The final recommendations for an Ontario Online Institute are now published. Tucked away on the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities ‘In the spotlight’ web page is a single line: June 3, 2011: Moving Forward with the Ontario Online Institute. This links to the report of the Special Advisor to the Minister, Maxim Jean-Louis.
The 155 page report contains 10 recommendations which in summary recommend:
- the establishment of a not-for-profit corporation whose primary role will be to facilitate, enable and fund support for online learning in Ontario, rather than regulate, control or acquire assets, working alongside and leveraging existing ‘assets’ within the system. It will not offer credentials nor duplicate or replace existing services (such as quality assurance). It is therefore suggested that consideration be given to changing the name from ‘Institute’, which suggests a credentialling organization.
Its immediate works should focus on the following five initiatives (all in collaboration with existing public-assisted educational institutions):
- an online course development fund
- new student support services,
- enhancement of online library services
- faculty and instructor training
- enhancements to the existing Ontario Online Learning Portal.
It should focus specifically (but not exclusively) on online services for the following target groups:
- aboriginal students
- new Canadians
- persons with disabilities
- Ontarians in small, rural and remote areas of the province
- existing on-campus students seeking greater flexibility through online learning
Two other areas of focus are also identified:
- facilitating credit recognition and credit transfer between institutions
- promoting online learning as of equal excellence to campus-based learning.
The report recommends an investment of $25 million over three years, starting immediately, which should be in addition to current college and university funding.
The new OOI should be launched in September, 2011. To meet this daye, it is recommended that the Ministry immediately establishes an Implementation Steering Committee with an Interim Executive Director to hire staff, provide the necessary legal framework for the Institute, and to recommend the Board of Directors, working with an existing institution that can support the work of the Steering Committee.
The rest of the report contains a detailed rationale for the establishment of the OOI. The basic case rests on the following arguments:
- the need to increase access even further to post-secondary education in Ontario,
- providing a systems-wide approach based on student needs such as flexibility of access to courses and programs, credit transfer, and filling gaps in existing online provision
- adding value to rather than duplicating existing provision
- enhancing the quality and reputation of online learning within the province.
The report follows extensive consultation with 38 key stakeholders within the province, formal input from bodies such as the Ontario Council of Universities and the Ontario Undergraduate Students Association, advice and guidance from 13 Canadian and international experts in online learning, and input from 15 Ontario-based private sector providers of platforms, services and infrastructure for online learning.
First, a declaration of interest: as a part-time research associate of Contact North, whose President, Maxim Jean-Louis was seconded as a the Special Advisor to the Minister, I have been involved behind the scenes in providing advice, so my comments may be tinted by this role.
Second, the recommendations suggest an organization very similar to BC Campus in British Columbia, a move away from earlier discussions that saw Open Universities Australia as more of a model. The key difference is that OUA is a formal consortium of universities, privately operated with its own degrees, whereas BC Campus is a facilitator to existing institutions (which, within BC, already have extensive credit transfer and credit recognition agreements).
The OOI recommendations are probably the inevitable result of extensive consultations with existing stakeholders, who do not want a new credentialling organization that might compete directly for resources and students. The positive side is that there is now extensive support (or at least not extensive opposition) from the existing institutions for an OOI. Also, in parallel to the discussions on the OOI, the Ontario government has funded a new body to improve credit transfer and credit recognition between Ontario post-secondary institutions, which should make it easier to develop partnerships and consortia for online programming within the province, especially at the university level.
However, there are still a number of hurdles to be cleared before the OOI becomes a reality. The onus now clearly lies with the Ontario government. Will it act on the recommendations? The Ministry web site states: Support for the Ontario Online Institute is part of the McGuinty government’s plan to help every student succeed and build a knowledge-based economy for the future. However, there is an election scheduled for October 6, 2011, and the election outcome is by no means certain.
Another factor is the large Ontario provincial budget deficit and debt, which all the political parties recognize must be reduced over time. Although the sum requested ($25 million over three years) is relatively modest (and probably already accounted for in the province’s book-keeping), how will this run politically? The worst outcome would be for the current government to implement the OOI, and for a new government to immediately cancel it (as happened in BC in 2001 to the Technical University of BC and the Open Learning Agency).
Nevertheless, I hope the Ontario government does go ahead with establishing the OOI (perhaps with another name – the Ontario Online Network?). Although Ontario, as the largest province, has the largest number of post-secondary online courses and programs in Canada, and generally the standard of online teaching is exceedingly high, there are some major gaps in online programming within the system. If Ontario is to increase its already high post-secondary education participation rate from 63% to 70% it is going to have to reach target groups that will not use traditional campus-based teaching for a variety of reasons. The proposals take nothing away from existing institutions and provide value-added services. Maxim jean-Louis has provided a detailed and well-researched rationale and plan for the new organization. So let’s hope we will see this major initiative go ahead.