November 18, 2017

How can online learning help Canadian colleges meet the challenges ahead?

Students at Algonquin College, which has a large online program

I was recently asked if I would answer a couple of questions from students in Royal Roads University’s course ‘Leveraging Technology in Higher Education’ in their MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership.

With the permission of their instructor, Irwin de Vries, and the students, I am sharing my response to the two questions they raised. (I answered the first question yesterday). I have also added a few more comments.

Question 2

2. How must colleges change in the next ten years, in order to remain successful as they face the challenges of declining enrolment, decreased funding and shrinking infrastructures?

I am limiting my comments here to Canada’s two year public post-secondary college system, drawing on some of the results and experience from the recent National Survey of Online Learning and Distance Education.

This is another good question. Resources are always limited, and there is no evidence that online learning leads to significant reductions in costs, at least in the short term. Indeed, the evidence suggests that online learning needs initial extra investment at governmental and institutional level, and also at the individual instructor level, if time is considered a cost.

Questionable assumptions

Nevertheless, I have to challenge the assumptions made in this question. They may apply to some jurisdictions or geographical areas, but not to others (at least in Canada). Decreased funding and declining enrolment apply particularly to some of the Maritime provinces and to northern Ontario and rural Saskatchewan, but not to other parts of Ontario (e.g. the GTA) or the BC lower mainland, for instance.

In terms of funding, the Ontario provincial government in fact has put over $12 million recently into online learning, partly for economic reasons (the government has linked it to the development of 21st century skills and the need for lifelong learning) as well as to increase access, particularly in more remote parts of Ontario. 

The main funding gap is for aboriginal communities, where access to post-secondary education is still limited by cost and distance. However, I have seen signs of increased interest in the development of online programs for aboriginal students that at least consider aboriginal culture and pedagogy. These programs can build on increased federal and provincial funding for high speed networks for remote and rural areas in Canada totalling $150 million.

It also appears there may be an online learning funding issue in Québec, which is the only province in the national survey where online enrolments went down in the college sector (CEGEPs in Québec) over the last five years. In response to another question on the survey, Québec institutions much more frequently reported a lack of government funding as a barrier to online learning compared with institutions in other provinces.

Overall, colleges may complain about lack of resources, but compared to most countries, Canada has an extremely well-funded public college system. Most colleges now offer some form of online learning, and there is plenty of room for expansion.

Becoming more efficient

In the Maritimes, institutions are increasingly looking to online learning to increase enrolments from out-of-province students (the tuition fees in maritime provinces being lower) and to keep the out-of-province students they already have. For instance, Dalhousie University in Halifax is now offering summer online courses for the out-of-province students who tend to return home for the summer, so they don’t pick up courses during the summer from institutions in their home province.

Also in Ontario, through OntarioLearn, the colleges collaborate and share online courses, avoiding duplication and thus reducing costs. Contact North through its network of local learning centres and telecommunications network facilitates the delivery of programs from all Ontario colleges and universities into remote areas of Ontario.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick already have a single institution for colleges with local campuses across each province, thus somewhat reducing overheads and duplication of courses, but more importantly ensuring common technology standards and delivery across the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar isn’t developed soon for Saskatchewan rural colleges, which are also struggling financially, and generally have low enrolments. Manitoba already has Campus Manitoba, a consortium of Manitoba’s public post-secondary institutions that encourages collaboration and facilitates student mobility in Manitoba.

Co-operation could be expanded further by provincial articulation committees agreeing on a core set of OER that are jointly developed and shared between colleges. However, that needs to be backed up by more or better faculty development on how to develop and/or use OER.

eCampuses or provincial networks provide (or could provide) a number of services that help keep down costs to both institutions and students, such as open textbook projects (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario), promoting/organizing OER initiatives, province-wide technology licenses, shared learning technology support for very small institutions, province-wide faculty development opportunities, and showcasing innovative projects. I suspect that we will see new eCampuses soon for the Maritimes and maybe Québec.

Conclusion

It can be seen that online learning does offer opportunities for cost savings or expanding access more economically, mainly through inter-institutional collaboration and sharing and by avoiding the construction of new campuses (if politicians and presidents can control their edifice complexes) through absorbing extra numbers through hybrid and full online learning.

More importantly, though, from my perspective, to remain successful, colleges will need to ensure students have developed the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age, and online learning provides a valuable and cost-effective means to enable this to happen (see Teaching in a Digital Age for more details).

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