Assessment of the Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities plan for the Centre of Excellence in technology enabled learning

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The implementation of a successful elearning strategy for Higher Education can be born from many places. Students from all walks of life look to different institutions that can provide access to the programs and certificates they need to pursue the careers that they wish to enter. When left on their own, Universities and Colleges can choose to lure in mature students looking to upgrade, and enhance their online course offerings to meet that need. For example, the University of Waterloo has an impressive online catalogue of courses provided by their Centre for Extended Learning. This program alone offers over 240 courses in over 40 subject areas. Although this is just one example of an Ontario University, there are a number of others such as Ryerson and Western that have started to recognize the competitive advantage in providing this service.

This competition amongst Universities can be a great thing for innovation, however it has the potential to cause role and mission issues (Bates, 2001). Over the past decade there have been instances of students raising concerns with the inability to transfer credits from one University to another. This has not only been an issue within traditional courses, and is becoming more of a concern now that competing universities have been reallocating funds to create fully online introductory courses that their competitors have already done. This duplication of courses is a waste of resources and is a product of the current “free market” ideology that is currently in place in Ontario. This isn’t the only problem currently facing Ontario. There are currently a number of online programs like Contact North, OntarioLearn, and Ontario Universities Online that are functioning within their own silos, and forging separate paths forward. This lack of communication and open dialogue has the potential to cause issues and complications that could be otherwise remedied by a unified governing body with a common vision (Jean-Louis, 2011).

I will contend that the plan released in January 2014, by Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities has the potential to make that province and international leader in the world of elearning. They have an proposed a very radical strategy that plans on injecting 42 million dollars into the creation of Ontario Online, bringing together current college and university programs under one roof. This plan was conceived after years of input and research from all necessary stakeholders, and they have proposed a very aggressive set of objectives that if successful will actually transform the very nature of how their post secondary educational institutions are run (Bates & Sangra, 2011).

The process for this plan started back in 2011 when Maxim Jean-Louis was tasked with presenting an engagement process report on the creation of Ontario Online. The report brought together 13 Canadian and World Experts on online learning (as well as 5 Ontario based private sector providers of platforms) to help produce a road map for potential plan and subsequent funding model that would be meet the needs of all invested parties.

This road map was used for the establishment of the conceptual model for Ontario Online that was distributed internally to necessary stakeholders in December of 2013. This confidential document laid out the Minister’s plan to detail the structural and support model that would be implemented. In it Minister Duguid details the eligible funds and institutions as well as the process for crafting proposals. The proposal identifies the 42 million dollars in total and the subsequent breakdown for allotment of funds per year and per project. For the first year 12 million will be accessible for shared course creation and as well as the preparation activities for the creation of the new center.

The Minister officially announced Ontario Online on January 13, 2014 via Google+, a conscious decision to demonstrate the changing nature of communication as well as forms of education. The announcement was warmly received by Thomas Pritchard, a member of the Ontario Undergarduate Student Alliance stating, “new and developing elearning technologies allow students who would otherwise be unable to pursue a university education due to financial, social or geographic barriers increased ability to do so” (Bradshaw, 2014).

There are 20 Universities and 23 Colleges listed as eligible to the 42 million dollars; however, the proposal does not mandate that every institution take part. Ontario Online is only a voluntary program with the intention of creating a Course Hub where institutions can post their courses and recommendations. Every University that agrees to participate has to post courses, but there is no stipulation on how many they need to offer (Jean-Louis, 2013).

The main focus for the first few years is to create flagship courses, created through collaborative efforts of multiple institutions as well as the formation of the independent non-profit steering committee. This board of directors will help create a common vision for all those invested in the center and help decide where to allocate funds from the proposals they receive. Each sector has access to 8.5 million dollars for the redesign of a number of scalable courses that can be offered. They main stipulation within the eligibility of funding is that universities and Colleges are working together to redesign courses, or systems that would facilitate shared delivery as well as shared credit recognition.
It would seem within the funding model that they are more interested in the later then the former. Where only $75,000 is being allocated for specific course redesigns, $450,000 is being allotted for shared services for transfer credits as well as shared delivery methods. This highlights the proposals dedication to removing duplication and mission issues as a whole that have been brought about by the current free market ideology.

