How Online Learning Can Help Address the Talent and Skills Challenge for the New Economy

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Ontario should lead the online skills learning agenda in Canada

As Premier Kathleen Wynne’s call to action and the invitation to the March 18, 2014 Summit on Talent and Skills in the New Economy points out, Ontario, like all other jurisdictions in Canada, faces a major skills challenge now and for the foreseeable future.  

A knowledge economy demands more skilled and highly qualified people at a time when many of those seeking work do not have the skills employers are looking for.  We need to a look at innovative approaches to building and sustaining a highly qualified workforce in Ontario.  One of the innovative (and cost-effective) ways to do this is through the systematic use of online learning, an area where Ontario is a recognized leader in Canada.

The Challenge

The Conference Board of Canada, in its 2013 report The Need to Make Skills Work – The Cost of Ontario’s Skills Gap, suggests that skills shortages and the mismatch of skills between those seeking work and those seeking workers is costing Ontario some $24 billion annually in lost economic growth and $3.7 billion in lost provincial tax revenue.

Demographers suggest that a competitive, knowledge-driven economy needs some 75-77% of its workforce to hold some post-secondary qualifications, enabling the skills gap to be narrowed and new innovations to be more quickly adopted and put to use.  Ontario leads Canada with 57% of its workforce in 2010 holding some post-secondary educational qualification – up from 45% in 2000, and considerably higher than the OECD jurisdictional average of 30%.

Ontario has expanded its post-secondary system in systematic and substantial ways since 2003, and has the highest aggregate post-secondary completion rate in Canada.  It is doing a lot of things right.

Yet, forecasters are confident that their predictions of skills shortages are right. Miner (2010) saw scenarios of between 200,000 and 1.8 million skilled job vacancies in Ontario by 2031 if no action focused on the skills mismatch is taken – numbers echoed by others, including the Ontario Workforce Coalition.

These skills shortages are occurring when unemployment, especially amongst young people, is high in Ontario – currently 7.5%, with youth unemployment (15-24 year olds) at around 16%.  For every vacancy in Ontario, there are eight potential persons chasing that position.

What can be done to narrow the skills gap, increase educational attainment within Ontario’s workforce and continue to build a high employment, competitive knowledge economy in Ontario?

Many suggestions have been made, but these are common:

  • Continue to expand affordable access to, and enable success in, quality post-secondary education for all Ontarians.
  • More closely align programs and courses offered by colleges and universities with the needs of employers and encourage learning partnerships and flexible credit recognition for work-based learning.
  • Encourage and enable greater flexibility in learning through systems of transfer credit, flexible programming and online learning.
  • Encourage a greater emphasis on learning and development in the workplace.
  • Create opportunities for lifelong learning and encourage personal commitments to learning, especially by underrepresented groups (Francophones, Aboriginal, rural and remote learners), possibly through tax credits and related incentives.

In short, there needs to be a strategic focus on learning for skills and partnerships for learning for Ontario to be successful.

Online Learning and the Development of Skills

Ontario is Canada’s leader in online learning.  With over 1,000 programs, 18,000+ courses and some 500,000+ online learning course registrations and the majority of learners in colleges and universities studying in-class courses with online supports (referred to as “hybrid” or “blended learning”), Ontario has pioneered innovations in online learning.  Ontario is amongst the leaders in Canada in the provision of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – free online courses offered to learners by colleges and universities.

Ontario is also home to one of the world’s leading providers of online learning management systems – Desire2Learn which has a committed user base of over 10 million users.  Online learning is increasingly favoured by students across institutions, many of whom work part or full-time, because it provides flexibility for their studies.

There are five ways in which online learning can help Ontario respond to the skills challenge – the shortage of skills and the skills-mismatch – it now faces.

1.  Increasing Access to Existing Programs and Courses

Aggressive marketing of what is already available and encouraging potential learners and employers to explore a learning portal to help “fit” courses and access to their needs would leverage existing investments and infrastructure for online learning.  Potential learners with access to broadband and basic technology could be enroled quickly in programs linked to known demand.

