May 31, 2014 psweeze

Research Plan: Managing culture and communication during the implementation of “Ontario Online”. A case study of the University of Waterloo and the University Course Committee.


The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities just recently announced $42 million dollars in funding for the development of Ontario Online. The purpose of this organization will be to create a non-profit organization that will facilitate the development of a one-stop shop for all post secondary online courses for both Universities and Colleges in Ontario. This is a radical strategy that intends to foster collaboration between and amongst Universities and Colleges to create and redesign courses collaboratively with the purpose of alleviating redundancies in current courses as well as fostering greater transfer credits between Institutions and sectors.

This is one of the most ambitious attempts to integrate and support online learning at a provincial level in Canada. It has numerous implications for future developments in other provinces and has the potential to be a flagship program that can be replicated. I am proposing to do a case study of the University of Waterloo’s Center for Extended Learning and it’s involvement in the inaugural year of Ontario Online.

This University has been at the forefront of Institutional change with regards to the development of online learning. I wish to address the barriers and drivers to e-learning projects, specifically focusing on faculty development and engagement.

The focus of my research is broadly designed around how effective the leadership of the University Course Committee is in managing change during the implementation of Ontario Online? There has been a lot of research in the past decade around the project management approach in implementing elearning strategies in post secondary institutions. The common theme throughout this research has focused on the numerous barriers and drivers that make these projects fail or succeed.

This initiative that the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is pursuing is somewhat unique in its scope and ambition. They are creating a significantly robust governing body that will be tasked with effectively communicating and managing this large-scale change between 20 Universities and 23 Colleges.

Problem Statement:

The purpose for my research will be to focus primarily on the leadership of the University Course Committee in managing culture and communication issues amongst all stakeholders during the first year of Ontario Online’s implementation. Additionally, I will be investigating how effective the same committee was in maintaining motivation during the same timeframe. This case base study will follow committee members as well as project leads and instructors at the University of Waterloo’s Center for Extended learning.

Framing the Problem: What is “Ontario Online”?

The implementation of a successful elearning strategy for Higher Education can be born from many places. Students from all walks of life look to different institutions that can provide access to the programs and certificates they need to pursue the careers that they wish to enter. When left on their own, Universities and Colleges can choose to lure in mature students looking to upgrade, and enhance their online course offerings to meet that need. For example, the University of Waterloo has an impressive online catalogue of courses provided by their Centre for Extended Learning. This program alone offers over 240 courses in over 40 subject areas. Although this is just one example of an Ontario University, there are a number of others such as Ryerson and Western that have started to recognize the competitive advantage in providing this service.

This competition amongst Universities can be a great thing for innovation, however it has the potential to cause role and mission issues (Bates, 2001). Over the past decade there have been instances of students raising concerns with the inability to transfer credits from one University to another. This has not only been an issue within traditional courses, and is becoming more of a concern now that competing universities have been reallocating funds to create fully online introductory courses that their competitors have already done. This duplication of courses is a waste of resources and is a product of the current “free market” ideology that is currently in place in Ontario. 

This isn’t the only problem currently facing Ontario. There are currently a number of online programs like Contact North, OntarioLearn, and Ontario Universities Online that are functioning within their own silos, and forging separate paths forward.

This lack of communication and open dialogue has the potential to cause issues and complications that could be otherwise remedied by a unified governing body with a common vision (Jean-Louis, 2011)

I will contend that the plan released in January 2014, by Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities has the potential to make that province and international leader in the world of elearning. They have an proposed a very radical strategy that plans on injecting 42 million dollars into the creation of Ontario Online, bringing together current college and university programs under one roof. This plan was conceived after years of input and research from all necessary stakeholders, and they have proposed a very aggressive set of objectives that if successful will actually transform the very nature of how their post secondary educational institutions are run (Bates & Sangra, 2011).

