Ontario College and University Investments in Digital Learning During the Pandemic

Ontario College and University Investments in Digital Learning During the Pandemic was written by Sophie Lanthier, Julia Colyar & Janice Deakin, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

New HEQCO report examines the digital learning investments made by colleges and universities during the pandemic

Digital learning opportunities grew steadily in Ontario prior to COVID-19. The pandemic accelerated this growth as Ontario colleges and universities rapidly expanded online and hybrid offerings to ensure educational continuity for more than 660,000 students. There has been no public record of the scope and scale of institutional investments that enabled the sector-wide transformation of postsecondary education (PSE). A new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) provides insights on the rapid transformation of the sector during this unprecedented time and offers recommendations for supporting digital learning moving forward.

Although Ontario colleges and universities offered many online courses and programs before 2020, moving all teaching and learning online required significant resources in a tight timeline. The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities supported institutions through two key investments — $25M in March 2020 for targeted pandemic response funding to colleges, universities and Indigenous Institutes based on full-time enrolment and in 2021 an additional $106M, in direct funding to 22 Ontario PSE institutions deemed to be in immediate financial need.

The province also provided support for the development of online programming via the Virtual Learning Strategy (VLS), launched in January 2021. More than $70M of additional provincial funding was committed to the VLS on a project basis through a competitive request for proposal process. As most of these funded projects were not available for public use until March 2022, the VLS timing and funding approach resulted in supports and resources that postdated the institutional transformations required by the pandemic for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years.

With the support of Colleges Ontario and the Council of Ontario Universities, HEQCO surveyed Ontario colleges and universities to gather information on institutional incremental investments in three areas: technology-related infrastructure; staffing for online course development; and student services and supports. Institutions also reported the number of new online courses that were created and student registration in those courses. Responses were received from 26 Ontario institutions, or 57% of recipients: 12 of 22 universities and 14 of 24 colleges. Responding institutions represent 73% of all university undergraduate full-time enrolments and 55% of college full-time enrolments.

The institutions who participated in the study invested nearly $200M to support educational continuity during COVID-19 campus closures between March 2020 and April 2022. Institutional investments prioritized immediate needs and were strategic, ensuring that resources were used where support would have the greatest impact on student enrollments. In fall 2020, participating colleges offered 18,552 new online and hybrid course sections and universities offered 2,880 new online courses. These new online courses, with pre-existing online offerings and other remote delivery practices, supported more than a million registrations in fall 2020. Institutional investments that ensured the immediate transformation of teaching and learning activities also had longer-term impact through the increase in online and hybrid course offerings that remain available across Ontario colleges and universities.

The development of innovative online and hybrid courses is resource-intensive, both in terms of technology and staffing. The evolution of course delivery formats increased the need for faculty and staff training and online student supports such as tutoring, advising, mental health and accommodation resources. Ontario institutions have cultivated their own digital resources, technologies and capacities over the past decade and government should continue to support Ontario’s digital landscape with funding that builds on previous investments.

As government considers future investments, HEQCO recommends that future supports for digital learning be provided directly to institutions. This funding approach would allow for strategic investment in ways that advance institutional objectives while maximizing their alignment with provincial goals.