Learn Online Portal increasing accessibility for part-time learners throughout Ontario

Learn Online Portal increasing accessibility for part-time learners throughout Ontario 

2023 has been a year of expansion, with digital tools becoming more popular in the education sector. We’ve got in touch with our resident virtual learning expert Don Eldridge to catch learners up-to-speed on the new opportunities for lifelong learning. 
As a leader in Ontario postsecondary education, what is the biggest challenge you have seen learners face when trying to upskill?  
Don Eldridge: Learners face many challenges when trying to upskill and reach the next level of their career. As an avid lifelong learner who has regularly engaged in online learning, I’d like to speak from my own experience. 

For me, the biggest challenge was discovering the right upskilling opportunities to meet my needs. Finding a program or a course that’s going to meet my needs, understanding how much it was going to cost me, the time commitment and everything else involved was one of my biggest challenges. Let’s face it – there’re lots of virtual courses out there and not all of them are created equal. Education is an investment, and it is important to invest in reputable options that get you where you want to be.  

With the Learn Online Portal, that initial discovery phase is one of the key challenges we hope to solve by providing a high-level overview of each course offered by Ontario institutions. Users of the portal can find full course descriptions, enrolment information, and quick links that connect them directly with Ontario postsecondary institutions. We want to make sure that the process of finding an educational opportunity is easier for learners by providing the right information to make an informed choice. 
In 2023, learners juggle education with a part-time or full-time job and other commitments. In your experience, is it possible for learners to balance work and upskilling?  

In November 2022, the launch of ChatGPT created a ripple effect throughout our digital environment. The fallout of this event and the impact of AI will require people to maintain a mindset of lifelong learning. This has led to an evolving demographic of learners.  
Participants seeking education are not always going to be from the traditional high school directly to the higher education demographic. In fact, currently, in the US almost two-thirds of learners come into postsecondary or tertiary education as non-traditional learners (those who aren’t coming directly from high school). The forces driving these changes, such as shifting age demographics and the impact of rapid technological change in society, are no different in Ontario where an estimated 8 million people will require ongoing lifelong learning opportunities to keep pace with changing labour market demands. These non-traditional learners have career experience, they have families and other commitments. With adult responsibilities, non-traditional learners can’t pause life to go back to school. Further, each learner’s goal will be unique because their path will be grounded in their life and work experience.  
This highlights a need for flexibility that must be met for non-traditional learners to succeed at their education goals. Ultimately, we must have an education system that can be customized to the needs of individuals.  

It’s possible for learners to balance learning with other life responsibilities with the right opportunities and support. We’ve seen the Learn Online Portal and Micro-credential Portal connect users to these opportunities. That’s really what these portals are designed to do – Help the individual find a learning opportunity that meets their needs and deliver it to them in a way that suits their schedule. In this way, learners in Ontario and beyond can source educational options that support upskilling for advancement at work or potential career changes. Meeting the needs of the lifelong learner is pivotal to Ontario’s long-term competitiveness. 
This year there are brand new modalities of learning available to us like adaptive learning, gamification, AI-enhanced education, and more. How is Ontario leveraging new technology options in higher education? 

We saw innovation accelerate with the pandemic, but Ontario institutions were committed to digitally enabled learning long before. 

Institutions are constantly working with new technologies, adaptive platforms that personalize education, and online spaces that encourage collaboration and community building. Educators are committed to providing quality educational experiences whether that’s online, hybrid, or a fully in-person learning opportunity – that’s something that sets Ontario apart and makes it a leader in digitally enabled learning. 

Educators are engaging with eCampusOntario on a regular basis looking for the new technologies that are out there. Gamification – that is a big one. We’re also seeing a lot of faculty using virtual reality simulations and augmented reality. By virtue of being hosted on web platforms, these tools become accessible to anybody inside the classroom as well as those at home through a headset, mobile device, or computer. Here at eCampusOntario, we are supporting this exploration through services such as our Edtech Sandbox which provides a risk-free space for educators to experiment with new technologies.  Even better, educators can engage with a vibrant community of practice that supports innovation province-wide. 

We’re also seeing educators creating new digital assets for technology-enabled learning and they are making these assets broadly available as Open Education Resources (OER).  Since 2020, the Virtual Learning Strategy funded by the Province of Ontario, has invested a historic 70 million dollars in virtual learning in Ontario – educators jumped on this opportunity by leaps and bounds and it stands as a testament to the growth we’ve experienced. This funding has created thousands of OER that are hosted in the eCampusOntario Open Library and has expanded the capacity of Ontario higher education to create and provide high-quality digitally enabled learning experiences.  Our Integrating OER Program continues to contribute to the sustainability and quality assurance of OER by funding educators to adopt OER in their courses, peer review OER, or update OER that they have created.  Free platforms such as Pressbooks and the H5P Studio give Ontario educators the tools they need to produce high-quality OER. Soon, our new OER Rangers program will place educators trained in OER adoption and creation in almost every publicly supported postsecondary institution in Ontario. 

What excites you most about the future of learning and education in Ontario? 

I think what excites me most is the level of access that people are going to have and the limitless potential that this provides. I think that we have such a diverse population here in Ontario (and in Canada in general) and I see us as well positioned to support their learning needs. Although we still have work to do in creating equitable access to broadband networks, I’m thrilled that we are on our way to a time where everyone will have the opportunity to access fantastic digitally enabled learning resources and supports for lifelong learning.  

Secondly, I get really inspired about the possibility of technology helping to enable more personalized learning experiences.  Technology makes possible the customization of education to our own individual goals and our work.  It can deliver educational content in a manner consistent with individual learning preferences. And it also affords us a way that balances life, work, and family. In this way, we no longer need to make a choice between going to school or working full-time. Online education and increased use of technology, make it possible to balance competing priorities. 

Finally, the third thing that I look forward to is the high quality that we’re seeing in online educational programs. Online learning isn’t static anymore. It’s not just engaging with a learning management system by yourself sitting somewhere alone. It’s creating community spaces where you actually form relationships with people. And I know that in my own experiences, having been an online learner, I have friends who I’ve connected with outside of the course environment and we still continually take time to meet up and talk, even now that my learning event is long over.  Technology is bringing us all together and forms powerful learning networks that are essential to lifelong learning. 
There’s a lot to be excited about with digitally enabled learning. And as technology continues to advance, I think that we’re just scratching the surface of what is possible.  Ontario’s postsecondary sector is undergoing a Digital Transformation and it’s going to expand even more than it already has. 

Don has been an instructor, program administrator, and student support specialist in Ontario’s postsecondary sector for over a decade. During this time, he has advocated for improved access to education through student support programs, instructor professional development, and technological innovation in education.  
In 2021 he joined the eCampusOntario team where he currently leads the Adaptive Learning, Learn Online Portal and Open Library portfolios as a Program Manager.  He has supported Digital Transformation in higher education by showcasing eCampusOntario programs and services at conferences, webinars, and ongoing sector stakeholder engagement. 

To visit the Learn Online Portal, click here.