The process for this plan started back in 2011 when Maxim Jean-Louis was tasked with presenting an engagement process report on the creation of Ontario Online. The report brought together 13 Canadian and World Experts on online learning (as well as 5 Ontario based private sector providers of platforms) to help produce a road map for potential plan and subsequent funding model that would be meet the needs of all invested parties.

This road map was used for the establishment of the conceptual model for Ontario Online that was distributed internally to necessary stakeholders in December of 2013. This confidential document laid out the Minister’s plan to detail the structural and support model that would be implemented. In it Minister Duguid details the eligible funds and institutions as well as the process for crafting proposals. The proposal identifies the 42 million dollars in total and the subsequent breakdown for allotment of funds per year and per project. For the first year 12 million will be accessible for shared course creation and as well as the preparation activities for the creation of the new center.

There are 20 Universities and 23 Colleges listed as eligible for the 42 million dollars; however, the proposal does not mandate that every institution take part. Ontario Online is only a voluntary program with the intention of creating a Course Hub where institutions can post their courses and recommendations. Every University that agrees to participate has to post courses, but there is no stipulation on how many they need to offer (Jean-Louis, 2013).

The main focus for the first few years is to create flagship courses, created through collaborative efforts of multiple institutions as well as the formation of the independent non-profit steering committee. This board of directors will help create a common vision for all those invested in the center and help decide where to allocate funds from the proposals they receive. Each sector has access to 8.5 million dollars for the redesign of a number of scalable courses that can be offered. They main stipulation within the eligibility of funding is that universities and Colleges are working together to redesign courses, or systems that would facilitate shared delivery as well as shared credit recognition.

The new model is designed to incorporate three different hubs: the course hub, knowledge hub and support hub. I have already briefly addressed how they intend to use the course hub; however, the knowledge hub is the key to Ontario Onlines success in the future.

The knowledge hub will provide a number of key aspects: best practices, research and data collection strategies are all part of this hubs success. The proposal dictates a research agenda that will focus on technology-enabled learning. Data from this will facilitate the creation of strategies moving forward and guide best practices for the future of course creation and delivery.

The last piece of their proposal outlines the Governance model and how they plan to address the needs of the two separate sectors. Ontario Online will be governed by a Board of Directors as part of a not for profit corporation. The membership of this board will be comprised of senior administrators from both sectors, experts in online learning as well as students.

This governance structure will be embedded within the course hub and the board will oversee two distinct committee’s charged with overseeing the following responsibilities: working with Ontario Council on Articulation and Transfer (ONCAT), maximize flagship course delivery, minimize duplication, crafting course delivery and availability for institutions, development of a fair revenue sharing model.

There are over 20 Universities that are eligible for funding within this proposal. The decision to focus on the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning was due to the fact that it was one of established leaders in the area of online learning. With over 240 online courses in 18 different subjects, they have already made distance education a priority. The report leaked in December indicated that each proposal submitted for funding would require a lead institution to guide the consortia throughout the process. This institution would lend its current expertise in best practices and provide insight and allow for an easier transition towards the implementation of this new model. The University of Waterloo is likely to be one of those lead institutions, and as such is a preferred candidate for a case study.

Critical Review of Literature:      

This governance structure was seemingly crafted with care, and has many key components that will ensure the success of this model for the future. What is interesting to note however, is the fact that they have failed to include faculty members in this board of directors on the course committees. This design may prove to be problematic as “Ontario Online” may face ownership issues over courses and spark debate on intellectual property of materials created and utilized within those courses.

Petrina (2003), discussed this issue with regards to the Masters of Educational Technology (MET) program that was instituted at the University of British Columbia. The major concern with issues surrounding courses like this is potential contracts that the instructors may be forced to sign outside of their existing contracts with the Universities. Many faculty members may concerns with this and it may delay the creation as well as launch of some of the courses created for the “Ontario Online” catalogue.

