The University of Ottawa developed a comprehensive plan for e-learning in 2013.
The University of Ottawa developed a comprehensive plan for e-learning in 2013.

My post ‘Look Back in Anger? A Review of Online Learning in 2013‘ provided a broad perspective on developments in Canada and elsewhere in 2013. However, as a Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate and given the extensive use of online learning in Ontario – 1,000 programs, 18,000 courses, and about 500,000 registrations from the 22 public universities and 24 public colleges – it is worth looking at what happened in Ontario in particular during 2013.

Indeed, Contact North | Contact Nord’s web site Pockets of Innovation, with 90 examples of online, blended, and technology-enhanced initiatives in Ontario post-secondary teaching and learning, indicates that online learning is thriving and well in Ontario.

So here is a special Ontario edition of my review of 2013.

Another year of the MOOC (massive open online courses)

Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of developments around MOOCs in 2013. She concluded:

 If 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” 

Certainly, MOOCs dominated the online learning agenda during 2013. However, it is in my view too early to decide that MOOCs are now on the slope of disillusionment, despite Sebastian Thrun’s throwing his hands in the air at Udacity. According to the European Commission, at the end of 2013 there are more than 1,100 MOOCs worldwide, and the shock wave continues to ripple well beyond North America into other parts of the world.

Ontario has a significant presence in the world of MOOCs. The University of Toronto offered nine MOOCs during 2013, seven through Coursera and two through EdX. The course content developed for Coursera is being integrated into some course offerings specifically for University of Toronto students. For instance, students in Computer Science studied the course content on Coursera as part of an inverted classroom initiative.

I will write more about where I see MOOCs going in my Outlook for 2014 in the new year, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote about MOOCs at the end of 2012:

  • they appear to be free, but they are expensive for institutions to develop and offer: we have seen no successful business models for MOOC developers (as distinct from the platform-owner)
  • it’s a numbers game: input (massive numbers of registrations) matters more than output (miniscule pass rates)
  • technology triumphs over teaching: really poor pedagogy is amplified by video lecture capture technology
  • it’s all about certain elite institutions who ignored online learning for 20 years and are now trying to re-invent it – and not successfully
  • MOOCs are a socio-cultural phenomenon driven by the dire financial state of public post-secondary education in the USA following a decade of state expenditure cuts; MOOCs are being promoted as a cheap alternative to state-funded university education.
© The Greening of Gavin, 2012
© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing,‘ at least for the moment.

However, there is one exception to my views on MOOCs. This came from listening to Stephen Downes at a conference in Lyon talking about his vision for MOOCs, which, if or when fully implemented, would be much more interesting than anything we have seen to date from the major MOOC providers. Downes, with George Siemens and Dave Cormier, invented the term MOOCs when they were developing an early MOOC at the University of Manitoba. These MOOCs – sometimes called cMOOCs – are very different from the instructional, lecture-based MOOCs offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX (xMOOCs), in that cMOOCs are more collaborative in their approach to learning, and more like communities of practice in the way they are constructed and operate. In essence though MOOCs are still evolving, in both form and pedagogy, so these sharp and simple distinctions between MOOCs – and between MOOCs and other forms of online learning – are likely to blur over time.

In many ways, MOOCs have become a major distraction from developing more innovative and more relevant applications of online learning for credit. MOOCs may be free to learners, but they are not free for institutions. With the average cost of just developing an xMOOC being between $50,000 – $100,000, this means that with over 1,000 MOOCs, more than $50 million to $100 million has been spent on non-credit courses that could have been spent on producing online courses for credit, leading to recognized credentials. In itself, this focus on non-formal learning might be OK, if it was tied to some clear policy objective, but we certainly haven’t seen the return on investment from MOOCs to date.

Of course, this money is unlikely to have been spent on online credit courses if MOOCs hadn’t come along. It has to be recognized that MOOCs have grabbed the attention of many elite universities who until the advent of MOOCs had paid no attention to online learning. More importantly MOOCs have also gotten the attention of university boards of governors, politicians, policy-makers and even government ministers, which credit-based online learning has never done. This has forced many universities for the first time to think strategically about online learning, and where MOOCs fit within such a strategy, which has probably been really good for credit-based online learning as well. This is particularly true in Ontario, where the University of Waterloo and York University developed or worked on institutional e-learning plans during 2013, while a senate sub-committee at Queen’s University presented a detailed and largely favourable report about online learning.

