Ontario is a technology hub and home to several leading private sector providers of platforms, services and infrastructure for online learning. Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of the Blackberry mobile phone and the PlayBook, has its headquarters in Ontario, and Desire2Learn is now the major commercial competitor to Blackboard in the learning management system area. There are also small, medium and large companies developing learning applications (“apps”), simulations and serious games, as well as an advanced animation industry that helps create movies for Hollywood. Several other major companies with a direct relevance for online learning also have a large presence in Ontario, such as Bell Canada, IBM, Blackboard, EMBANET, and Polycom.

The study

As part of the consultation process around the development of an Ontario Online Institute, Maxim Jean-Louis, the special advisor to the Minister, invited several of these large private sector companies that operate in Ontario to answer a set of questions about possible partnerships or relationships between these companies and the education sector that might advance Ontario as a world leader in online learning.

A set of 11 questions was put to these companies, and Maxim’s report on the first responses is now publicly available from here. The questions were:

1. Where does investment in the development of online learning technology “fit” in your company strategy?

2. What are the opportunities for your company to use online learning for professional development, training and re-training?

3. What gets in the way, do you think, of more college and university courses being available online?

4. If Ontario wants to be the lead online learning jurisdiction in North America at the post-secondary level, what would your company be able to do to help Ontario get there?

5. What kind of partnership arrangements would you like to see with:
a) Government of Ontario
b) Colleges
c) Universities
d) An Ontario Online Institute

6. When it comes to next generation technologies – e.g. mobile learning – what steps should we embark on as an OOI to fully leverage this opportunity?

7. How can your company help Ontario be the world leader in mobile learning?

8. There are emotional and attitudinal barriers to the use of online learning – e.g. certain professions are opposed to its use – do you think an alliance of public and private sector organizations can “shift” these views? If yes – how / if no, why not?

9. What emerging technologies – whether from your own company, your partner’s or others – do you think might be “game changers” for online learning?

10. What one thing could an Ontario Online Institute do that would have a real impact on online learning in Ontario and, at the same time, be helpful to you?

11. What’s the most important thing an OOI could do to signal that Ontario intends to be a leader in the world in online learning?

The results

First, Maxim is working to a tight deadline, so only about half the companies approached were able to respond by the deadline. Interestingly, none of these was headquartered in Ontario.

The main conclusion drawn by Maxim from the response to the questions was:

All were supportive of the development of an Ontario Online Institute and the thrust to grow online learning as part of the Government of Ontario’s Open Ontario Plan. They saw socio-economic development, commercial and learning gains flowing from such a focus and wished to indicate their support…..Overall there was a commitment to supporting the work of an OOI in constructive and meaningful ways.

Five major themes emerged from the responses:

1. Think K Through Grey

Online learning applies to all sectors of the learning market, from cradle to grave. The province should seek to lever economies of scale through common platforms and services for all educational sectors.

2. Teaching Online is a Paradigm Shift

The private sector respondents still think that education doesn’t ‘get it’, in that institutions are still adding on technology or trying to replicate the classroom model online rather than re-designing teaching to exploit the full potential of the technology.

There is a strong understanding that online isn’t just “PowerPoint plus”. Others noted that this paradigm shift has implications for faculty agreements, the organizational design and accountability frameworks for universities and colleges and for our understanding of intellectual property. …The respondents generally see online learning as disruptive to the current operating paradigms of providers.

3. Focus on Outcomes and let the Technology Support the Outcomes – Don’t Focus on Technology

This reflected the views of the international experts previously surveyed. The respondents felt that the focus should be on outcomes – increased participation of better learning performance – rather on choosing specific technologies.

The issue is not “which technology” but “what outcomes are you seeking to improve?” The issues are how value can be added and will an investment in technology be a part of the way to create that value?

4. Think Infrastructure

The respondents were clear that infrastructure was an area for partnership between government and the private sector:

Any move to see Ontario as a North American leader in mobile learning has to give consideration to the technology backbone (e.g. broadband access) and infrastructure (e.g. the technology platform)…..there is a strong sense that learners will require access to both synchronous learning (audio and video conferencing and real time activities, such a team simulations) as well as asynchronous learning opportunities.

5. Keep an Eye on Trends

Not only does technology continue to develop rapidly, but so does the way end-users are incorporating technology into their lives, so an important role for the OOI would be to track technology trends and help assess their educational potential. In particular the trend will continue towards learning at any time and any place.


I found it interesting that none of the companies headquartered in Ontario were able to respond by the deadline. There are a myriad of possible explanations for this (for instance, RIM was about to launch the new PlayBook during the period of this study), and there is still plenty of time for these companies to get more engaged. I hope so, because the development of the OOI provides a unique opportunity to develop meaningful partnerships between the private sector and the education sector, which far too often operate completely independently or on a strictly commercial basis in the technology field. A little joint R&D in e-learning could go a long way.

It is also interesting to compare the private sector responses to those of the international e-learning experts reported in an earlier posting. There is agreement on the need to focus on pedagogy and educational design, and the need to fully exploit/develop the paradigm shift, which still is not occurring to any significant degree. In particular, I believe we could be doing much more to develop course or program designs based on learner-centered teaching that provide more choice and engagement for learners.

Lastly, both public and private sector organizations seem to see a need for a ‘meta-level’ Online Institute that adds value to existing services. I look forward then with interest to the Ontario government’s response to Maxim’s report to the Minister when ready some time at the end of this month.

Some questions about ‘world leadership’ in online learning

Lastly I’d be interested in your responses to the following questions:

1. Do you think the OOI should look to create/support partnerships between the public and private sectors in online learning? What are the advantages and risks (to both sides)?

2. Is Ontario particularly well placed to become a world leader in online learning, or is this just the hubris of Central Canada?

3. Which jurisdiction actually IS a world leader in online learning? California? Australia? The UK? British Columbia? or New Brunswick?

4. Is ‘world leadership in online learning’ just a silly concept, or does it have some merit in forcing needed changes in the system?

Answers on a postcard, please (or better, in the comment box).


  1. I’m currently transitioning from a Higher Education institution to the private sector and most of the interviews I’ve gotten have expressed that academia (and the workers in academia) are not forward looking. It’s always interesting when we start discussing trends and modern educational technology theories….

    Either way, I live in Ontario and I truly believe that the western Provinces are far ahead of where we are. Certainly there are pockets of people doing great things, but as a widespread phenomenon, I don’t believe that we are further ahead right now. Ontario may reach great heights, but there needs to be more infrastructure brought in to support that climb. At the moment, I’m seeing some identification of the gap, but no real solutions implemented.


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