Fiona Deller – Will Ontario keep apace or set the pace?

Some call it disruptive, some call it welcome but change is afoot in higher education. From rising enrolments to economic constraints, from the promise of technology to the pressures of international competition, the game is changing and the challenge for postsecondary education is to keep apace, or better yet, set the pace.

It must be said, however, that the real pace-setters to date are in the U.S., not in Canada, although traditional and social media alike north of the border are abuzz with comment on what is going on down south.

In a word, it’s online learning. But this is not your parents’ online learning, nor your grandparents’ correspondence courses.   From the well known MIT and the lesser knownWestern Governors University (WGU) come online technologies that are providing a different kind of education, in a different kind of way, signalling a fundamental rethink of how higher education courses are taught and assessed.

Course materials are placed online, learning is self-directed, and assessment, in the case of WGU, is competency-based.  MIT’s course materials are free and the learning is self-directed and self-paced. The next phase of this cutting edge “ecosystem for open learning” — known as MITx – offers course credits for a fee.  Stanford has started to follow suit, offering some of its course materials online for free.

These innovations are not intended to replace the traditional physical campus. In fact, WGU specifically targets adult learners in the workplace who need to upgrade their credentials or finish a degree already started at a traditional campus. It’s an educational arena that seems purpose built for entrepreneurs, as well as big universities.

The Khan Academy, Udacity, and the University of the People, are all free (or low cost) online universities started by educators who were frustrated with a system that is too expensive for too many (particularly in developing parts of the world), and inspired by what the new technologies could do.  Udacity is most recent to the game, started only weeks ago by Sebastian Thrun, a tenured Stanford professor. Thrun was inspired after putting his artificial intelligence course at Stanford online and receiving 160,000 registrants almost overnight.  Then there’s the Faculty Project — a collection of leading faculty from all over the U.S. who are offering free access to their online courses.

Although higher education is a proven path to economic and social mobility, the system is facing often-competing challenges of sustainability, quality, accessibility and affordability.  Amid these challenges are growing demands for a more student-focused approach, one that is built on flexible pathways and student choice. Perhaps we’ve reached a perfect storm, or at least a “disruptive” one, to use author and innovation-spotter Clayton Christensen’s very apt and currently trendy term. There are  two  trends worth watching here: how the new technologies are being used — to encourage self-directed learning and competency-based assessment; and how they are being provided — for free or very low cost.

Then there are issues of quality. Will traditional universities accept transfer credits from some of these new online ventures? Recently, new online university Straighterline, finding it difficult to please the traditional American accreditation system, has been musing about using the Collegiate Learning Assessment Test to prove the quality of student learning outcomes.

And what about employers? Will they give the same recognition to a degree from Udacity as they do to USC?  Can they be convinced that the core skills these students have are comparable? Will the traditional 18-24 year-old student trade the physical campus for online?  Is the market large enough to sustain all this innovation? A core rationale of these new approaches is expanding higher education into regions, and to people, who have traditionally not been able to access it.  But will the end result let the traditional university system off the hook and render “proximity education” as the luxury of the young urban upper middle class?

But the most pressing question is how can we import more of this innovative thinking to Canada? There are indications of simmering activity. We know from a recent HEQCO report on large classes that many faculty are adept at and keen to expand the use of technology, even if it’s still largely campus-based.  Contact North is trying to make a dent in online access and the government of Ontario is exploring an online institute. The government is also is participating, along with HEQCO, in an OECD international outcomes assessment project.

No one can predict the future. And it’s easy to get caught up in a semantic discussion about whether or not this is a “disruption”. But it would be wrong to dismiss this groundswell of activity as a phase, or unimportant. Building on some of the more interesting ideas and advancements, and with some innovative and strategic thinking, Ontario has the opportunity not just to keep apace, but to set the pace in higher education. We are cursed with living in interesting times.

Fiona Deller, HEQCO Research Director

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