.

Among the 23 colleges submitting agreement proposals, 21 specifically mentioned plans for an increase in online and/or blended learning.

The analysis identified five common elements emerging from the mandate statements:

  1. Specific educational goals related to the needs of local communities;
  2. More choice and flexibility for learners;
  3. Greater co-operation and collaboration between the provincial post-secondary institutions;
  4. Increased innovation in teaching and better learning outcomes as a result;
  5. An expectation of greater productivity: more and better learning for each dollar invested.

Online and hybrid learning seem set to expand rapidly on an already extensive base, and perhaps more significantly, online learning is becoming a core function and competency of nearly all public post-secondary institutions in the province.

The Contact North document covers a wider range of activities than just online learning, and also provides detailed examples to illustrate each finding.

Next steps

The strategic mandate statements are just one of a range of written submissions and discussions that will provide ‘direct input to the development of a post secondary productivity and transformation strategy‘ by the Ministry. However, this will not become clear until after the government has a new premier and cabinet following a leadership contest this coming weekend.

Declaration of interest

I am a Contact North research associate and contributed to the publication.

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