The problem though is that apart from those with prior experience or knowledge of online learning, MOOCs are being seen (and deliberately portrayed by elite universities) as the only form of online learning worth considering. The danger is that if or when the MOOC bubble bursts, all forms of online learning could be tarred with the same brush at the same time. However, this is looking forward.

The key point here is that while MOOCs may have been getting the media attention, for most professionals working in online learning in post-secondary education, what was happening within the institutions was rather different. Let’s look at some of these other developments in 2013.

Institutional strategies for online learning

Partly as a result of MOOCs, but also because of moves toward integrating online learning with classroom teaching, a number of institutions have either developed or started to develop a more strategic approach to online learning. In Ontario in particular, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities requested in August 2012 that each post-secondary education institution in the province submit a strategic mandate agreement (SMA) proposal. Each institution was asked to provide a brief submission identifying three priority objectives, and a vision of how the institution plans to implement the objectives, using a template provided by the MTCU. These statements came in during 2013 and according to an analysis conducted by Contact North, among the 21 universities submitting agreement proposals, 18 specifically mentioned plans for an increase in online and/or blended learning activities. Among the 23 colleges submitting agreement proposals, 21 specifically mentioned plans for an increase in online and/or blended learning.

I was personally involved in discussions around strategic planning for online learning in 2013 with three Ontario universities (the University of Ottawa, York University, and Western University), as well with several universities in other provinces in Canada, in the USA and in Australia. I can’t think of another year where there has been so much interest at an institutional level in thinking strategically about online learning. These plans meant setting priorities and goals for online and hybrid learning and in some cases targets for online course development. Tied to these strategies were considerations of resources, organization and methods of working, some of which will be described more fully below.

From the periphery to the centre

The focus on strategies for online learning resulted in some cases in thinking about appropriate types of organization to support online learning. In many Canadian universities, online learning had been seen as an extension of distance education, and hence the responsibility mainly of Continuing Studies or Extension Departments, but with the move to hybrid learning and the move to online professional masters programs, mainline academic departments are needing access to the skills of instructional designers and web designers that until recently had been located in Continuing Education or Extension departments. In Ontario, Trent University has a plan to expand online learning and has established a distance learning and online education department to serve the whole university. Western University offers two services , The Teaching Support Centre and the Instructional Technology Resource Centre. At Georgian College, the faculty training initiative has been designed to support the strategic plan’s goal for increased technology-based learning.

No single solution to this issue seems to have been found, but many Canadian institutions now have established central units that report to the Provost and serve the faculties directly. As well as including support for online learning, these units now also cover general faculty development as well as distance learning.This has the advantage of facilitating the transfer of teaching innovations from one academic department throughout the institution. In some institutions these centres for teaching, learning and technology have grown rapidly, with some numbering more than 60 staff.

Hybrid learning

I saw in 2013 many Canadian universities and some colleges introducing flipped classrooms, where students view a taped lecture then come to class to discuss, solve problems, or do project work around the topic of the lecture. This is particularly popular for breaking up large lecture classes and making them more interactive.

There were fewer examples of designs that moved away from taping lectures to really thinking about the affordances of online learning and the campus from a design perspective. However in Ontario Niagara College has a blended course for students to learn about learning that involves extensive online activity-based learning and at George Brown College a course on English as a second language has designed and developed online activities to give the students in the program experience in all aspects of language learning – listening, speaking, reading, and writing. All of the online activities are closely tied to the language and objectives being covered in class that week, offering the students additional opportunity for practice and feedback.  These go beyond the flipped classroom models based on taped lectures.

I also came across some interesting discussions about the implications of hybrid and blended learning for classroom furniture and the design and layout of classrooms, Such physical designs will inevitably facilitate more integrated use of online learning within a classroom environment.

