How do you let students find out about your programs when they could be anywhere in the world?
To help colleges and universities connect with online learners, several Canadian provinces have developed portals to centralize online courses. The latest, eCampusOntario, launched in early October, consolidates 13,000 online courses and 600 online programs from all of the province's 45 publicly funded colleges and universities.
Like a search engine, the new portal allows students to type in keywords that turn up programs and courses on that topic. Listings provide information on content, registration and transfer credit options.
Cathy Newell Kelly and Linda Rees, co-executive directors for eCampusOntario, say the portal also aims to provide resources for both students and instructors. On the student side, that includes links to administrative supports, such as application centres and financial aid resources. On the faculty side, the site provides instructors with resources for online teaching. Plans for the site include exploring the possibilities of centralized course registration (currently listings link back to the institution's registration) and further resources development.
The portal is the latest development for Ontario's online learning. In the province, another organization called Contact North has provided course listings since 1986, now under the website studyonline.ca.
"We are just building on the province's strong foundation in e-learning and credit transfer. We are trying to make it easier for students to access information without having to go to the 45 different institutions," says Ms. Rees.
In other provinces, organizations including eCampusAlberta and eCampus Manitoba have similar goals of consolidating offerings from their provincial institutions. Dave Neale, executive director for eCampus Manitoba, which was revamped in 2013, says the result in his province is a crossover in students taking courses at the seven institutions that his portal represents.
While online courses evoke distance learning, many students are relatively local or even enrolled at the institutions where they take the course. At Trent University, fourth-year international development and politics major Alaine Spiwak took a first-year introduction to indigenous studies in the summer between her second and third year.
"I took it because I wanted to get ahead in terms of my academic career, picking up another credit so I could take fewer credits when I got to my upper year," she says. She adds that the online option allowed her the flexibility to move home to Hamilton, where she had work lined up. "It was really important to me that I was able to go home, save money on rent by living at home, work at home, and then have that flexibility being able to access that class whenever I had the time."
According to Trent's interim vice-provost and dean of graduate studies Elaine Scharfe, Ms. Spiwak's experience is typical of many students at Trent. The university is moving quickly to meet these needs – since Dr. Scharfe took over as executive head for online learning in 2011, Trent's offering has grown from six courses in 2011 to more than 80. Students are noticing – letters requesting permission to take online courses at Trent have quadrupled and the letters from Trent students asking to take courses outside the institution have dropped in half. She estimates that a third of students take one or two online courses every term.
Dr. Scharfe says she expects portals such as eCampus Ontario to do for students outside the institution what internal awareness raising has done for those on campus.
"One of the reasons why I think the eCampus initiative is really great for a place like Trent is that when students at other institutions find out about our courses, they're more likely to take our courses. Especially in the summer, we have a greater number of non-Trent students enrolling."
If Trent is a relative newcomer, Algonquin College is a model old-timer in the online space, offering self-directed distance courses on paper since the late 1960s. Currently, the college offers 671 courses and 61 programs, with a total of 28,000 students registered. Sandra Larwill, acting dean at the school's Centre for Continuing and Online Learning, says almost half of online students are truly distant, defined as more than 100 kilometres from the college. She says portals have not only been helpful for collaboration between colleges, but also for helping university students learn about postgraduate certificates available at colleges.
For eCampus Ontario's Ms. Newell Kelly and Ms. Rees, who each have helped to shape online learning since the mid-1990s at their respective institutions of University of Waterloo and Algonquin College, the October launch of eCampusOntario is just a first step in a plan to keep building awareness. At eCampus Manitoba, Dr. Neale says the rise of educational portals suggests institutions are even more willing to work toward common goals. "It's indicative of the new collaborative approach that institutions are taking. As you often see in other sectors, like institutions are beginning to work together to offer a better range of opportunities to their constituents."