Map of Contact North’s Access Centres

Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2020) Government’s Role in Digital Learning: Review and Recommendations for the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities Toronto ON: HEQCO

What is the report about?

The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities asked the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) to review digital learning initiatives and activities in the province’s publicly assisted postsecondary system, with a particular emphasis on the role of government and of its two funded partner organizations, Contact North and eCampusOntario.

As always I recommend that, if interested, you should read the report in full (it is only 25 pages long).

What did HEQCO recommend?

  1. HEQCO recommends that government continue to improve access to disenfranchised Ontarians in rural and remote communities through fully online courses and programs. This is at the core of Contact North’s traditional mandate, and there is an opportunity to refocus Contact North on that central function. As a corollary, government should examine and strengthen broadband delivery to the remote communities that stand to benefit.
  2. Government funding provided through eCampusOntario for faculty training, pedagogical resources, course development and technology supports should be tied more explicitly to the government’s goals of enhanced institutional collaboration and expanded credit transfer. Project submissions that do not further these goals need not be funded by a government special-purpose grant. There should be follow-up to ensure that these goals have in fact been met.
  3. The government should modernize data collection for digital learning to focus on the measurement of outcomes, just as it is doing more generally through its Strategic Mandate Agreement process. Identifying students who take digital courses or are provided services by provincial organizations, and tagging the data to their Ontario Education Number (OEN) are two initial steps that would allow evaluation of key outcomes such as graduation rates, skills acquisition and postgraduate employment.

The report was based on the assumption that in providing ancillary services for online learning, the government should not replicate what the institutions are already funded for, such as the development and delivery of digital courses and programs.

Why these recommendations?

The report gives the reasoning behind these recommendations, with an even stronger recommendation regarding the Ministry’s own responsibilities:

If the government’s request for this review was motivated by a sense that there is a lack of coherence in the digital-learning world in Ontario, and the government’s role in it, then we can confirm based on extensive consultations with primary players that this motivation and sentiment are well-founded.

It is important to stress, though, that all the individuals we met are acting in good faith and attempting to best deliver what they believe their expected contributions to be. The problem is that the activities and initiatives they were asked to establish, articulated in their sequential and evolving TPAs with government, reflect the absence of an overarching guiding objective, policy direction, plan or mechanism to coordinate the various entities and initiatives. Ontario also lacks clear and obvious outcome measures of expected contributions. If the space is confused, it simply reflects that good people are doing what they think best in an environment where no one has assumed the responsibility of coordinating the various pieces of online learning. The expectations placed on key players may not be clear and are not measured. The good news is that, in our opinion, this is eminently fixable….

Necessary fixes in any planning must be:

1. To link government funding and activities in the online world to the objectives and goals the government has for the Ontario public postsecondary system.

2. To use relevant metrics to rigorously evaluate whether government-funded policies and activities in digital learning are helping advance and achieve desired objectives and goals.

The report then goes on to recommend that Ontario institutions use the CDLRA definitions of blended, hybrid and fully online learning and link these to measurement of outcomes:

Identifying students who take digital courses or are provided services by provincial organizations, and tagging the data to their Ontario Education Number (OEN) are two initial steps that would allow evaluation of key outcomes such as graduation rates, skills acquisition and postgraduate employment.

The report recommends that the government focus on these three objectives for digital learning:

  • improved access,
  • improved quality and
  • movement toward greater collaboration between institutions


I need to tread very carefully here, as I have the following (conflict of?) interests:

  • I am a Board member of CDLRA (Canadian Digital Learning Research Association), which receives a large part of its funding from eCampusOntario;
  • I am a Research Associate at Contact North;
  • I am a Special Advisor to Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Studies.

However, the report seems to me to be an endorsement of the value of both Contact North and eCampus Ontario in supporting the the provision of services for online learning in a very large and dispersed post-secondary education system. There is a little overlap in providing support for faculty development, and portals for online courses, but in general the two organisations provide distinct and complementary services that neither duplicate what the universities and colleges do, nor each other’s activities.

The report also places responsibility squarely on the Ministry to define more clearly its own priorities for digital learning, and to require the two organisations to measure their performance against those priorities.

I particularly like the idea of tagging data regarding the type of courses students are taking to individual students through their Ontario Education Number. This will enable comparisons between different types of online courses and face-to-face courses to be more easily and validly made. So long as the data are used in aggregate there should be no individual privacy concerns.

The importance of extending bandwidth and Internet access into more remote areas of the province was also strongly underlined in the report and is also welcome.

My only concern is that while government has an understandable desire to avoid duplication or redundancy in its services, this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. This is clear when it comes to faculty development for online learning. This requires such an effort, and offers opportunities for economies of scale, that contributions from not just the institutions themselves, but also the support agencies, is absolutely necessary. Indeed, ‘duplication’ can easily also be seen as either competition or collaboration, neither of which is bad in itself.

Lastly the idea that the outcomes of digital learning should be measured is desirable, so long as this also applies to the outcomes of more traditional learning. I would go further and tie the ‘quality’ outcomes to the development of the skills required in a digital age, but there is still a long way to go before we have valid measures of the development of such skills. Until then, measuring the quality of courses will remain a challenge.

So in answer to my question in the header, a little tidying up may be needed to align mandates to government priorities, but both organisations appear to be providing essential services that enhance the quality of digital learning within the province, and they should be given some latitude to identify emerging developments and priorities that may not be immediately aligned with political priorities, otherwise system-wide innovation could well be inhibited.

I would like to hear your views on the report and from what institutional perspective.


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