Contact North | Contact Nord responds to the release of Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge

On June 27, 2012, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities released a discussion paper titled Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge (Strengthening) on ideas for post-secondary education in Ontario.  Strengthening calls for no less than transformation of post-secondary education in Ontario and is bound to trigger sector-wide thinking, dialogue, and action.

The Post-secondary Sector Essentially Powers Ontario’s Knowledge Economy.

By equating our college and university sectors as Ontario’s centres of creativity, innovation, and knowledge, Strengthening pays our 24 public colleges and 20 public universities the high compliment they are indeed due and appropriately reminds us that this sector essentially powers Ontario’s knowledge economy.  It also reinforces for all Ontarians why we invest significant public funds in post-secondary education.

The conclusion also provides the appropriate book end to a story of the sector’s rich inheritance and its obligation by reminding us of the linkage between training / education and the workforce / entrepreneurship.  It paints an inspiring vision of a post-secondary sector with fluid linkages to Ontario’s workforce and business innovators, and calls for a “nimble sector that is ready to adapt to the accelerating change of pace in technology and our economy”. 

Contact North | Contact Nord, Ontario’s Distance Education & Training Network, plans over the next few weeks to regularly engage with Minister Murray, the Ministry, and its college and university partners in thinking about how educational and information technologies can be integrated with people and processes at our post-secondary institutions to foster the kinds of transformational changes outlined in Strengthening.

The big question is whether the changes that will unfold will be changes of our choosing, or accidents that are the unintended consequences of technology disruption in a strategic vacuum.

Let’s set the stage for a forward discussion by putting forth the proposition that following five concurrent phenomena are now disrupting post-secondary education and will, in our opinion, lead to transformational change.

If this is true, the big question is whether the changes that will unfold will be of our choosing, or accidents that are the unintended consequences of technology disruption in a strategic vacuum.  Indeed, Strengthening concludes with the expressed intention of “developing a transformation strategy for PSE in Ontario …”

We see the following five phenomena affecting post-secondary education.

1.    Online Education

While many educators continue to struggle with the place of online education in PSE, Ontario’s students show little doubt about their opinion. 

First, the evidence is increasingly clear that:

(a)  Little or no statistically significant difference in learning outcomes can be ascribed to either premise-based or online educational modalities; and
(b)  Investment in new technology and pedagogy for online delivery is outstripping that for classroom delivery by many orders of magnitude. 

Online enrolments are growing much faster worldwide in PSE, early concerns about student persistence are being addressed, and today’s students simply expect the flexibility and control that this mode gives them so that they can balance the very complicated demands in their lives.  While this ‘disruption’ has already happened, it is clear that it has not been fully socialized.  Only this week, a new report1 shows clearly that many faculties do not engage in online teaching and that many continue to treat online education with skepticism. 

Second, online education, from pedagogical and technological standpoints, is in its infancy. This disruption is evolving and what is clear is only that:

(a)  The rate of adoption will rise; and
(b)  The rate of acceptance of online outcomes among students and employers will rise. 

Based on this analysis, Contact North | Contact Nord will outline specific investments the ministry could consider to:

(a)  Reduce faculty skepticism and disengagement;
(b)  Enhance the rate at which technology is adopted in post-secondary education; and
(c)  Enhance the rate at which pedagogical change is introduced.

2.    Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

The emergence of MOOCs is the most compelling evidence that both the practice of teaching and the rate of technology adaption are evolving. 

Interestingly, the first MOOC was offered by Stephen Downes, of Canada’s National Research Council, in 2008 to a “class” of more than 2,000 students.  By fall 2011, two Stanford University professors captured headlines and imaginations by delivering a Stanford calibre university course on artificial intelligence to more than 50,000 concurrent students world-wide. 

Since that launch of an educational sputnik, at least three new educational enterprises – Udacity, Coursera, and EdX – have been launched in the United States.  Universities participating in these efforts are important to note and include Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Michigan, and Carnegie-Mellon. There are several things remarkable about MOOCs. 

First, pedagogically, MOOCs are an example of “flipped lectures”, a pedagogy wherein the student is expected to realize the benefits of lectures through engagement with captured lecture “chunks”, online quizzes and tests, and other online learning tools.  When courses are flipped on campus, liberated lecture time is deployed for drills, guest lectures, undergraduate research, or other activities that deepen or broaden the student experience and learning. 

Second, MOOCs take advantage of standardized techniques for lecture capture, video chunk design, pedagogical flow, online testing, and other activities.  These standards simultaneously raise the quality of the learning resources and lower their cost of production, breaking PSE’s longstanding and pernicious economics that always pit quality against cost savings. 

Third, MOOCs – in the form of Coursera, Udacity and EdX – are re-writing the PSE funding playbook.  In each case, courses offered are free.  In the cases of Coursera and Udacity, the business model is commercial and is referred to as the “freemium” model.  Under this model, the core product or service is delivered free to the consumer.  Money is made from premium services that may be wired into an ecosystem around the core offering.  This model means that very soon, Ontario students will have the option of taking Ivy League calibre courses, at no cost, in a delivery mode that is already being embraced enthusiastically by students around the world. 

