Toronto Island from the HECQO boardroom

HECQO and the Ontario Online Institute

I spent a very interesting day on July 7 at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), discussing a possible research agenda that would support the establishment of the proposed Ontario Online Institute. The creation of this institute is still a work in progress, but HEQCO has a mandate to do research that informs Ontario government policy, and it is investigating research projects that will assist the Ontario Online Institute, whatever its ultimate form. Tom Carey, a faculty member at the University of Waterloo and a consultant to HEQCO, was the organiser of the workshop, which included e-learning specialists from colleges and universities across Ontario, as well as senior Ministry officials.

The Ontario government, hard hit by last year’s recession (although its economy is rapidly recovering), is seeking to establish Ontario as a world leader in innovation and productivity, and the Ontario Online Institute is one mechanism that it is establishing as part of the larger agenda to promote innovation and change within the province.

The format and structure of the Ontario Online Institute are no clearer now than when I posted on this topic in March, but whatever its form or structure, there are certain challenges that Ontario faces if it wishes to become a world leader in this area. Terry Anderson of Athabasca University and myself were invited as research consultants with a mandate to identify the characteristics of a ‘best online post-secondary teaching system’ – in 2010 and 2015 – and to suggest research areas that would help inform the development of such a system.

There was an extremely interesting discussion and set of suggestions from the participants.

My presentation

I presented basically two slides. The first identified the following characteristics of a ‘world leader’ in post-secondary online learning:

  • Quality teaching: 21st century skills and knowledge + modern pedagogy (learner-centered, collaborative, open, facilitative)

I argued however that quality online teaching and learning was a necessary but not sufficient requirement to be a world leader in online learning. Other essential characteristics were:

  • Recognized qualifications
  • Open access
  • Flexible delivery
  • Credit transfer
  • Cost-effectiveness/new business models
  • Appropriate use of technology
  • Consortia and collaboration

There were several other criteria I could have added.

In terms of research, I suggested the following priorities:

  • an analysis of different models of hybrid learning and the conditions that work best for the different models
  • development of theory or guidelines on when to use face-to-face or online learning in specific discipline areas, and for what purposes
  • new business models (e.g. Activity Based Costing) and an examination of the effect of moving to online learning on overhead costs (e.g., parking spaces, campus heating and lighting)
  • new methods of online assessment of key 21st century skills, for example through e-portfolios
  • independent evaluation of innovative teaching, and incentives for innovative teaching through provincial awards
  • development of low-cost simulations for applied learning/vocational education
  • identification of appropriate designs and roles for mobile learning.

There were several other areas I could have included, such as research into appropriate ways to incorporate open content, best methods to facilitate online learning support, and appropriate models for faculty development, etc.

In the afternoon we divided into four groups, addressing the following potential research areas, defined by the participants in the workshop:

  • flexible access and learner support
  • policy and infrastructure issues
  • strategic skills: how to develop the skills needed for innovation in a knowledge society
  • pedagogical and teaching issues, including professional development and training

Suggestions for research on policy and infrastructure

I was the facilitator of the group that discussed policy and infrastructure issues, and here are their suggestions for research or analysis:

  • identify and then remove the systemic and institutional policy impediments to innovation in teaching
  • what are appropriate business models for online learning?
  • what are appropriate incentives to foster online learning?
  • develop or disseminate guidelines on quality assurance
  • what are the conditions that lead to true, deep partnerships/collaboration around e-learning? For instance, what barriers do collective agreements present to collaboration?
  • do we need a provincial technology infrastructure and if so what should it look like? What tools/services should be centralized, institutional, or a student responsibility? What principles should operate to decide the location and ‘ownership’ of technology tools and services? How should infrastructure be funded?
  • what would be appropriate measures of success for the OOI (when we know what it is)?
  • review the conditions for success (at a system level) in online learning from other jurisdictions where online learning has been successfully implemented;
  • review existing successful collaborative projects in Ontario (e.g. OCAS, OUAC, Bibliothèque, ORION, SHARPNET) and identify success factors for inter-institutional collaboration
  • set up a working group on how to deal with IP issues and open content
  • Set up a working group to look at privacy and security policies from cloud computing/governance of IT

In terms of research process, our group proposed to HEQCO:

  • Don’t get locked into traditional research models; use funds to draw on existing expertise to identify issues and policies
  • Bring e-learning ‘leaders’ in Ontario together as a group to inform/advise government on some of these issues
  • Draw on secondary sources, i.e. existing literature/research, as much as possible, rather than reinvent the wheel with new research
  • tackle some of the policy issues through consultation and workshops, rather than academic research.

What next?

Well, it appears that there has been a change of mind by the HEQCO senior management. On Friday, July 30 HEQCO issued the following statement:

“HEQCO’s research plans for 2010-2011 have been changing in response to new requests for specific policy advice on a number of pressing issues. As a result, HEQCO will not be pursuing a potential research program in support of the Ontario Online Institute as part of the 2010-2011 Research Plan.”

A pity, as there is a desperate shortage of policy research in e-learning. The news came as a surprise to me, so any questions as to why HEQCO changed its mind should be sent directly to HEQCO.

Questions for readers

1. If you were asked to define the characteristics of a higher education system that is a world leader in terms of online learning, what would you suggest?

2. What research in online learning do you think needs to be done to help develop a leading, world class, higher education system?

Flight into Toronto City Airport

See also: Another view on research for the Ontario Online Institute.


  1. Is research into online learning appropriate yet? I recognize there are plenty of examples, but none of them are compelling. I would suggest that we are still in the very early innovation phase of online learning, and a robust model has yet to emerge. If we are to research anything, it should be directed at finding the conditions to promote innovation in online learning.

  2. John, I would encourage you to reread your post omitting the word “online” and consider if the statement is not equally valid.

    If anything, online learning often suffers from replicating the pedagogy and instructional models of “traditional” learning too closely. The potential for innovation in both modes is great, but I am hopeful that the openness, flexibility, and potentially disruptive influence of technology bodes well for innovation occurring on the online side.


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