Five key questions to take Online Learning in Ontario to the next level

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Ontario leads Canada in the deployment and delivery of online learning for college and university students.

With over 500,000 online course registrations, 1,000 online programs and 18,000 online courses offered by Ontario’s 24 public colleges and 22 public universities, Ontario is well-positioned to take online learning, and the potential it offers for student access and success, to the next level.

The post-secondary sector has been examining the potential of online learning over a number of years, in workshops, online forums and explorations of innovative practices.  We have also sought out the ideas and perceptions of leading researchers and practitioners to enhance our understanding of the policy and operational context in which online learning is developing and the appropriate strategies for its further integration in post-secondary education.

Our analysis suggests five critical questions, the answers to which would contribute to policy and practice as Ontario seeks to move online learning to the next level.

These questions are both practical and strategic:

  • Practical because they can lead to the implementation of practices proven to be successful; and
  • Strategic because they spotlight development that is focused and systematic, rather than piecemeal.

The great danger in letting a thousand flowers bloom is that the chance to create a market garden is missed.

Five Critical Questions

The key planning, policy and practical issues are captured in the following five questions critical to moving online learning in Ontario to the next level.

  1. How can online learning increase educational opportunity for Ontarians? Specifically, can online learning increase Ontarians' access to, and participation in, programs and courses offered by public colleges and universities?

    The key challenge for Ontario is to increase access to, and success in, college and university programs so that the proportion of the workforce holding a post-secondary qualification remains among the highest in the world.

    Online learning can be designed in such a way as to make post-secondary education attractive and attainable for those who have not accessed or have not been successful in conventional post-secondary education.  Serving new groups of students and supporting their academic success through online learning needs to be seen as a core strategic intention.

    From a practical point of view, this question also speaks to program and course design – to attract new markets and increase completion, new models need to be developed for course structure, assessment of learning, student support, and course accessibility and frequency of provision.

  2. How can online learning enhance the student learning experience, making it more student-centered with higher levels of student engagement?

    Historically, many courses have been designed by a subject matter expert working largely alone with occasional help from an instructional designer or technology expert.  For the next generation of online courses and programs, the design of the learning experience should be a strategic investment priority. Better designed courses focused on student engagement will support higher retention and completion rates and higher levels of student and faculty satisfaction – and so will be a driver for the expansion of online learning.

    The extensive 2010 study by the US Department of Education showed that students who took all or part of their course online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course face-to-face in classroom settings.  The effectiveness of online learning is well-established.  Increasing student engagement enhances both learning and success.

  3. How can online learning enhance student success? Specifically, how can online learning promote higher rates of course completion and student retention and graduation?

    In the 2011 review conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, it was clear that completion rates for online learning are high (the medians were 76% for colleges and 89% for universities).  To assess the ongoing impact of online learning, continued data collection and analysis system-wide are necessary so that retention, completion and satisfaction can be tracked.

    Retention is a major issue in universities and colleges.  Targeting those who have dropped out with partially completed programs with more flexible online course offerings may provide a way of enabling some of these learners to return to study.  It also offers students facing multiple responsibilities access to learning when and where it matches their timetables and commitments, lessening the in-class demands on their time.  Students studying full-time on campus often add one or two online courses to their schedules to increase their flexibility and, in many cases, capacity to work.

  4. How can online learning reduce time-to-degree or certificate/diploma completion?

    Online learning can enable students to fast track through their programs, especially if multiple entry dates (12 instead of 3 or 4, for example) are available and courses can be completed according to the student schedule and effort and not limited to the confines of the semester system.

    Accelerated completion can be encouraged and supported through continuous rather than semester-restricted access to required and elective courses, online support and counseling, modular credentials, and other strategies could enable more learners to complete their programs more quickly.

    Given the strong focus on productivity, this could be a significant opportunity for Ontario to leverage developments elsewhere (such as those in Kentucky as outlined in the Contact North | Contact Nord Game Changer Series) to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the system.

  5. How can online learning improve the affordability of a post-secondary education in Ontario? How can online learning simultaneously lower costs for students and for the post-secondary sector?

    Students are paying an increasing proportion of the costs of their post-secondary education and institutional budgets are under enormous pressure.  Online learning could help lower costs by, for example, the offering of common gateway courses (college to university) and foundation courses, by integrating open educational resources and massive open online courses, either in whole or in part, as course components, and the creation of shared online student services.  In the longer term, possibilities such as MOOC-based Master’s degrees such as those offered by Georgia Tech and work-based learning degrees as available in the United Kingdom offer even wider possibilities.

    Depending on the answers to these questions, online learning could secure the achievement of educational policy objectives, grow capacity and productivity and enhance the flexibility, affordability and quality of the learning experience.

Moving Ahead

By thinking differently about access, student engagement, student success, time to graduation and cost factors, many new opportunities could arise that will enable online learning in Ontario to be an engine of innovation and increased post-secondary education completion rates.

These five questions provide a starting point for the exploration of new approaches to these goals.