Long-promised Ontario Online Institute still far from launch

TheStar.om – news/education
Published On Sun Jan 29 2012.   Louise Brown, Education Reporter

The Ontario government’s plan for a sleek new system of online higher learning that would help students mix and match online credits and train profs to design better web-based courses appears to have stalled nearly two years after it was unveiled.

The Ontario Online Institute was announced by the McGuinty government in the 2010 Speech from the Throne and cited again in a speech by MPP John Milloy last May, when it also was touted on a government website as coming “in late summer 2011.”

But it still hasn’t materialized, despite a 150-page feasibility report delivered to Queen’s Park last spring.

A ministry spokesperson said it has been neither shelved, nor given the go-ahead.

“We’re putting an awful lot of work into looking into the best way to move forward; there may be ways that we can do more, but I can’t say any more,” said Heather Wright, director of communications for the ministry of training, colleges and universities.

While there has been no announcement as to why the institute did not launch last summer, MPP Glen Murray, the new minister of training, colleges and universities, has mused publicly that one of the government’s promised three new Ontario campuses might be “online.”

But students are “disappointed at the lack of progress on this project almost two years after it was announced,” said Sam Andrey, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance.

“We know demand is going up — there were 495,000 online course registrations in a year in Ontario — and we were excited at the opportunity to see Ontario take it to the next level, remove some of the barriers and take steps to improve quality,” said Andrey, whose organization represents about 150,000 of the province’s 400,000 undergraduates.

The Canadian Federation of Students, Ontario, said it was surprised the institute did not launch last fall to serve the growing number of students who “often need a course for their program that isn’t offered at their institution, so they turn to online courses for that flexibility,” said president Sandy Hudson.

Neither group wants the province to create an actual online university; they would prefer a “portal” to serve as a clearinghouse for the often confusing myriad of online courses now offered by colleges and universities — a place where students could do one-stop shopping to find the course they need.

A two-month feasibility study commissioned by Queen’s Park by Maxim Jean-Louis, chief executive officer of the Contact North distance learning network, noted that in 2008-2009 there were more than 20,843 courses and 787 programs offered online in Ontario. Online course registrations constituted 11 per cent of all post-secondary course registrations in colleges and universities in 2010, the report said; a total of 495,716 registrations.

“If Ontario is to achieve the ambitious target of a 70 per cent post-secondary attainment rate for its workforce, an Ontario Online Institute should target underserved groups: aboriginal students, first-generation learners, new Canadians, people with disabilities and students in small, rural and remote areas of the province,” said the report, which suggested the government earmark about $7 million a year on the project.

“It is still difficult for a student in an Ontario college or university to take online courses from other institutions, either outside or inside the province, and count these credits towards their degree at their home institution,” noted Jean-Louis. “This is a particular challenge for students wishing to take online courses, especially lifelong learners, who often want to ‘mix and match’ courses from different institutions.

“This partly explains why more than 40 per cent of Alberta’s (completely online) Athabasca University students come from Ontario.”

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