Additionally, they take into account the Administrative costs that accompany such drastic redesigns, and up to 5% of these costs are eligible for compensation with the new model. This was a necessary step, as the coordination of schedules and meetings required to draft proposals as well report on the progress will be demanding on the administrative teams at each institutions. Without covering these costs, it would demonstrate that they wanted this new model to be born on the backs of the institutions and adding extra workload on them without compensation. Supporting these costs indicates how serious the current government is in the further development of this center for years to come. Ensuring that institutions have the time to collect and submit data is a clear sign that they wish to be leaders in the world of elearning, and that they are looking at learning from the first few years and making adjustments to improve the center (Jean-Louis, 2013).

The new model is designed to incorporate three different hubs: the course hub, knowledge hub and support hub. I have already briefly addressed how they intend to use the course hub; however, the knowledge hub is the key to Ontario Onlines success in the future.

The knowledge hub will provide a number of key aspects: best practices, research and data collection strategies are all part of this hubs success. The proposal dictates a research agenda that will focus on technology-enabled learning. Data from this will facilitate the creation of strategies moving forward and guide best practices for the future of course creation and delivery.

The last piece of their proposal outlines the Governance model and how they plan to address the needs of the two separate sectors. Ontario Online will be governed by a Board of Directors as part of a not for profit corporation. The membership of this board will be comprised of senior administrators from both sectors, experts in online learning as well as students (I will touch on this later).

This governance structure will be embedded within the course hub and the board will oversee two distinct committee’s charged with overseeing the following responsibilities: working with Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT), maximize flagship course delivery, minimize duplication, crafting course delivery and availability for institutions, development of a fair revenue sharing model.

This governance structure was crafted meticulously, and has many key components that will ensure the success of this model for the future. Nevertheless, I believe if this plan has an Achilles heel, it is within the Governance structure. The board and two sector committees have a number of key stakeholders that are necessary the success of the center. What they fail to acknowledge by this model is the problems they are going to face with ownership of courses and the debate of intellectual property.

I’m not sure if it is a deliberate attempt to exclude them, but failing to include faculty representatives in the committee structure could potentially provide a massive impediment of this being successful. Mark Bullen addressed this issue within an article that was published by the Canadian eLearning Enterprise Alliance. Within it he states how the project management approach to implementing elearning will inevitably clash with the current collegial structure that permeates post secondary institutions.

Within this article he references an arbitration ruling by the Labour Relations board that sided in favour of the faculty at UBC. This ruling was extremely important to future issues that involved academic freedom (Bullen, 2006). The Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities has opened himself up to litigation issues that could derail the success of this initiative. Although they have presented a very clear set of goals and objectives within their proposal, the collegial culture within Universities and Colleges is a massive hurdle to overcome.

As I mentioned above the announcement in January was met with a lot of positive responses. Nevertheless, the one group that took umbrage with the initiative was the Ontario professors. This was promulgated by Kate Lawson, the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations who after the announcement stipulated, “Ontario’s professors are the ones who design and teach online courses, and yet have been excluded form real input into Ontario Online” (Bradshaw, 2014). This statement clearly indicates the position of the faculty members, and will more then likely be the undoing of this institution if it is not addressed.

The main issue will be the fact that this project management approach fails to detail how they plan on addressing issues that arise when faculty fail to produce these collaborative courses.
Within the plan they have stated they will focus on flagship courses for the first round of offerings. These courses will probably be easier to manage, as there may be less debate around introductory courses that currently are in place across all institutions. However, once they move to implement courses that are the culmination of years of research in specific domains, faculty will not be so willing to relinquish course materials so easily.

Another issue that is not evident within the Ontario Online plan, is the fact that they fail to consider how they plan on implementing elearning within the traditional classroom model. Elearning strategies shouldn’t solely exist to tackle online courses, but provide incentives for current faculty to integrate elearning strategies for blended learning.

