How six Northern Ontario colleges transitioned from competitors to collaborators
When you call Northern Ontario home, access to higher education can be a significant challenge. And when young people do find their way to college, they don’t always have the resources to complete their degrees.
For northern colleges, this socio-geographic reality has a practical impact: while the first and second years of a course can have a solid number of students, the third year might have only two or three enrolled. And delivering a program to such a small cohort just isn’t economically viable. What to do about this perennial challenge?
Six colleges across Northern Ontario have come up with an innovative solution: leverage technology to combine students from their institutions in a single, virtual classroom. Calling themselves the “Circle of Six,” Boreal, Cambrian, Canadore, Confederation, Northern, and Sault colleges are working together to deliver key programs at a distance.
In the first year of their programs, students attend college in a traditional classroom setting. In the second year and beyond, they join students from other colleges across the north in virtual classrooms connected through digital infrastructure – students can either log in at home or visit specially equipped classrooms on their campus.
This innovation makes program delivery affordable. “By combining students from different colleges, we’re able to create viable class sizes,” said Dr. Audrey J. Penner, Vice President, Academic and Student Success at Northern College. “When pooled, two or three from one institution becomes 12 or 18 in total, which is what’s needed to deliver programs sustainably.”
The development of this innovative collaboration was a long, complex process involving all six colleges, half a dozen working groups and faculty.
Students came first. Circle of Six program leads knew they had to build a framework that would provide an engaging, seamless experience for students. “We wanted to create a positive experience from enrollment right through to graduation,” said Dr. Penner.
Business studies were chosen for the pilot because each college had a business program. Deans from the six colleges worked together to develop a curriculum that could be delivered virtually and was aligned with each college’s program as well as Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities guidelines. “The curriculum had to be aligned so that every student, no matter which college they had chosen, had the same program as all the others,” said Dr. Penner.
And it was essential to get the technology piece right. “We had to choose the right learning management system,” said Jerry Selby, Lead, Institutional Quality Assurance, Northern Colleges Collaboration, Academic Projects. “And the platform had to be connected to each college’s system so that there were no barriers to access or communication.”
Above all, the technology couldn’t get in the way of the learning. “What we discovered is that if you use technology properly – and if the virtual class was in the hands of skilled teacher – the hardware faded away,” said Dr. Penner. “The virtual classroom became just another group of people focused on their studies.”
Enthusiastic response to the pilot program, including from First Nations students and part-time learners, is an indication that the Circle of Six is on the right track. “Education is closely linked to economic development, and in the North – with economic downturns and population migration – the impact is even greater,” Dr. Penner said. “By training the right people on the right jobs at the right time, education can be a catalyst.”
With provincial government funding in place for another three years, Circle of Six program leads are now talking about how to scale the program, including introducing new disciplines. Mechanical engineering is up next and curriculum alignment is already underway. Participating colleges are also discussing how to strengthen the program by identifying each institution’s field-of-study strengths and allowing that college to take the lead in that field.
Organizers report that other educational institutions are watching closely and are eager to follow suit or get involved in an expanded initiative. What might colleges across Ontario and Canada learn from this successful collaboration?
Key successes, best practices and surprise findings will be shared at ORION’s THINK: Open conference on May 24th, 2017 in Toronto. We’re a proud sponsor of this event which will bring our communities together to reveal how many across the province are bringing greater openness to their important work in research and education.
I look forward to seeing you there!