Ontario (2012) Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge Toronto ON: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

in the ides of summer (June 27), the Ontario provincial government published this very interesting discussion paper about the future of the Ontario post-secondary/higher education system.I am delighted to have a guest post from Dr. Tom Carey that reviews the paper.

 Tom is a Research Professor at San Diego State University and a Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Professor at the Technology-Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute of Athabasca University. Tom was formerly a professor, faculty development leader and Associate Vice-President for Learning Resources and Innovation at the University of Waterloo, and recently completed a term as Senior Partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching  in Stanford, California. Here is his post:

Purpose of the discussion paper

“As our government begins the process of transforming the higher education sector”…well, that line in a discussion paper from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is sure to motivate interest from institutions, faculty, students and anyone else connected to higher education in the province (even if the discussion paper was released just before the Canada Day holiday weekend, typically a dead zone for attention).

 “This paper and the resulting consultation process seek to identify ways to improve productivity through innovation in the Ontario PSE system. Increased innovation…will improve student learning options, meet the needs of lifelong learners, enhance quality, and ensure long-term financial sustainability…in addition to addressing the priorities of acceleration, productivity, technology, quality and student choice.”


Let’s start with three bits of context. First, the current government in Ontario has been a strong supporter of post-secondary education, sparing colleges and universities – along with the schools and health – from the worst of the trimming applied to other expense areas in the 2012 budget. The stated goal is to maintain a leadership role for the province in post-secondary education: while other regions in North America strive to catch up to where Ontario is now, the government intends to move the goalposts to a rate of 70% of Ontario’s adult population attaining some form of post-secondary credential.

Secondly, no amount of good will from government can insulate the colleges and universities from the reality of unsustainable costs. Annual cost increases greater than growth in the economy can’t go on, and the discussion paper cites a number of global trends requiring that the sector provide access for more students and raise the bar on student outcomes for higher quality.

Finally, the discussion paper emphasizes Innovation through Productivity, reflecting a theme appearing across the government. The paper references the larger agenda to realize the goal that “Ontario’s economy is an Innovation Economy” and the words Innovation and Productivity each appear on average once per page. Often they appear together: “How do we further strengthen the culture of innovation in the sector in order to enhance quality and productivity? What are the barriers and roadblocks to innovation and productivity today?” By linking these terms so strongly, the discussion paper may have managed to secure the dreaded P-word a place in the discussion with college and university faculty.

Implications for online learning

Let’s focus now on the implications for online learning (others have commented elsewhere on the wider issues).  The section Around the World in Post-Secondary Education highlights the growing importance of online learning. Two excerpts will convey some of the tone:

    • Technology-enhanced learning…can enable new ways for students to learn from and interact with faculty and each other…digital delivery of course content can free faculty in traditional institutions to engage in direct dialogue and mentorship with students”.  Notice the finesse around the issue of non-traditional institutions, and the stubborn persistence of a delivery metaphor for education.
    • “Technology is driving world-wide changes in education, and it is important that Ontario recognize and respond to these changes so that credentials from Ontario PSE institutions hold their high value.” 

This could be interpreted in many ways. On one level it may be saying that if Ontario institutions fall behind in their use of technology to support learning, their image and credibility internationally will suffer – witness the rush of elite institutions jumping on the MOOC bandwagon (well, content delivery MOOCs at least, not a more connectivist model) to stay in step with their aspirational peers.

On another level, the point being made could be around productivity gains in order to preserve value in high quality outcomes as enrolment expands without commensurate funding increases. And on another level yet – OK, I don’t really think our friends in the Ministry are going this far – the point may be that we need to prepare students for a world where personal networks, online communities and fluid, opportunistic learning will be the norm for developing capability in our careers and in our lives as community members and global citizens.


The last half of the paper then sets the stage for the ongoing consultations with the sector, which have an aggressive timetable for completion over the summer. Each of the major discussion topics gets a page to tweak interest: Expanded Credential Options and Supplements, Credit Transfer and Student Mobility (an area where the discussion paper acknowledges Ontario’s trailing-edge position), Year-Round Learning, Quality Teaching and Learning Outcomes, Technology-Enabled Learning Opportunities, Tuition Frameworks, Entrepreneurial and Experiential Learning.

Is this a radical change for online learning in Ontario?

Readers of this weblog will recognize that online learning actually has a role to play in advancing each of these areas: we can’t talk about supplements to a transcript, for example, without delving into e-portfolios. So it is a bit disappointing that the page of discussion issues specific to Technology-Enhanced Learning is limited to impacts on traditional modes of instruction: capably done, as far as it goes, but does it go far enough? There are a couple of issues that may suggest the government is prepared to think about more radical change – sharing course development services across institutions, a degree-granting Ontario Online Institute (still with no budget more than two years after announcement) – but overall this is not a report that rocks the boat where online learning is concerned.

And that is the concern I am left with after digesting the discussion paper: however realistically it may reflect life on the ground in the province’s post-secondary sector, however worthwhile it may be to discuss these suggestions, there is no radical innovation (let alone anything disruptive) and nothing that has not already occurred in other jurisdictions. If a discussion paper emphasizes the need for innovation but restricts itself to only incremental change, will it ultimately refute its own argument?

Tom Carey



  1. […] There is much to comment on here – but it’s clear, from reading the paper, that “innovation” is the core solution for PSE in Ontario. Not only will colleges and universities “drive” innovation, they will also be improved by it: “Increased innovation in the PSE sector will improve student learning options, meet the needs of lifelong learners, enhance quality, and ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the sector.” Thus innovation will create further “productivity” in the Ontario economy and also within PSE institutions, allowing them to perform more efficiently. […]


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