Within the engagement report Maxim Jean-Louis identifies the need to become global leaders by leveraging the development of mobile learning technologies from Ontario based companies like Research in Motion and Desire2Learn. Both of these companies have headquarters in Waterloo. Currently rebranded as Blackberry, this company is neighbours with the University of Waterloo. Under the current free market ideology this University took on the task and created two distinct centers. The center of extended learning and the center for excellence in teaching have separate mission statements that are tailored to meet the needs of two different methods of course delivery.

I am choosing to highlight these two centers at this University as a proxy for the impending failure this current plan will have in addressing blended learning offerings in higher education. This plan will only exacerbate the current trend within traditional classrooms by neglecting to incentivize this along with fully online courses.

Evaluating the center for extended learning in its current state demonstrate how an institutions can be extremely successful in facilitating the creation of their own online program without the assistance of government involvement. With 240 courses in over 18 different subject areas they are providing a great model that other institutions can learn from. Ontario Online will take full advantage of leaders like the University of Waterloo and encourages the nomination of lead organizations when drafting proposals. This lead organization will identify the strength and capacity of all contributing organizations and lend their expertise in the creation of activities and courses. This is an intelligent move that supports current best practices and will hopefully foster constructive collaboration between organizations.

Alternately, the center for excellence in teaching at the University of Waterloo offers a number of different services for assisting the integration of blended learning. The site is comprised of two standout sections: the technology solutions tab and NETSavvy provide information about support, grants, strategies, devices and educational tools that instructors have available to them.

Although this site is extremely robust with the information it provides to its instructors, there is little to no evidence that suggests that the University is willing to make waves with its current instructors.
While there are grants available to the faculty to redesign courses, they are limited to $500-$5000 for redesign. The area where this is most concerning is the limitations that they impose on this funding. For an instructor to fully redesign a course significant faculty time and preparation is necessary; sadly, these grants do not permit that.

What I am attempting to highlight by showcasing the University of Waterloo’s center of excellence in teaching, is the fact that if the Ministry fails to recognize the need to develop a plan that addresses blended classrooms, their provinces elearning strategy will be missing significant pieces that are required to foster enhanced learning through technology enabled methods.

Neglecting to acknowledge the need to incorporate support for blended learning will only lead to what Sangra and Bates (2011) identify as lone rangers. These lone rangers tend to discourage other instructors to integrate technology, as many view the time that these instructors invest, is time they could be spending on research or with family and friends.

Nevertheless, Maxim Jean-Louis highlighted the growth of blended learning within the engagement process report and it was an item that was identified as a key theme that needed to be addressed for the future of elearning in Ontario. This is something I expect will be concentrated on in the future, once Ontario Online has been established. Hopefully they will be able to utilize information they ascertain from the metrics and measurement of learning processes they will employ as part of the ongoing research into best practices for technology enabled learning.

It is within this ongoing research / support hub that I feel Ontario Online will find its greatest success. This is the development of the vision established within the roadmap and financial plan published in April 2011 (Jean-Louis, 2011). Key findings within the engagement report were that this center would need to encourage and foster a collaborative consortium between and within the two sector committees.

The development of communities of practice will help foster best practices for online learning as well as the development of new designs for learning. Identified within the plan is the need for a support and information portal similar to that of Contact North. Although Jean-Louis states his bias as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Contact North, his recommendation to build on their existing portal structure is a solid one. Building on the current infrastructure that is currently in place, the portal offers a great framework that would be easy to work from.

Additional funding would build on and provide a platform for data collection, metrics, knowledge services as well as student support services. The data collection will be essential to the committees for future direction. This will offer them insights into the best courses to offer and develop when evaluating new proposals in subsequent years.

Not only will they use these tools to identify potential gaps in course offerings, they will also use these measurement tools to gauge: performance, attainment of learning outcomes, as well as cost of learning. In the initial engagement report they identified the completion rates of current online courses provided by colleges and universities in 2010. With 76% completion rate in colleges and 85%-95% in University course offerings it would seem as if there is little room for growth (Jean-Louis, 2010).
If they are genuinely interested in engagement, they will need to identify baseline and benchmark data in other areas that will provide them with a better picture of engagement in online courses.
Although engagement is a difficult quality to measure, the identification and attainment of learning outcomes may be more problematic. This could range from simply measuring average grades to evaluating specific benchmarks for essential learning outcomes. Nevertheless, agreement on and the establishment of these metrics will be an extremely daunting task.