Making these courses available more often – four to five times per year rather than just one or two – would also increase access and potential for completion. Ensuring that students who pursue programs and courses online have access to a range of student services, tax credits and related supports is also key to expanding the use of existing resources.

Ontario could target growing from 500,000+ registrations in online courses in 2010 (the last year for which data is available) to 750,000 by 2015 and 1 million by 2019.  In other words, set up a stretch goal of 1 million online learning course registrations in five years.

2. Making New Programs and Courses Available

A second opportunity requires the expansion of the number and range of programs and courses available in Ontario, while ensuring that these are aligned with skills and competencies in demand by employers and professional bodies. There are some key gaps – legal education, mechanical and electrical engineering, trades and related skills. There are also opportunities to strongly link online learning and work experience to accelerate completion.

A great deal of focus in other jurisdictions is being placed on core skills and competencies, which are required by a great many employers and are found in so-called “foundation” courses – the common first year college and university courses required by several programs (i.e., Introductory English, Math, Science) and the common courses found across apprenticeship programs (i.e., safety, social studies, essential skills). Indeed, some jurisdictions are encouraging the offer of free courses (MOOCs) which can be converted to credit by a successful learner sitting a proctored examination

The critical requirement for new investments in online learning are: (a) that the programs and courses developed be those presently in demand, and anticipated to be in demand, by employers and aligned with their skills and competency frameworks – best achieved through learning design partnerships between colleges, universities and employers focused on the future needs of the knowledge economy; and (b) that the courses should be transferable to all appropriate college and university programs.

New courses can now be developed more rapidly using instructional design frameworks, freely available open education resources (OERs) and a process known as rapid course development.  Resources and capacity for online learning development in colleges and universities need to be strengthened, as the Government of Ontario has recently recognized.

3. Accelerating Apprenticeship

Many of the skills in demand are trades-based and apprenticeships are key to the future of the Ontario economy.  The Ontario College of Trades, established in 2009, seeks to ensure that Ontario has the best apprenticeship programs in Canada.  It is reviewing apprenticeship ratios, programs of study and the competencies required for trades (see here for an example).

Here is how online learning can support the development of world-class apprenticeship programs in Ontario:

  • Using online learning to support the delivery of components of apprenticeship programs in high schools throughout Ontario via the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), thus ensuring a quality standard and providing the resources schools need to support world-class apprenticeship learning.
  • Using online learning to develop and support the essential skills which learners need in order to be successful apprentices.
  • Focus on key sectors, such as construction or power engineers, and develop competency-based learning available anywhere and anytime, which can be credited towards certification and apprenticeship.
  • Develop location-based mobile learning linked to “how to operate” a device, machine or piece of equipment.  Developments using digital labels attached to a piece of equipment, which when connected to, via a handheld smartphone or other device, link to learning enable apprentices to develop knowledge, skills and competencies required in the workplace.
  • Using remote supervision technologies to oversee workplace practice, such as the use of video glasses for apprenticeship supervision in use in Australia.
  • Linking training opportunities, online learning to available vacancies and opportunities.
  • In particular, it needs to find ways to increase the qualification of those who started an apprenticeship program but never completed.  Online learning, combined through partnerships with employers, can help improve the skills level of this particular target group.

Increasing access and success in apprenticeship is “mission critical” for Ontario, but the focus has to be on linking apprenticeship to lifelong learning.  A learner who successfully completes an apprenticeship program should be given credit for this as part of a college diploma or certificate program. “Laddering” learning from apprentice through college to university in a systematic way will create opportunities for those who secure their “trades ticket” to take entrepreneurial education to enable them to run their own firms, which in turn, may lead them towards a more formal business education.

Ontario needs to commit to lifelong learning through fast-track credit transfer, a systematic and simple approach to prior learning assessment and through tax credit incentives for learners.

