TIMOTHY LAW/THE VARSITY

The Centre of Excellence for Online Learning (Ontario Online) is a new, $42 million initiative aimed at providing quality post-secondary education online. Courses accessed through Ontario Online will be transferable between all participating universities via ONTransfer.ca. Critics cite concerns about the quality of education and underlying motivation of the proposed program.

Brad Duguid, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, announced the creation of Ontario Online last Monday. ONTransfer will be a partnership between post-secondary institutions in Ontario that will attempt to streamline credit transfers. Duguid explained that students would simply have to enter their credentials and click a button to see which of their completed credits would be accepted at which universities and colleges in the database. The eventual goal of the initiative is to ensure that students do not have to waste money and time redoing completed learning.

Graeme Stewart, communications director of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), is lobbying for more faculty input on the Ontario Online project, as there are currently no seats allocated to faculty members on the Board of Directors overseeing it. “I think that there are a few important stakeholders — admin, students, online learning experts — but it’s the actual faculty members who know best how to deliver the best quality experience,” said Stewart.

Duguid, in response to these concerns, said that the ministry has reached out to all concerned constituents, and has assembled the most experienced board that it could. He believes that the product it provides will be valuable enough that faculty associations will be pleased with it anyway.

In addition to the issue of faculty inclusion, Stewart has political concerns: “I support the goals and principles of accessibility and flexibility; it will really help students who maybe live far away from campus or have other responsibilities, but I am skeptical about the motivation.” He added: “If the government is looking to cut costs and avoid investing in higher education, it won’t work.”

Amir Eftekarpour, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) does not believe that lack of university instructors on the Board of Directors will compromise the quality of education available through the project. “I don’t see why we should have to choose between accessible education and quality education. We think there needs to be a sector-wide discussion to ensure that the quality is the same and that all students get the same access to faculty and the same access to support programming,” he said.

“Student executives on the ground are working with administration through their councils and student unions to make sure that principles of equality and accessibility are upheld,” said Eftekarpour, adding that he was pleased to see the provincial government make a commitment to enhancing online learning. Eftekarpour said that his primary concerns lie with per-student funding, as well as the direct impact on overall student learning experience.

Fifteen out of 20 Ontario universities are participating in the database launch; U of T is not among them. Duguid questioned the wisdom of this decision: “I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on any institution that doesn’t participate — either in the Ontario Online, or in the ONTransfer initiative — because they’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “Institutions want students to transfer to them, and if they’re not marketing themselves on this guideline, if they’re not part of the guideline, they’re going to be very conspicuous by their absence.”

Sioban Nelson, vice-president, academic programs at U of T, explained the omission. “The credit transfer issue is something that we have been heavily involved in, and we have taken a cautious approach, built on where we know that we have a large volume of students who are interested in credit transfer and working on procedures for those students,” she said, referencing the seven-member University Transfer Credit Consortium. The consortium comprises U of T, the University of Waterloo, Western University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Guelph, Queen’s University, and McMaster University.

Under the current system, students can automatically acquire transfer credits for 30 first-year U of T courses by taking their equivalents offered by other members of the consortium. If a student wishes to transfer any other credits (including all credits from other institutions), he or she must submit an application. Credit transfer applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Nelson notes that the administration is concerned that if U of T were to automatically accept transfer credits for too many courses, although they may save time and money, they could be at risk of failing second year courses. “If the students fail the second-year course based on the first-year course, it doesn’t really help students much at all,” she said.

The Ontario Online project will launch in time for the 2015-2016 academic year, with the funds being expended gradually over the next three years.

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