“I’m not sure if it was a deliberate attempt to exclude them, but failing to include faculty representatives in the committee structure could potentially provide a massive impediment of this being successful” – Mark Bullen

Mark Bullen addressed this issue within an article that was published by the Canadian eLearning Enterprise Alliance. Within it he states how the project management approach to implementing elearning will inevitably clash with the current collegial structure that permeates post secondary institutions (Bullen, 2006).

Within this article he references an arbitration ruling by the Labour Relations board that sided in favour of the faculty at UBC. This ruling was extremely important to future issues that involved academic freedom. The Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities has opened himself up to litigation issues that could derail the success of this initiative. Although they have presented a very clear set of goals and objectives within their proposal, the collegial culture within Universities and Colleges is a massive hurdle to overcome (Bullen, 2006).

The success of an elearning strategy is reliant on the leadership of those that implement it. However there are many different types of leadership. Tony Bates and Albert Sangra (2011) identified these forms of leadership and how they can lead to or detract from the success of any institution or organization. Charismatic leaders are great champions of change, but once they leave their absence is evident and more often then not projects are left to die.

Another leadership method is one that is driven by technology professionals; however, this is not the driver of change that will be front and center for “Ontario Online”. Currently the most common form is that of decentralized leadership where isolated institutions, or more specifically, departments within institutions are leading the transition towards online learning.

Bates and Sangra (2011), also mention collective leadership as an example. They suggest that this is the most successful model for continual change, and it is evident at current institutions such as Virgina Tech. Collective leadership allows for the contribution of numerous participants collaboratively working towards a specific end.

Nevertheless the true driver of success when it comes to elearning projects is the engagement of the faculty involved that will be on the front lines. Communication between the University Course Committee and the instructors implementing these new programs is going to prove vital to the success of this organization.

Belinda Tynan (2010) identified lack of communication as one of the key barriers to the implementation of the elearning program at Vienna University. If this is not addressed as a high priority within the structure of “Ontario Online” it’s first few years may be marred with failed projects.

Research Method:

A qualitative case based study approach is typically used to investigate cultural and social contexts. I am proposing a case based study that will focus on a random purposive sample of individuals from “Ontario Onlines” University Course Committee, as well as project leads and instructors from the University of Waterloo’s Center for Extended Learning.

The random purposive sampling will be done in an effort to ensure that the subjects selected are a good representation of the members from the three different groups. The purposive selection of individuals is necessary to ensure that the members of each group are represented fairly. However, from the original group selected, a randomized selection of a smaller subset will be done in an effort to devise a more manageable number of participants.

Although cataloguing data from all participating members would be nice, it is an unmanageable number for just one researcher. The data collection methods will be based upon the methodology implemented by Arami and Wild (2006) in their case study at Vienna University. I will be implementing structured interviews with the participants and assembling the data in an unordered meta-matrix. This chart will be utilized for the interviews as well as the collection of data from observing scheduled meetings amongst the committee members, the project leads and the instructors.
The chart is a useful data management tool that will be beneficial during the data analysis stage. The charts will provide more meaningful interpretation of data and provide less opportunity for bias from the researcher. The majority of the information will be gathered from the structured interviews that will be taken after the proposals are first submitted as well as after the completion of the proposed project was approved. Key questions will be designed in an effort to foster both divergent and convergent responses. These interviews will be short, only including questions that have specific outcomes.

Since the study is focusing primarily around culture and communication issues with regards to the implementation of an elearning project questions will be designed to probe for information around these processes. Critical review of the literature highlighted that collegial culture and the project management approach tend to clash, and as such the research questions should be designed to elicit whether or not these problems are evident in this specific project. Divergent questions should be incorporated to see if there is a basic understanding of the purpose behind “Ontario Online”, and more convergent questions should be crafted to determine if there are issues with regards to communication amongst the three groups.

The concern with the crafting of these questions will be whether or not the convergent questions and the researcher themselves aren’t leading the participants towards negative assertions about the process. The validity and generalization of the data from this study will be reliant on whether or not the researcher can maintain this impartiality.