4. Using Online Competency Assessments to Increase Skills Recognition

Recent developments in online competency assessment for skills, knowledge and understanding permit a new approach to credit recognition.  Using these new approaches to assessment, plus learning analytics, as well as serious game-like simulations, learners can access competency assessments at anytime, anywhere provided that their identify can be verified.  What this means is that:

  • Learners, who have developed skills through work and their own studies, can “call” for a competency assessment at any time and this can count towards a “passport” for learning which is recognized by colleges and universities – a new and efficient approach to prior learning assessment and recognition.
  • Colleges can separate competency assessment from teaching, ensuring that independent assessment of competencies takes place.  Employers can thus be assured that a student who has completed such an assessment has the skills they are seeking.
  • Communities, such as First Nations, companies and organizations, can develop their own approaches to learning and then ask their learners to complete the provincially-recognized online competency assessment. Once they do so, their competencies can be recognized and accredited by colleges and universities.

These are just some of the ways in which the skills and competencies of the Ontario work force can be improved and accredited.  Such innovative approaches enable anyone, at any time, to challenge themselves to secure recognition for skills, knowledge and understanding they have developed through their own endeavours.

5. Supporting Work-based Learning Accreditation

In other jurisdictions, particularly in Europe, genuine learning partnerships have arisen between employers, employees, colleges and universities that have led to new programs being developed, which recognize work-based learning – internships, professional development at work, learning through work.

Structured, reflective and experiential learning undertaken in the workplace is seen as counting towards certificates, diplomas, undergraduate and post-graduate degrees.  Work-based learning is a core part of the European Unions’ response to the skills challenge they are facing, and for employers, it is part of their response to the global war for talent and is practiced in a great many institutions – colleges and universities accredit programs and courses taken at work, in-class or online.

Online and distance learning can facilitate such work-based learning accreditation by:

  • Connecting learners in a community of practice in a learning portal.
  • Providing structure and focus for their work-based learning activities.
  • Connecting work-based learners to college and university instructors.
  • Providing opportunities for competency assessment online.
  • Supporting an e-portfolio in which they can track their work-based learning achievements.
  • Enabling colleges and universities to grant credit for programs and courses taken at work.

For some programs, work-based learning constitutes between 50% and 75% of a first or post-graduate degree and between 50% and 100% of college certificate and diploma programs. Work-based learning is at the heart of apprenticeship education.

These five uses of online learning will make learning for skills accessible to currently underrepresented groups – Francophones, First Nations in the Ring of Fire, recent immigrants who require language support and fast recognition of foreign credentials, those living in rural communities and those older workers seeking new skills and retraining.

Online learning can be used to facilitate year round, local and immediate access to learning without the costs of campus expansion or the personal costs of relocation or travel.  Indeed, Contact North | Contact Nord, as Ontario’s Distance Education & Training Network, focuses on making it possible for residents in 600 small, rural, remote, Aboriginal and Francophone communities to access post-secondary education and training without having to leave their own communities.

Many employers currently use online learning to support the learning needs of their employees – the retail sector, automotive sector, mining and financial services being among the leaders.  They use the vibrant online learning technology and service sector in Ontario, which has world-class products and services in wide demand globally.  Ontario’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector has industry giants in online learning, as well as an array of small and medium enterprises, with over 500 firms working in the sector.  These firms are partnering with employers to develop needed skills.

Some of the learning systems being developed by Ontario firms are linking learning to needed skills and competency profiles to available vacancies. Walmart uses an Ontario service for the skills development of its employees (see here).  There are also significant developments in private sector online learning providers working with First Nations to make learning available anywhere and at any time (here).

 Ontario Can and Should Lead the Online Learning Skills Agenda in Canada

To reach the next level of opportunity for skills development in Ontario, innovation is required.  There is an opportunity to leverage Ontario’s expertise – public and private – in online learning and develop innovative responses to the challenge of the skills gap.  We can build an employment-focused education system for world class competitiveness, but we need to harness all of the available means for learning to do so. The fastest growing approach to learning is online. Ontario can, should and will lead the online skills learning agenda for Canada.

Accessibility and student success are issues of economic development, social justice, and citizen empowerment.  Ontarians need to know that broadening participation in post-secondary education is not just a nice thing to do – it is a necessity.  It is a way to ensure that we have a population equipped to function in a knowledge society and economy that is competitive, compassionate and committed to its future.