Finally, the last area they wish to focus on with measurement is in an area that often garners a lot of scrutiny when it comes to online learning; cost. Within the roadmap Jean-Louis (2010) states that there is potential for cost savings to universities and colleges with Ontario Online. I would caution Jean-Louis in making these assertions, as Bates and Sangra (2011) identify that such claims are often false and that the implementation of elearning strategies requires more of an investment from all parties involved.

Measurement is essential to evaluating what has worked and helps cement best practices moving forward. However, the discovery of new methods and strategies is often facilitated when communities of practice and organizations focus on innovation.

In evaluating this roadmap, this is the area that I feel will be most influential for educational institutions that wish to address new markets and new needs. Although absent from the 2013 conceptual model, the original roadmap highlights a plan to develop an innovation incubator, annual challenge program, and premiers award for excellence are all ideas that should be focused on in the subsequent years of Ontario Online. If Ontario truly wants to become the leader in online learning they promotes themselves as within this plan, they will need to ensure they are encouraging their institutions to be creative and foster new partnerships.

The idea that stands out to me is the innovation incubator. This approach in creating industry partnerships to foster new ideas will inevitably provide a return on investment. Any and all resources and materials born from these partnerships would be great additions to their shared library and portal for all participating institutions.

The true strength of the project management approach will be the identification of best practice providers and successful program and course developers. If cooperating institutions chose to adopt this model, they will be given access to participate in workshops and training activities provided by these individuals and teams (Jean-Louis, 2011).

This is part of only one task within the roadmap, but I believe this service will provide the backbone of this center. If Ontario Online is to be successful, it will be based on the effectiveness of these workshops and the willing participation of all contributing institutions.

It truly is an integral component and as such, it was identified as an area that requires specific funding. This funding will be utilized to create a certificate of online instruction that will be to every facilitator and instructor that teach students online in Ontario.

Nevertheless, the means by which faculty can develop their skills in effective online teaching will not solely rely on this course. Faculty members are encouraged to create collaborative resources as part of a collective that can be shared through Ontario Online’s learning resource library.

This plan was mainly designed to address duplication and mission issues created by a free market ideology. Additionally, the main goal is to break down barriers between institutions and attempt to provide meaningful and cooperative relationships amongst competing Universities and Colleges.
I believe this plan will successfully address the issues around duplication of courses and provide a great first step in providing more materials for technology-enabled teaching. Moreover, the creation of flagship courses and a move towards credit accreditation between institutions will provide a much more holistic approach that will put the students needs before that of the institutions.

Nevertheless, this plan has a number of glaring issues, especially with regards to intellectual property and academic freedom. Who owns these courses is going to be a bone of contention between the instructors and Ontario Online’s board of directors. Furthermore, they will need to address the enhancement of blended learning along with fully online courses, as they have yet to provide any incentives within this current framework for promoting advancement in the traditional courses.

References:

• Bates, A.W. & Sangrà, A. (2011). Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teahing and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, chapters 3, 4 & 6
• Bates, A.W. (2001). National strategies for e-learning in post-secondary education and training. Paris: UNESCO/International Institute for Educational Planning.
• Bradshaw, James. “Ontario to Launch $42-million Central Hub for Online Postsecondary Classes” The Globe and Mail, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
• Bullen, M. (2006) When Worlds Collide: Project Management and the Collegial Culture. Plan to Learn: Case Studies in eLearning Project Management. P 169 – 176
• Canada. Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. “Ontario Online” Establishing a Centre of Excellence in Technology-enabled Learning: Conceptual Model. By Maxim Jean-Louis. December 2013.
• Canada. Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. A Policy Framework for Online Learning in Ontario. By Maxim Jean-Louis. December 2011.

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