August 16, 2018

Ontario at last establishes “Ontario Online”

 Ontario map

Bradshaw, J. (2104) Ontario to launch $42million central hub for online postsecondary classes, Globe and Mail, January 14

After more than two years discussion and consultation, it has been officially announced that Ontario’s government will spend $42-million establishing a centre that aims to drive new online learning opportunities for university and college students across the province.

At this stage, there seems to be four key goals for the new centre:

  • offer ‘state-of-the art, scalable’ online courses that can be used across the province
  • automatic credit transfer of these courses between member universities, and between member two-year colleges (thus avoiding unnecessary duplication, and obtaining economies of scale)
  • a sharing of best practices in online pedagogy and resources
  • a common portal of courses (which Contact North has already in place – whether this will be replaced or amended remains to be seen).

Ontario Online will be run by the province’s colleges and universities as an independent not-for-profit enterprise. The province has established a ‘sector steering committee’ with representatives not only from the universities and colleges, but also from OntarioLearnOntario Universities Online and Contact North, to oversee implementation. (Although, according to the Globe and Mail, the province’s instructors who are already delivering online learning are a little miffed that they are not directly represented on the steering committee.)

It won’t start actual operations until 2015, although $12 million will be available to the designated Centre of Excellence in fiscal year 2013-2014, i.e. before April, and $2.5 million has already been allocated for online learning projects under the province’s Productivity and Information Fund.

It should be noted that this initiative will build on an already very active post-secondary online learning environment, with more than 500,000 online registrations in over 18,000 online courses offered by the province’s post-secondary institutions, according to data collected by the provincial government in 2010.


It will be quite a challenge for Ontario’s 22 universities and 24 colleges to come together and work co-operatively through Ontario Online. It seems that participation in Ontario Online is voluntary, so it will be interesting to see who finally signs up to join, and what degree of success they have in developing ‘common’ courses that can be used across different institutions. $42 million may sound like a lot of money, but it won’t go far among 46 institutions.

Also, there are likely to be elections in Ontario before the centre is finally operational, so it will also be interesting to see if the new government will continue to support this initiative, given that the province is struggling with a large budget deficit and a faltering economy.

Nevertheless, whatever the challenges, this is clearly a move in the right direction. It offers an opportunity to provide a more integrated post-secondary system (Ontario is notorious for its lack of credit transfers between institutions), and perhaps more importantly, to experiment with ways to increase both quality and productivity through online learning.

For-profits, student loans, new rules, and how these affect students in the USA, Canada and the UK

For profits are in the news again for several reasons.

The Obama administration has produced new rules that determine whether for-profit institutions will qualify for federal aid in the form of student loans. Schools will maintain access to government-paid tuition if at least 35 percent of its former students are repaying their loans, or the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate must not be bigger than 30 percent of his or her discretionary income, or 12 percent of his or her total earnings. (see Nelson, 2011, for full details of the new rules). Forbes magazine reports that the stock values of the major for-profit universities rose 12% on the news, since the final draft of the rules were clearer/simpler and easier to measure (and less severe than originally proposed).

At the same time, Apollo Group (the owners of the University of Phoenix) announced that it has written down the value of BPP, its UK-owned company, which suggests that it is less optimistic about making ‘easy money’ out of the attempt by the UK government to increase competition between UK universities. Nevertheless Apollo is still committed to the long-term future of BPP. Until the UK announces how it intends to ‘regulate’ competition between UK universities, BPP’s future will remain uncertain, but it looks like Apollo is taking a bet on the possibility that things will ‘open up’ for them in Britain. (See also: The calamitous state of higher education in the UK).

Also today, the Presidents of British Columbia’s four research intensive universities called for a reduction on the interest rates for student loans for students in public universities, which at 2.5% above prime, are the highest in Canada, and also with the shortest repayment time. The call is timely, because interest rates in Canada, which have remained very low since the 2008 recession, are predicted to rise from September.

Lastly, also this week, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities of Ontario announced that it will move away from funding post-secondary institutions solely by growth or number of FTEs, and will negotiate individually with each institution on its ‘strengths’, such as student satisfaction, employment rates and student mobility, with a special emphasis on excellence in teaching. (How this will be measured and rewarded remains to be determined).


