Even before the global pandemic, academic institutions, learners and professionals across Canada and around the world were reconsidering the state of education. COVID accelerated a rapidly changing work environment, and decisions are now being made that will affect the workers of today and the next generation. Online and distance learning have become a popular option prioritized by the government and academic institutions to upskill and reskill working Canadians. But simply shifting online will not guarantee success.

The application of online learning must be carefully considered, strategically planned and purposefully built to be effective. Online education has taken many forms across Canada, but at its core is the same guiding principle: that it must always benefit learners, industries, academic institutions and the community.

Our team at Keypath Education Canada works with Canadian universities to develop purposefully built online degrees to support their students’ education. Provincial governments in B.C. and Ontario have chosen the route of making significant financial investments to support micro-credentials – short-term, skills-based online courses – to facilitate more learning opportunities. In each case, the province or school turned to online learning to deliver high-quality education to more students and to provide people with much-needed skills and knowledge sought by employers and industries. However, they were only able to do so after carefully evaluating their own sets of unique circumstances – funding, demand in the labour market, alignment with existing programming and more.

Earlier this year, the Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs strategy was released, detailing considerations and potential initiatives to support the province’s workers, employers, universities, colleges, institutes and their faculties. As Alberta narrows its sights on where to begin this journey, important conversations surrounding how best to proceed are ongoing. There’s a lot to discuss.

Establish a clear focus

What is the key policy problem that the strategy is hoping to address? Is it the skills gap facing its workforce or the cost to the government for post-secondary education? The MacKinnon Report from 2019 noted that universities and colleges across Alberta have greatly benefited from years of proceeds from the oil industry. As the sector now faces unprecedented challenges, higher education in Alberta has been tasked with normalizing funding levels to be consistent with other provinces across the country.

If Alberta 2030 is aimed at addressing the skills gap, the province must explore new and innovative methods to infuse knowledge and skills into the workforce that reflect the demands of the labour market. If the goal is to drastically reduce costs for post-secondary education, policy-makers must not allow the quality of education to diminish. That would set back a generation of Albertans and hinder the province’s economic outlook.

Support nimble learners and workers

As technological innovations and labour market demands change, employers require a well-rounded workforce that can adapt to various circumstances and challenges that may arise. While micro-credential programs focus on introducing specific skill sets into the labour market, they may not facilitate the development of critical thinking, resilience and adaptability.

These highly transferable skills empower lifelong learners who are better equipped to advance their careers or acquire new skills in pursuit of a career change. Supporting these flexible learners will help insulate the economy and safeguard against drastic shifts in occupational demand.

Shine the spotlight on Alberta’s job market

To effectively support post-secondary institutions, the province needs a clearer understanding of trends in its job market. Alberta 2030 identifies the wide discrepancy between the province’s post-secondary completions in health and natural sciences programs, and their respective demands in the labour market.

The strategy notes that health and related programs saw 10,000 graduates, but technical and professional occupations in the sector combined for only 6,000 job openings. Meanwhile, biological and biomedical sciences programs graduated 1,000 students, yet technical and professional opportunities in natural and applied sciences totaled 11,000.

To proceed, online degrees, micro-credentials and additional educational experiences must prepare learners and workers for the jobs in demand.

Enhance the experience of learning and teaching

The province should explore external partnerships that help create financial and experiential benefits for Alberta’s academic institutions while maintaining the benefits of in-person learning. Students will require a support structure to navigate the nuances of online education, for example, effectively balancing asynchronous learning opportunities with work and familial commitments.

Faculty members may require some assistance in shaping course content and student interaction for the online environment. Online program management providers, like Keypath, provide these benefits and share in back-end infrastructure costs, while partner institutions retain their unique branding and programs.

Maximize work-integrated learning opportunities

Work-integrated learning – for example, field practicums, clinical placements, co-operative education, on-the-land learning opportunities in Indigenous communities – can be an effective way for learners to gain invaluable experience, but these programs must be implemented to maximize impact and effectiveness. Practical experiences may be important for occupations such as accounting and nursing, but academics and researchers may have little to gain.

To safeguard learners, institutions must look beyond quantity and ensure the high quality of placements and experiences. Measures must also be taken to minimize the significant barriers faced by some learners that hinder their participation. Taking time to actively engage industry partners will provide invaluable insight into program development and help ensure opportunities meaningfully align with employers’ needs.

Establish realistic targets for international enrolment

Attracting international students has been a tried-and-true strategy for Canadian universities to increase school revenue. Higher Education Strategy Associates – an international education consultancy – noted that the number of international students at the post-secondary level in Canada has risen consistently from under 40,000 in the late 1990s to more than 245,000 in 2016-17. However, the pandemic made it difficult for international students due to travel restrictions and a lack of financial assistance.

While some universities are anticipating a rebound, the ongoing variants of concern and diminished access to Health Canada-approved vaccines in China and India – the two largest countries of origin for international students – will continue to affect enrolment. Will it be possible to return to pre-pandemic levels? If so, when might that be? If the projections in the report are overly optimistic, any course of action depending on them may put academic institutions at risk.

The Alberta 2030 report is a strong first step toward better understanding the challenges behind re-energizing and reinvigorating the province’s workforce. But these questions must be asked, and these important conversations must be had, to maximize the ability for online education to support workers, learners, academic institutions, the community and the economy.

The nature of learning and the job landscape are continuing to change and evolve. Better understanding the situation now and adjusting the province’s approach to education will set Albertans on a course for success in the years to come.

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Graeme Owens
Graeme Owens is executive vice-president of Keypath Education Canada. He works to transform the way universities reach, engage and retain students.

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