Province plans to expand online education

Postsecondary students in Ontario will soon be able to access online education in a new way, with the announcement of a new course-sharing centre set to be operational within a year.

The Centre of Excellence for Online Learning, funded over a three-year period with an initial investment of $42 million, will allow students from participating institutions to take online courses approved by the Centre. All courses approved will provide transferable credits within the university and college sectors.

“This is I think one of the more exciting initiatives I’ve been able to be part of as minister of training, colleges and universities, because I think it positions us to be globally competitive,” said minister of training, colleges and universities Brad Duguid.

The Centre of Excellence, or Ontario Online, will divided into three main components: a course hub, where students can access online courses; a support hub to provide professors and students with help to adapt to the technology; and a knowledge hub for profs to share ideas, best practices and research on online learning.

While it is being created and initially funded by the province, the aim is to create a self-sustaining non-profit organization run by the participating institutions themselves.

“This will not be a government-run organization through the ministry. It’ll be independent and it’ll be run by the post-secondary sector and their representatives,” said Duguid, acknowledging that the province will not be dictating courses.

The idea of having an online course sharing hub is nothing new for Ontario’s colleges. Ontario Learn, where 24 of Ontario’s colleges share more than 1,000 online courses, has been in operation since 1995.

Administrators have been involved in talks with the ministry since around August to help bring about the Centre of Excellence.

“It has helped in some way to guide their vision of what they want this new entity to look like,” said Ontario Learn executive director Dan Holland.

According to Holland, while colleges may be farther ahead in course sharing, universities have internally been providing strong online course options internally to students. He feels positively about the developments that have been made in conversations between the sectors.

“It’s going to open access, it’s going to open wider the transferability of credit and I think it’ll hopefully someday make that seamless transition from college to university or from university to college,” he said.

He hopes one day to see credit transfer across sectors, something which universities and colleges are meeting on now.

Ontario Learn will now exist under the umbrella of Ontario Online, but there is no pre-existing structure for the province’s universities.

Institutional participation will be determined on a voluntary basis. It is not yet known whether students from universities that do not choose to participate, if there are any, will still be able to access courses.

“I don’t think we’ve determined yet how that would happen. My expectation is the vast majority of institutions are going to join up fairly quickly,” said Duguid.

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance has expressed its support for the increased focus on online education, which has been a strong lobby point for them as of late.

“I think it’s a great announcement, to be honest,” said Stephen Franchetto, VP of finance for OUSA

Franchetto noted that credit tansfer is hugely important and will help to improve accessibility of university education in Ontario. The student lobby group will be releasing a paper with recommendations for online education this year and will continue to push for increased quality in course offerings.

More than half a million students in the province are said to be accessing online education.

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