A couple of months ago, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) provided eCampus Ontario, one of the survey’s main sponsors, with a regional report on the survey results for Ontario. This report is now available for downloading from the CDLRA website. As the report is 79 pages long, I thought I’d give you the poor man’s version. (Note these are personal remarks and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CDLRA team).
Ontario has the numbers
With 14,320,000 people, Ontario has just under 40% of the Canadian population. Even though it’s only the fourth largest province in Canada by area, it is still extremely large (three times the area of Germany, which has a much larger population of 82,300,000).
Although (despite rumours) it is not yet the centre of the universe, Ontario is therefore central to Canada in many ways. It may not seem surprising then that Ontario has by far the largest number of online students in post-secondary education of any Canadian province, with almost 150,000 students taking at least one online course and 550,000 online course registrations (41% of the total in Canada).
What is more, almost every Ontario university and college offers online courses (98%) and more than two thirds of the institutions in Ontario (68%) anticipate that their online enrolments will grow next year. It is therefore punching slightly above its considerable weight in online learning.
Ontario has the strategies
More than three quarters of the post-secondary institutions in Ontario (78%) reported that online learning was very to extremely important for their long-term strategic or academic plans, compared with just under two thirds of institutions in the rest of the country (64%).
Institutions in Ontario were also more likely to have an institutional strategic plan for e-learning, with 26 (58%) identifying that they had a plan and it was either fully implemented (27%) or being implemented (30%) and 13 (28%) indicated they are currently developing one.
Obvious, isn’t it?
Well, no, not really. As little as seven years ago, 40% of Athabasca University’s enrolments came from Ontario, because students in Ontario could not find appropriate online courses or programs from institutions within Ontario. British Columbia, with online and distance courses from originally the Open Learning Agency in the early 1990s, then UBC, Simon Fraser, Royal Roads University, Thompson Rivers University, and BCIT, was way ahead of Ontario well into the early 2000s.
As Stephen Downes has pointed out, innovative online courses originated from individuals such as Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Rory McGreal, working in provinces such as New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Manitoba, but these provinces are now way behind the rest of the country, and especially Ontario, in terms of the proportion of students taking online courses. Why is this?
Government policy matters
What certainly helped in Ontario was the creation and funding of eCampus Ontario in 2015 by the then Liberal provincial government. Although institutions in Ontario in the early part of the decade (2010-2015) were moving more aggressively into online learning through the efforts of Contact North, OntarioLearn (established by Colleges Ontario), and individual universities, the establishment of eCampus Ontario, and especially the additional funding earmarked for the development of online courses, led to a rapid expansion in online learning in the province. Institutions followed the money (surprise, surprise).
A similar boost to online learning took place in British Columbia after the founding of BCcampus in 2003, which initially focused on funding online course development. In recent years though BCcampus has focused more on open educational resources, where now it is the leader in open textbook publishing; 90% of the post-secondary institutions in the province now use open textbooks. However, as a result of this change of focus, BC has dropped behind Ontario in terms of the extent of online course registrations (although the differences are not great).
This is not to say that online learning would not have grown in Ontario without eCampus Ontario; over 90% of the institutions in the province were offering some form of online learning before 2015. Government was certainly pushing on an open door but the money and publicity that always follows government funding announcements have certainly helped propel online learning in Ontario universities and colleges. There is a lesson here for other provincial governments.