Nelson, L. (2011) Your guide to ‘gainful employment’ Inside Higher Education, June 3

Associated Press (2011) Sector Snap: Higher ed. stocks surging on new rule,, June 2

Baker, S. (2011) New doubts on for-profits in Britain, Times Higher Education Supplement/Inside Higher Education, June 3

Steffenhagen, J. (2011) Student loan interest rates too high, say BC universities, Vancouver Sun, June 2

Bradshaw, J. (2011) Ontario shakes up education funding, Globe and mail, June 2


Underlying each of these moves is a more fundamental question: what is public policy regarding the funding of higher education? How much should students pay? It seems that we are seeing an almost unexplained or certainly less than transparent shift in public policy away from the state funding post-secondary education to a user-pay system. The UK is leading the charge, with the backdoor move to privatization through for-profits and increased tuition fees in public institutions occurring quite rapidly in the USA. Canada is still supporting a state-funded system but is gradually increasing the proportion of cost paid by students through tuition fee increases and could be doing more to reduce the burden of student debt, at least in some provinces such as BC.

On the other side, the Obama rules for for-profits look very moderate. But why would these be restricted to the for-profit sector? Would it not be reasonable to ask the same of our public institutions? Shouldn’t they be ensuring that at least 35% of their students are able to repay their loans after graduation? This still leaves plenty of room for universities to produce scholars with no interest in getting jobs, after all.

I am not against the principle of students paying tuition fees, as long as they are not a major deterrent to poor or disadvantaged students going to university or college. What I would like to see though from our politicians is where they stand on the issue of public funding for universities. Is it both a public and private good (which suggests a mix of state and personal funding)? Once that principle becomes established, then it becomes easier to deal with issues such as student loans, student loan repayments, etc. What is not acceptable is policy by default, or stealth, or even worse, on an inconsistent case-by-case basis, which seems to be the situation in all three countries at the moment, with the possible exception of the UK, where the government’s intention to privatize higher education is quite clear (or, rather,  it became so after the election).

Also, while I support the idea of having some means of measuring ‘output’ or ‘quality’ of our post-secondary institutions, is it not somewhat bizarre that the only regulated measure in the USA is the proportion of people able to repay their student debt? Or perhaps that says it all about what their higher education system has become. Meanwhile, I welcome the move by Ontario’s Minister to look at other factors besides student numbers in funding post-secondary institutions, especially the idea of negotiating individually with each institution on its ‘strengths’. However, the government could well be replaced after a fall provincial election, but if it isn’t, it will be interesting to see how viable the new method will be.

Identifying online cheating by your typing

Bradshaw, J. Telltale Typing Globe and Mail, December 13, p. A11

My previous post discussed the McMaster University computerized assessment system for selecting medical students.

One by-product of this may have much wider implications. The program analyzes segments of typing according to their pattern which provides a unique profile of an individual’s keyboarding. This can be used to verify that the person who turns up at med school is the same person who took the online test.

But don’t rush out and buy CASPer yet – the profile-by-typing test is still under development.

What is more important than grades?

Photo of building

McMaster University Faculty of Medicine

In an earlier posting on the OECD’s PISA tests, there was some discussion about what was NOT measured in standardized tests of reading, science and math.

The Faculty of Medicine  at McMaster University, in industrial Hamilton, 65 kilometres south west of Toronto, has always been a leader in innovation in medical teaching, many years ago pioneering problem-based learning.

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, there was an interesting article about a new online assessment of personal characteristics (CASPer = Computer-based Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics) that is used for selecting students for admission to its medical school. CASPer is a computerized version of a previously face-to-face interviewing schedule called the Multiple Mini Interview developed by Professor Harold reiter at McMaster that is now used by 12 of the 17 Canadian medical schools. CASPer uses videoed scenarios to which students must quickly respond as part of a two hour test.

What jumped out at me is that now grades counted for only one third of a student’s admission score. CASPer is now weighted double the students’ grade point average.

What are these computerized tests measuring? Good decision-making, ethics, communication skills, cultural sensitivity, etc.

Now it should be noted that students still have to have the highest standard in grade point average to even get to be interviewed by CASPer, so it is already choosing from the very bright, but it is an interesting example of the importance of measuring students on a wide range of factors and not just test scores alone.

Bradshaw, J. (2010) Brains alone won’t get you into med school Globe and Mail, December 13, p. A11