To add more robustness to the chart, the researcher will take part and be a nonparticipant observer of scheduled meetings between the committee members and the project leads, as well as meetings between the project leads and the instructors.

Being a nonparticipant observer is essential to trustworthiness of the data collected. Although this will be difficult to schedule, nonparticipant observations will provide a birds eye view of the meetings to capture the following data:

  • Who is involved in the meetings?
  • Who are the leaders and who are the followers?
  • What is the seating arrangement of the participants?
  • What is the status of the participants of the meetings?
  • What are the beliefs, attitudes and values that emerge from the meetings?
  • How did the meeting end, as well as any unusual or significant interactions that took place?

The purpose of the unordered meta-matrix will be to assemble a master chart to place the descriptive data collected from the interviews, meeting notes and observations.

Additionally, data will be collected via content analysis of the submitted proposals, as well as any of the pertinent presentations made during the meetings amongst the groups. The proposals themselves will provide insight into the scope of the intended project and what the roles of each of the participants will be.

Finally, data will be collected through a concluding questionnaire at the culmination of the project and the completion or failed completion of the intended product. The questionnaire will be short with key questions that focus on convergent questions around the communication between the group members and the motivation to the felt to complete the project throughout the experience.
Table 1. Data collection techniques and associated data

Data Collection Associated data
Audio recording
  • University Course Committee members interviews
  • University of Waterloo Project lead interviews
  • University of Waterloo Instructor interviews
Non participant meeting observations
  • Descriptive notes from scheduled meetings
  • Reflective notes from scheduled meetings
Document gathering
  • “Ontario Online” proposal crafted by University of Waterloo faculty and consortia
  • Presentations from scheduled meetings
  • Questionnaire responses from committee members, project leads and instructors

Schedule of activities:

The study will take place after the University of Waterloo submits a proposal as part of a consortium with other participating Universities or Colleges. The interview will take place after the completion and submission of a proposal that was crafted by faculty members of the University of Waterloo as part of a consortium. The documents submitted as well as other presentations will be gathered throughout the duration of the project they are working on.

The researcher in a nonparticipant observer role will attend any scheduled meetings between the committee and the project leads as well as instructors during the project.

Finally, the questionnaire about communication and motivation will be sent out via email for completion after the project proposed is completed or has failed.

Potential Contributions of the research:

The “Ontario Online” initiative is an extremely significant undertaking in the world of elearning. It is a radical strategy that is attempting to revolutionize the way courses are both created and delivered. As part of this initiative they are establishing the creation of a knowledge hub that will be collecting and analyzing data for future iterations of this organization. The hope is that the information gathered will be essential moving forward, and will provide a vital resource for best practices moving forward.

The implementation of this large-scale organization provides a great opportunity to observe and evaluate the plan that the Ministry has proposed. Although British Columbia has its established BCampus and other provinces have their own governance strategies for elearning, analyzing the initial startup of this organization with a focus on areas considered to be barriers to the success of elearning, will provide valuable information for the Ministry as well as other provinces that wish to implement a similar strategy in the future.

The successes or failures with regards to effective communication between the participants in the various groups will provide vital information for other provinces that wish to follow suite.

Limitations of the study:

This study is limited to in that it only has one researcher available following one university. Attending all scheduled meeting may be difficult, as the researcher will have his or her own classes and work to attend to throughout this study. Additionally, nonparticipant observing can potential cause issues with data collection as the participants of the study will be aware of the researchers presence. Thus the behavior of the participants may be affected by his or her presence at the meeting.

Finally, the fact that this study will focus solely on one Universities experience will not provide the robustness of data to provide generalization for the experience of other participating universities involved with “Ontario Online”. My hope is that this case study will be effective alongside similar studies, or provide a framework for larger multisite studies in the subsequent years of the implementation of this provincial organization.



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