Steelcase Node Classroom
Steelcase Node Classroom

An increased push from government to use online learning for greater academic productivity

In Ontario, the Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities starkly presented the situation facing universities and colleges in Ontario over the next few years: take more students, produce better quality outcomes, but receive no more money, because there isn’t any. He challenged the institutions to look to technology to increase productivity. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario commissioned a report on online learning, productivity and quality. Contact North also in 2013 produced a very useful paper that pulled together 20 articles published by Canadian researchers over the last 15 years on the institutional costs of online learning which concluded ‘that no amount of research will ever result in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question of whether or not online learning saves money while maintaining quality. Instead, strategies for potential cost effectiveness and for assessing costs and aligning them with institutional priorities are offered.

Ontario is not alone in examining whether online learning can improve productivity in post-secondary education. Severe funding cuts in the USA has led governments, particularly state governors, to press the case for online learning to provide a lower cost alternative to campus-based education. At a Federal level, the Obama government has poured millions of dollars into fostering open educational resources. In British Columbia, the government is bringing in an open textbook program to reduce students’ textbook costs. MOOCs, rightly or wrongly, have led politicians and policy-makers to believe that online learning can dramatically reduce costs.

This is an interesting development, because until recently, most online learning professionals have been more than happy if their online students performed as well as the on-campus counterparts, and could do this at no more cost. Partly because of the fear of push-back from academics (‘Online learning will take our jobs away’), the argument has rarely been made that online learning could lead to better results at less cost. Increased productivity up to now has not been a key goal for online learning (access and flexibility have been the key rationales). This is changing, and as professionals we need to be better prepared for this push, which is why I tried this year to start a debate about online learning and productivity through a series of posts.

Open educational resources

There were three significant developments in OERs (apart from MOOC) in 2013 for me:

  • the BC open textbook project, which is now under way, which aims to save students $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks
  • the formation of the OERu, which aims to enable students to acquire full degree credentials from recognized universities through free, open courses; several Canadian universities are involved, but none to date from Ontario
  • OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe, which sets out the ‘tensions’ that inhibit greater use of OERs

Also in 2013, Carleton University received funding through the Productivity and Innovation Fund of the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to develop longitudinal, certificate-level programs for faculty development in online learning. Modules – both online and blended – will be developed for delivery beginning in May 2014. The modules will be offered as open educational resources (OER), available to every post-secondary institution in Ontario and beyond. As OERs, they can be customized, re-structured, and branded to fit the needs of colleges and universities.

There are still significant barriers to the use and adoption of OERs, but as these barriers become better recognized, we are seeing a number of strategies, such as the OERu and the work of the Creative Commons, which are attempting to remove or work round such barriers.


Another interesting year, but also a frustrating one, mainly due to the MOOC phenomenon. There are far more important developments going on in online learning than MOOCs. Nevertheless, MOOCs have been important in getting online learning noticed, even if for the wrong reasons. At the same time, as we have seen in Ontario, there were many other interesting developments in online learning in 2013, particularly within credit-based programs. Online learning is becoming an increasingly integrated and ‘normal’ part of university and college teaching.

Let’s hope 2014 will see a more focused approach on using online learning and learning technologies in general to improve productivity while maintaining or increasing the quality of post-secondary education. It is clear that the system cannot go on in the way it has been going, and online learning can play an important role, as much in improving quality as in reducing costs. However, it is important to set realistic expectations. There is no single, simple solution to improving a vast complex, higher education system. It requires hard work, government and institutional support, and innovative instructors, all of which were apparent in Ontario in 2013.


  1. Tony, a great analysis and synopsis of the year that was. It’s always good to look outside our own backyard and get the larger picture, but I agree with the double-edge sword implications of the MOOC phenomena. It has drawn great attention to online learning from many important stakeholder groups; however, those on the periphery (i.e., politicians, decision-makers, etc.) not well versed in instructional design issues for blended/hybrid/e-learning may not fully appreciate the type of expertise and commitment that is required to build the necessary infrastructure to properly support this type of teaching and learning, or the very real challenge of producing good completion rates. As you point out, there is no single simple solution which I think captures this complexity.

    It’s good to see that Carleton is developing professional development for faculty around online learning, but I’ve been reading into the area of faculty beliefs on technology integration and how important they are to the success of any online/blended/hybrid instructional strategy. Identifying, understanding and addressing the intersection of epistemological beliefs, conceptions of teaching and technology integration seems to be an important issue too. I’d be interested in hearing your views on this topic.

    Thanks again for a good read.


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