Rethinking Colleges and Universities


What is happening in post-secondary education is quite remarkable and is creating the conditions for change. Here is a quick summary of some of the things our observatory is tracking, with a focus on Ontario:

  • Changing student demography & demand for flexibility – Shifts in the demography of the student body in Ontario – especially in the North – are affecting recruitment and retention of students. Students are now coming from a variety of different socio-economic groups, including a growing number who have part- or full-time employment. So as to increase post-secondary participation, there is a need to offer more flexible opportunities for learning, especially for mature or working students.
  • New funding – A commitment of the Government of Ontario to invest over $42 million over three years in online learning with strong focus on first year courses at colleges and universities (so-called “gateway” courses.
  • Northern Alliances – Growing agreements for joint course and program sharing (development and delivery) between colleges, especially in the North – leveraging the resources of Ontario Learn and Contact North.
  • Substantial growth of online learning in Ontario – Ontario has the largest number of online courses (over 18,000), programs (over 1,000) and course registrations (over 500,000 registrations annually) in online courses of any jurisdiction in Canada, which also makes it one of the leading centres for online learning in North America.
  • Growing demand for online learning from students – students are looking for increased flexibility in their studying options and are making online learning one of their choices. In 2012, in North America some 6.5 million students took one or more fully online course as part of their college or university programs. Online registrations are growing at app. 12-15% per annum while registrations for classroom based courses are growing at app. 1.5% per annum in North America.
  • Arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – Colleges and Universities in North America are offering the general public college and university level courses for free. Video instruction, online testing and peer to peer communications provide the basis for study. Over 4 million individuals in North America “signed up” for a MOOC in 2012-13 and over 230,000 completed a MOOC and obtained a letter of completion from the host institution. Major “brand” universities (including the University of Toronto, UBC and MIT) are offering such courses.
  • MOOCs for Credit – The Gates Foundation, in partnership with the American Centre for Education, are offering College “gateway” courses (courses needed for University Transfer) as MOOCs and then providing opportunities for the MOOC to be converted into transferable credit.
  • European Union committed to total learner mobility by 2020 – credits may be transferred from any institution to any other institution with full equivalency so as to encourage and recognize the new mobility of learners and labour. The EU is leveraging the work of the Council of Europe on the Bologna process which “standardized” the nature of college, apprenticeship and degree programs among all Council members. Similar developments have occurred in the Commonwealth, among the 32 small island states.
  • Ontario Transfer Credit – the Government of Ontario has committed resources and created support infrastructure to facilitate the greater transfer of credit amongst colleges and between colleges and universities.
  • Modularized Credit – The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is providing an opportunity for students to complete modular courses in 2-3 weeks for credit (.25, .33, .75, 1 and multiples thereof) and makes these modules available with start dates 365 days a year – students, once they start, have a fixed end date. This has significantly grown registrations and accelerated course completions.
  • Competency Based Learning for Credit – The Western Governors University uses competency based assessments for the award of credit – a student who successfully masters a competency based assessment is awarded credit, irrespective of how that student was able to secure the knowledge, skills and understanding required to secure this “pass”.
  • Significant Growth of Prior Learning Credit – the use of PLAR for credit (through challenge examinations, portfolio assessment and competency based assessment) has grown considerably since 2000 and continues to grow and develop, especially now that an increasing number of students arrive in colleges and universities with foreign credentials.
  • Significant growth of Work Based Learning for Credit – a number of colleges and universities (especially in Europe) are making extensive use of program agreements between an employer who offers training and development and the institution where the employers’ programs are recognized for significant credit, from the Diploma to the PhD. For example, it is possible to earn 90% of a Master’s Degree entirely through an agreed program of work based learning with just one course and a dissertation being required for successful completion.

Are colleges and universities ready for the changes which these (and other) developments imply? We dont think so. Which is why Janet Tully and I wrote the book Rethinking Post Secondary Education – Why Universities and Colleges Need to Change and What the Change Could Look Like.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -