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Brad Duguid is Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and UniversitiesFRED LU/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's government will spend $42-million establishing a centre that aims to drive new online learning opportunities for university and college students across the province.

The new collaborative Centre of Excellence, dubbed Ontario Online, will be run by colleges and universities as an independent not-for-profit enterprise, and aims to increase options for students to learn online and allow schools to share resources and expertise in online teaching.

It is expected to launch in 2015, featuring a course hub where schools can post and promote their online course offerings in a central list. Participation in the centre will be optional, but all colleges and universities that sign on will be required to give credit for courses approved through the hub no matter which school offers them, and Mr. Duguid expects most will participate.

"This experience will be seamless for students," said Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, at an announcement held online with student leaders through GooglePlus. "Ontario Online will help all students access the world-class education that they need to succeed when and where it works for them."

The initiative is also intended to save schools and students money, in part by reducing the duplication of courses offered. But Mr. Duguid looked to assuage concerns from students that it might erode the in-class experience, saying "the idea of this initiative is not to replace classroom learning."

The $42-million in startup funding will be disbursed by 2016, with up to $12-million available this fiscal year. A steering committee of representative from colleges and universities as well as online learning experts will develop a plan to create the centre. Mr. Duguid said he won't dictate to universities and colleges how many courses they offer through the centre, but his expectations are high.

While it is being set up, $8.5-million will be available through a Shared Online Course Fund to develop or redesign "flagship courses" to be ready for launch across multiple institutions by 2015-16. In addition to the course hub, the centre will have dedicated arms for sharing knowledge between schools and for supporting students and professors in developing online learning.

The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance welcomed the announcement and encouraged all universities and colleges to sign on. "New and developing e-learning technologies allow students who would otherwise be unable to pursue a university education due to financial, social or geographic barriers increased ability to do so," said Thomas Pritchard, a member of the Alliance's steering committee.

The province's colleges are "really pleased," said Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, noting her members "have been talking about the need for this for a very long time."

But the organization representing the province's professors is frustrated that the steering committee, whose exact makeup has yet to be announced, appears to have no representation from faculty members.

"Ontario's professors are the ones who design and teach online courses, and yet have been excluded from real input into Ontario Online," said Kate Lawson, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

Successive higher education ministers in Ontario have been consulting with students and institutions about a collective initiative to co-ordinate and advance online learning since 2010, when Ontario's colleges and universities had a combined 500,000 registrations in 18,000 online courses.

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