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In my opinion

Collaboration in hard times in higher education

Collaboration distributes resources among academic institutions, creating conditions for partnerships, sharing and attention to diverse needs.


An African proverb states, “If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do no harm.” This could be creatively interpreted to mean, “When the water hole starts shrinking, competitive instincts kick in.”

At its best, collaboration in higher education can inspire teachers, students, researchers and administrators with a common vision of educational excellence and the sense of purpose needed to help achieve it. But despite known benefits, collaboration is often hostage to structural and cultural constraints that limit the open sharing of ideas and activities. In an environment of fiscal restraint, tendencies toward isolationism are intensified with predictable results – the aspiration to sustainable action on multiple fronts that is needed to address the dynamic training and education challenges of today is replaced with an attitude of let’s look after ourselves. What we need, instead, is collaboration to go forward.

Ontario initiatives

Collaboration involves multiple inputs, which shape a collective definition of the problem and solutions to it, and collective effort that involves consultation with the audience that will be impacted is the basis of good design. Empathizing with the client group to understand its particular problem is a strong foundation for the creation of collaborative entities that can effectively tackle an issue. In Ontario higher education, we see several examples of this kind of approach. Online learning portals built to bridge geography and other barriers, bringing educational services to underserviced communities, have been established through the cooperation of several institutions and in consultation with student groups.

Another agency, which works towards greater student mobility through systems that help students develop educational pathways by aligning training with individual circumstances or career goals, has been created through transfer agreements between Ontario’s public colleges, universities and Indigenous institutes. The mandate of eCampusOntario, a centre of excellence in online and technology-enabled learning for Ontario’s colleges and universities, includes leadership in “the development and sharing of exemplary practices in online learning,” and the “support of member institutions in fostering innovation, collaboration, and excellence on behalf of Ontario students and faculty.”

What are the barriers to greater collaboration?

In each of these examples, the entity was created to address a specific problem identified by the government – the lack of coordination in an area of need, whether this be supporting learners in rural and remote communities, enabling student mobility, or helping Ontario colleges and universities achieve excellence in the development of online learning programs. Single-focus organizations have achieved considerable success in serving their constituents with a range of new services. But single-mindedness also creates a thornier challenge that can have longer-term impacts for the future. It drives individual agencies to approach problems from a unique perspective that can overlook other pieces of the puzzle. They forget to ask, “are these issues interconnected? What might be the root problem?” But who, then, is able to see the larger picture? Is this a shared responsibility? And, most importantly, is it possible to create an open and collaborative model that seeks a greater benefit than any one organization can achieve working in isolation?

Funding a root cause

Funding practices are often at the root of a seeming unwillingness to step back and create the right conditions for collaboration. Focused on solving for a specific issue, funding can be instrumental and transactional. For example, recognizing the potential for digital tools to both enhance the learning experience and expand access to educational content, the Ontario government committed to encouraging the development of online learning through financial incentives for institutions that were willing to engage. As the organization managing this process, eCampusOntario added a collaboration component to the funding requirements. Over a two-year period, collaboration was a key prerequisite of any funded online learning initiative that took place in the province. But, despite the many programs, courses, certificates, research studies and other products that emerged from this initiative, the collaborative activities were ultimately temporary and transactional – based on the incentive, rather than on recognition of the intrinsic value in sustained, system-wide cooperation.

As with many entities, planning and operations in educational organizations occur within a mandate. Strategic development happens similarly, with three-year, look-ahead targets. In an environment of fiscal restraint, adherence to mandate and plan become a protective mechanism, and the desire for collective problem-solving takes a back seat to defending one’s sphere of influence. Fear of encroachment is a sign of these protectionist mentalities, and also a symptom of increasing unwillingness to engage in open dialogue around common solutions.

In Ontario today, there are seven or eight entities that own a share of how education could be delivered in a more streamlined way; but, rather than work together, they’ve been allowed to grow idiosyncratically, to claim their turf, and as resources become more scarce, to close the walls around their organization more tightly. This is not good economics, and its not good for the learners. It’s antithetical to the whole notion of community effort to build an economy and an educated citizenry who can work to support it. But what if we stopped for a moment to consider the educational landscape more holistically, to define the components needed to satisfy the aspirations and the lifelong learning needs of all citizens at any time of their lives? Would we still see our strategic direction through a single lens?

