The central importance of Ontario in Canada
Ontario is, if not the centre of the universe, certainly the centre of Canada, geographically, economically and in terms of size. Its population at over 13 million, is 3.5 times that of British Columbia, and it contributes 38% of Canada’s GDP, compared to British Columbia’s 13%. There is a tendency for Ontarians to see British Columbia, hidden behind the Rockies, perched on the Pacific Rim, and three hours behind Toronto, Canada’s financial capital, as being at the fringe of the country.
We have also seen that Ontario has a thriving post-secondary e-learning environment. It has more online enrollments, courses and programs than any other province. It has a very successful collaboration between the colleges, Ontario Learn, where 22 colleges share over 100 courses. Contact North provides services in rural and remote areas of the province that support the online courses and programs from Ontario universities and colleges.
However, there are still some lessons that Ontario can learn from BC. What Ontario currently lacks is a system view of e-learning, and mechanisms that allow for collaboration and sharing of online content, courses and programs that results in coherent, province wide learning opportunities for students, particularly at a university level. Despite the wide range of online distance courses available from Ontario institutes, no less than 40% of Athabasca University’s students are from Ontario (Athabasca is an Alberta-based distance teaching university).
To address some of these shortcomings, and to push Ontario to the leading edge in online learning, the Ontario government is creating the Ontario Online Institute. It could do worse than to look at the success of BC Campus in developing a system approach.
The success of BC Campus’s Online Program Development Fund
In a blog today, Paul Stacey, who has been the main administrator of BCCampus’s Online Program Development Fund (OPDF), sets out the eight year history of this fund (which comes on an annual basis from the BC provincial government), and its achievements. From this fascinating account, I draw the following conclusions:
1. Setting aside a relatively small amount of money each year to address gaps in the system and to encourage collaboration can have a very big pay-off (amounts have varied year by year, down from $1.5 million in the early years to $750,000 in 2010).
2. Central funding with conditions enables the development of a wide range of sharable open educational resources. All institutions receiving OPDF funding have the option of either a province-wide or Creative Commons license. In other words, once created these materials can be used by any public institution in the province, and increasingly proposals are coming forward to build on such resources.
3. Collaboration between institutions enables students to access a wider range of credentials across the whole province. The OPDF has led to the development of 47 different credentialled programs that are unlikely to have existed without such central funding. All the public sector post-secondary institutions have participated in OPDF funding, and often institutions have partnered with up to 20 other provincial partners. Many partners are not just post-secondary institutions, but school boards, NGOs and from the private sector.
4. Collaborative programming has been helped tremendously by a comprehensive system of pre-agreed credit transfers between institutions through the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer (BCCAT) transfer guide.
It should be noted that these initiatives are all over and above the contributions from individual institutions in BC, which while not having as many online courses and programs as Ontario, nevertheless has an equally flourishing e-learning scene.
‘Provincial’ is a word often used for an attitude that focuses on petty local issues that miss the big picture (my house is nicer/bigger than yours). There is a tendency often to look into the far distance, to countries such as the USA, Australia and the United Kingdom for inspiration, and there is nothing wrong with that. But often what we are looking for is closer to home. I’m not arguing that the Ontario Online Institute should copy or imitate BC Campus. It should take the best ideas from BC Campus and other system-wide initiatives and build something new and even better. However, if something works and has a proven track record – and the BC Campus OPDF certainly has that – it would be foolish not to learn from both its successes and its failures.
I urge everyone interested in open educational resources, system-wide approaches to online learning, and those wanting to get the best bang for the buck in online learning, to read Paul’s detailed and compelling post: especially policy-makers in Ontario.
Stacey, P. (2011) Evolution of an OER Initiative – An Eight Year Retrospective Musings on the EdTech Frontier, February 28