The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA) advocates for an accessible, affordable, accountable, and high quality post-secondary education (PSE). However, such cornerstones of higher learning within the classroom extend as well to the virtual classrooms of online learning. With this backdrop in mind, OUSA encourages the provincial government to facilitate the growth and expansion of online learning opportunities at the various post-secondary institutions (PSIs) within the province. One means to this end is to continue the establishment of the Ontario Online Institute (OOI) – a consortium of PSIs that collaborate for the provision of online courses and programs through a centralized portal. In doing so, the process should be guided by a few central tennents.
Online learning is a proverbial game changer with respect to accessibility as it removes temporal barriers (scheduling conflicts between a particular course and other life demands such as other courses, work obligations, and family commitments). Intuitively, one would expect that the students that stand to benefit the most from online learning are those individuals that have the most competing life demands such as mature, part-time students who typically seek courses in the evening or on weekends or distance learners from remote locations.
However, in reality, online learners are most often traditional students already studying on campus as evidenced by that fact that 71 per cent of students taking online courses at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning spend time on campus studying.
Nonetheless, it is important that the OOI embodies the real pervasive quality of online learning is its capacity to make higher learning accessible to those prospective students that are traditionally underrepresented including low-income students, first-generation students, rural students, or minority background students. With all this in mind, the provincial government is poised to substantially increase accessibility to existing and prospective post-secondary students by not only providing courses through the OOI, but to encourage universities to develop course-to-course equivalencies for online credits to allow students to graduate, where possible, with a degree from an Ontario university.
It is reasonable to assume that students studying online encounter fewer costs in the areas of transportation, accommodations, and meals. In addition, the minimized overhead and the efficiencies of scale as a result of a central portal should further ensure that online courses remain affordable.
The needs and objectives of online learners are varied, but what is common to all of them is a desire to hold PSIs accountable for providing them with the relevant knowledge and student supports for academic success. With regards to the former, despite the lack of in-person interaction, the OOI can offer a robust array of non-academic support services geared toward online learners, including those with disabilities, personal counseling, and information technology support. Doing so further provides accountability to students via increased retention rates and reduced degree completion times.
With respect to ensuring the provision of relevant knowledge, the provincial government can ensure that any gaps in online programming that persist despite the number of PSIs offering online courses be filled via a course development fund, providing the necessary stimuli to PSIs to provide a cornucopia of courses.
Ultimately, the quality of a student’s education should be independent of whether said education was obtained in-person or online. Traditionally, the reputation of online learning has been unnecessarily weaker than in-person learning given the lack of history associated with some online learning providers as opposed to PSIs that have been providing in-person instruction since the origin of universities in the medieval ages. As such, until online learning becomes more pervasive, the provincial government should give the OOI limited degree-granting authority, instead encouraging PSIs to grant degrees to students. In turn, this would incentivize the expansion of online offerings by PSIs and inevitably require that PSIs introduce greater fluidity and mobility, something that is badly needed within the Ontario PSE system.
Steering Committee Member 2012-2013, Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance
McMaster Association of Part-time Students Executive Director, McMaster University
 Centre for Extended Learning. (2010). Annual Report 2010: Extended Learning Opportunities Beyond the Classroom. Waterloo: University of Waterloo. Accessed May 2012. http://secretariat.uwaterloo.ca/governance/Senate/20110228oagsen.pdf.