Students experience key focus as Ontario Online web portal prepares for fall 2015 launch

The University of Toronto offers seven online courses as part of the Ontario Online Centre of Excellence (Ontario Online) initiative. 

Ontario Online is an initiative started by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, together with several Ontario universities and colleges, to “share best practices in pedagogy and online resources, as well as offer state-of-the-art scalable courses that are recognized for credit across multiple institutions.”

Currently, these courses are only available to U of T students. However, students in other Ontario universities will be able to enrol in the courses starting from fall 2015 with the expected launch of the Ontario Online web portal.

Transfer equivalencies

Sioban Nelson, vice-provost, academic programs, said that the courses offered by any university through Ontario Online will award credits from the specific university. 

These credits can be transferred back to their home institutions through the normal transfer credit process. “Some universities have pre-arranged transfer equivalencies for some of the courses developed under the Ontario Online initiative,” Nelson said, adding that the university has worked with its partners to identify equivalencies wherever possible.

Don Boyes, a senior lecturer who will be offering his course, Geographic Information and Mapping I, on Ontario Online, said that the initiative is meant to confront the problem of transferring credits. “One of the big problems in [the] past is that a student takes a course in another university and finds out they can’t use it for their degree. They’re trying to eliminate that,” Boyes said. 

However, this does not mean that every course offered on Ontario Online will have credits that are automatically transferable to U of T. Boyes said that “[not] every single course in Ontario Online will be transferable to every single university, but they will be able to see a list of which courses can be used from which universities.”

Jennifer Campbell, another lecturer who is offering a course through Ontario Online, believes there’s an appeal to offering for-credit courses online. “Here, we tend to offer our courses three times a year because we are a large institution and we are able to do so. Not every institution can offer their course[s] that regularly, so if a student isn’t able to take a course or ends up dropping one for some reason in the fall, they might have to wait an entire year to be able to retake it,” she said.

Campbell added that this makes course offerings more flexible for students, as they would not have “to wait perhaps a full year to take the course at their home institution.”

Streaming lectures

Currently, both courses offered by Campbell and Boyes employ non-traditional classroom models. Boyes uses a hybrid approach, in which students learn from a “blend” of traditional lectures and online resources — like demonstration videos and live webinars. 

Boyes has also been running fully online versions of his course during the summer sessions for nearly three years.

Campbell’s course uses a flipped classroom model in which students watch online lectures before class and do assigned problems during the time in class that is normally taken for lectures.    

Campbell’s course also has a session that is fully online, in which all lectures and assigned problems are done and submitted electronically.

These courses, as well as other courses that use unconventional pedagogical methods, are supported administratively by Online Learning Strategies, a part of Information and Technology Services that is “committed to development and implementation of the University’s online learning strategy,” and Open UToronto, an initiative launched by the Office of the Provost in 2012 to maintain the university’s standing as a leading institution in teaching, learning, and research.

They provide both administrative and technical support to faculty who wish to adopt and develop innovative teaching methods as well as provide a community for faculty to share their findings and resources. They are also coordinating the university’s participation in Ontario Online.

Campbell and Boyes have received funding from Ontario Online to further develop and upgrade their course offerings and the infrastructure that supports them.

Not a MOOC

Ontario Online has been criticized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) for the lack of faculty representation on the Board of Directors. According to Kate Lawson, OCUFA president, the OCUFA is also worried that the initiative could “be a cost-cutting venture for universities or for the Ontario government.”

Lawson further said that “online education cannot be chosen as a cheap alternative to face-to-face instruction” and that “Ontario students deserve a high quality university education, whether in the classroom or in a digital environment.”

However, according to Boyes and Campbell, enrolling and providing for courses through Ontario Online is not like taking a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). For one, students will have to pay to enroll in courses offered by other universities.

“The Ontario Online courses are for-credit courses that students pay tuition for just like on-campus. In terms of who can enroll, you can get a student from another campus coming in and getting permission to enroll in an on-campus U of T course paying tuition fees too,” Campbell said.

Nelson confirmed that students must be enrolled in an Ontario university and they need a Letter of Permission to enroll in an online course offered by another university.

Boyes explained that the fact that students pay tuition fees means that they will have access to many of the out-of-classroom support that students on-campus receive. “While they are taking my course, they are considered U of T students, because they are taking a U of T course,” Boyes said. “They would have access to anything a normal U of T student would have, while the course is being offered. As far as I know, they will have a UTORId and anything else they [need].”

Future Directions

Citing a speech that U of T president Meric Gertler gave at the U of T Teaching and Learning symposium on Monday, Boyes was very encouraged by the university’s support for online learning and new ways of teaching with technology in general. 

“I think that they’re enthusiastic in their support but they’re also realistic that we have to do this carefully and properly and methodically so that we are doing this in a way that is really of value to students,” Boyes said, “It’s really important to stress that. We don’t ever want to do this for the sake of doing it, or that it makes us look good. It really has to be useful.”

Campbell seems to have the same impression of the university’s approach to new pedagogies. “I think U of T is trying to explore in a measured way different options in online learning.” 

Campbell added that she and her colleagues will be doing a study comparing their online and on-campus students, and will be sharing relevant results with the wider education community.

Both agreed that when all is said and done, it’s the student experience that counts the most. “I look at new teaching methods, I look at new technology, and I try to see where it’s useful to use them. I don’t just try to use anything just because it’s new and the latest thing. There has to be value in it,” Boyes said, noting that it all comes down to engaging students.

“The funny thing is that students don’t have any patience at all. They’ll figure out very quickly if something really isn’t helping them or isn’t valuable,” Boyes added.

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