Sarah Brumwell and Jackie Pichette — Behind the numbers: How students are using a free skills-training platform

In 2017, the Ontario Government purchased three years of blanket access to the self-service online learning platform (now LinkedIn Learning) for the province’s public colleges and universities. eCampusOntario, tasked with managing the licence, partnered with HEQCO to evaluate the potential for this investment to help address perceived skills gaps among Ontario’s postsecondary students.

As part of this evaluation, we published an analysis of how students, faculty and staff at Ontario’s colleges and universities engaged with during the 2018–19 academic year. The report focused on how and to what extent users were accessing content through the government-funded licence.

Our analysis of the usage data found that about 7% of eligible students accessed the platform in the 2018-19 academic year. About 60% were college students and about 40% were university students. Less than a quarter of users completed a full course during the academic year we analyzed.

In light of the findings, we were curious whether we can change students’ behaviour and drive usage relating to particular skills. And, we wanted to understand how worthwhile usage is for students. Are students who access the platform actually developing the skills they intend to? HEQCO and eCampus partnered with researchers at the University of Toronto to test whether informational nudges could lead to increased uptake, and whether’s interview courses give students a leg up in securing co-op placements.

We’re also hoping to see whether students’ engagement with the platform has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to embrace remote learning. We’ll be reporting on the results in the fall.

Our previous analysis found that most users were concentrated in business, engineering and technology-related disciplines, and most user interactions (i.e., courses started) were linked to professional skills. This was the case across all four groups covered by the blanket licence: college students, college faculty/staff, university students and university faculty/staff. In particular, users viewed content linked to software training skills, technical skills specific to a discipline or profession, and computer science or information technology skills.

Excel Essential Training was the most popular course across the board. And broadly speaking, disciplines where faculty/staff usage was higher saw higher proportions of student usage.

You can see these usage patterns in more detail in the visualization below. In order to capture the behaviour of users who perhaps took more than one course in the same category, we looked at the total number of course starts (“interactions”) by users in the sample as opposed to a headcount of users themselves. The size of the coloured bars on the left and right reflect the proportion of total interactions belonging to each area of study/work (left) and course skill category (right). The coloured bands illustrate these proportions in relation to one another. You can use the drop-down menus above the chart to toggle between institution types (college or university) and users’ affiliation (student or faculty/staff). You can click on or hover over the different bars and bands to view more information, including percentages.

The data suggests the government-funded licence, which expires in September 2020, is predominantly being used to supplement the postsecondary experience, developing professional skills aligned with students’ field of study. It is being used less so to develop the skills that our survey suggested students perceive themselves to be most deficient in, such as business etiquette and transferable skills like leadership or teamwork.

It’s worth noting that we had no way of knowing why users took a particular course and that the content on during the study period skewed toward professional or technical skills. So it’s possible users may have been interested in developing transferrable skills, but just couldn’t find the content they needed. We hope our ongoing research with the University of Toronto will lend some insight into the question of whether students can be encouraged to use a free skills-training platform in their spare time to help bridge the skills gaps they’ve identified.

Sarah Brumwell is a senior researcher and Jackie Pichette is a director at HEQCO.

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