MOOCs will not only disrupt PSE’s traditional delivery core, but will disrupt our emergent online learning environment.  Based on this analysis, Contact North | Contact Nord will outline specific investments the ministry could consider to develop a province-wide MOOC strategy that would include creating both the capacity to accept others’ MOOC courses for credit within Ontario and the capacity to produce courses of this type for both provincial consumption, and export.  Again, these investments will have to touch people (incentives and training), processes, and technology.

3.    ePortfolio

Strengthening makes a persuasive case that today’s PSE students are mobile. 

Students conduct all aspects of their lives on a variety of computing and communication platforms.  While this contrasts with the general place-bound investment strategy and reality of our PSE institutions, student mobility in fact prepares them well for the work force they will soon enter or to which they will return. 

Today’s mechanics trouble shoot using computers and acquire complex training on a just-in-time basis through digital instructional materials delivered to them as needed and in the form they use.  Teachers use Kahn Academy learning materials to allow students to personalize their learning and to make it possible for students to learn at different paces within the same class structure.  Importantly, the interactive Khan Academy (and others) materials follow most students home where they can be consumed on smart phones, home computers, notebooks, or tablets. 

Learning has been mobilized and liberated from the classroom in time to meet the needs of this peripatetic student body. A consequence of this increasing mobility is a rising student expectation that they will be able to find, take, and get academic credit for course work taken online or face-to-face without regard to who is offering the course.  This new student behaviour flies in the face of longstanding and deeply rooted PSE practices that require seat time, time-in-residence, and so forth. 

Untying the Gordian knot of credit transfer is a huge and politically charged part of the transformation agenda.  Short of achieving this, Contact North | Contact Nord will outline a strategy for ePortfolios and how the ministry might promote what the Bologna Process refers to as the degree supplement, providing students with the technological means to store and mediate access to the fruits of their academic (and co-curricular) labour, without regard to the provider of those fruits. 

With ePortfolios, students can hold and control the record of their PSE experiences at their home institution, as well as coursework undertaken with MOOCs, or institutions across Ontario.  While the battle over common credit standards may be a long one, it is inevitable that employers will look favourably on Harvard or Stanford coursework undertaken by Ontario grads.

4.    Outcomes Assessment

The fourth inter-related disruptive trend is the move towards assessment of learning outcomes. 

It has become increasingly evident that our historical focus on instructional inputs is porous. In June 2012, the cover page of the Chronicle of Higher Education revealed three fundamentally different curricula, expectations, and outcomes for courses labeled “Economics 101”.  While we do not see the extremes of curricular diversity in Canada as in the U.S., it is nevertheless likely that we are providing qualifications to students who may not fully possess them, and denying qualifications to those who by dint of past education and experience, may have long possessed them. 

At the same time, a number of institutions are leading a small, but visible movement, to replace seat time and course credits as the markers of academic progress, with more holistic assessments of mastery of a defined body of knowledge. 

The Western Governors University (WGU) in the United States is a non-profit university that was founded on the principle of outcomes assessments.  While its curriculum remains narrow and professional studies oriented, it is growing at a breathtaking rate, and its students’ rates of degree attainment are good, their time to degree is remarkable (less than three years), and their cost of undergraduate education is low.  WGU students are finding good jobs in teaching, nursing, IT and other sectors. 

5.    Course Credit Aggregation

Rising pressure from students for transferability of acquired knowledge, in concert with rising employer acceptance of unorthodox certifications of knowledge mastery, will conspire in our opinion to foster the emergence of new organizations. 

These organizations will be course credit aggregators. Where our institutions fail to resolve credit transfer issues in advance through articulation of programs, the aggregators will resolve the issue through after-the-fact assessment and other means. Already, pressure from students and from employers is fostering the emergence of organizations like the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) that are promoting testing and award of credit equivalents to students for knowledge gained in school, in life, or otherwise. 

As learning truly becomes lifelong, the boundaries between learning, training and the workforce will become more fluid, as Strengthening points out.  Our ability to assess educational attainment in rich and varied ways will have to rise to meet this challenge of fluidity.  If our traditional institutions do not rise to the challenge, other sectors of the economy will.

The important question is whether Ontarians and our post-secondary education sector will put our respective heads in the sand, batten down the hatches, or pull out the tools that will enable us to embrace the transformation that is already on its way.

The important question is whether Ontarians and the sector will put our respective heads in the sand, batten down the hatches, or pull out the tools that will enable us to embrace the transformation that is already on its way.

We believe that our sector will embrace the challenge square on and will do so successfully.  Ontario’s track record in the post-secondary education has few rivals.

Just as we did in our work in 2011 as Special Advisor for an Ontario Online Institute to the former Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, the Honourable John Milloy, Contact North I Contact Nord will actively contribute to the process outlined in Strengthening.  We believe Contact North | Contact Nord, as a major contributor to meeting the education and training needs of Ontarians, is well-positioned to contribute and support this process.

In the coming weeks, we will outline our thoughts on online education, MOCCs, ePortfolios, Outcomes Assessment, and Course Credit Aggregation as part of our ongoing contribution to this consultation. 

We wish to focus our discussion on how we collectively make our college and university system stronger and support Ontario’s knowledge economy.

1See Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012, at…