Entrenchment in higher education

Lack of collaborative vision is not limited to educational agencies. Based on a per-student model, funding of the higher education system in Ontario encourages competition. Large institutions have a brand to protect, and attracting the best and brightest students is big business. For many of these institutions, the incentive to collaborate is just not there. Today, strategic mandate agreements are designed to create differentiation and specialization.

Institutions with abundant resources can be productive in this kind of environment; they blossom and do even better. But those with fewer assets take other paths that mirror U.S. models of outsourcing development, marketing and educational delivery. Fiscal constraint can exacerbate this trend. Consider the small institution that must draw students from beyond provincial borders to survive but does not have the resources to build an online presence for recruitment. In seeking support outside traditional resource pools, the school may compromise future ability to make decisions that are in the best interests of its students, or even its own survivability.

Resistance to change is a familiar human foible; in the higher education field, the academy stands on long-held traditions. The “golden handcuffs,” which protect an institution’s right to grant credentials, are tight. And we have grown comfortable with patterns of behaviour and activity that for many years have prescribed a path from training to work. But when there is little incentive to consider collaborative transformation, resistance to embracing change becomes a cultural product. At some level, educators and administrators understand the need to more closely align programs and curricula with workforce needs; however, executing on that requires that they meet and exchange ideas with individuals that may have other perspectives. They need to ask, “How does my educational institution serve the larger community? What are the needs ‘out there’ and how do we adjust our culture ‘in here’ to ensure alignment? And how do we work with others to change what needs to change?”

Collaboration distributes resources among the academic “haves” and “have nots,” creating conditions for partnerships, sharing, and attention to diverse geographic and demographic needs. A postsecondary system that supports over 2 million students in Canada cannot rely on one or two organizations to meet their academic interests, nor support the specific needs of different areas of the country. Diversity breeds opportunity, and the ability to be responsive to new opportunities keeps Ontario, and Canada, competitive academically on the world stage.

A collaborative path forward in, and for, a changing world

The problem with perpetuating old patterns and behaviours is that the world does not stop turning. Today’s dynamic work/educational marketplace calls for new models, which in turn depend on a new way of thinking about common educational purpose and how best to serve learner needs. To meet exacting workforce demands, students are now looking for rapid pathways to train for an occupation. For example, if the student’s goal is to build the analytics capability needed in a particular job or sector, they may be unwilling or unable to invest in a full, multi-year program designed to develop the range of knowledge and skills required of the data scientist. Four linked courses on analytics – potentially from different programs or schools – may be adequate to prepare and certify the analytics professional.

One solution to this challenge that is attracting increasing attention is micro-certification, which would recognize student completion of a proscribed set of courses or other requirements. Today there is little consensus on a definition of micro-certification or agreement on how it may operate. For this kind of approach to work, several things need to be in place. Since the employer, rather than institution, ultimately would decide if the training is valid, more collaboration between educational institutions and industry is required. Better relationships between different educational institutions would also ensure that learners could register for courses they need, from whatever colleges or universities deliver them. Educational prerequisites would have to be fairly and equitably addressed. And all players would need to operate out of a common foundational framework that specifies what a micro-certification consists of, how many hours of student commitment are involved, what skills are to be developed, and how their achievement can be demonstrated.

This quality control rests on a common acceptance of framework principles – standardization that would validate micro-certification programing. But the definition of principles itself depends on collaboration, which is in increasingly short supply today. Our experience with micro-certification thus far is one of emerging opportunity, so our systems approach highlights what may be possible going forward in terms of meeting new learner and workforce requirements. When this kind of opportunity emerges, it may be that collaboration is the best way to learn to step back, and ask “Is there a better way to shape the future?” The world has changed more than a few times over the past three years. Is there another option that we should consider?

David Porter is the CEO of eCampusOntario.

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