Post-secondary education in the COVID-19 era: Adopting open textbooks and achieving universal broadband access

This article is the second of a three-part series detailing recommendations from UMSU to the Government of Manitoba for how to improve access and affordability of post-secondary education given the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. Part one calls for increasing access to post-secondary education for women and marginalized communities. These recommendations were presented by UMSU executives to the Minister of Finance and Minister of Economic Development and Training in a meeting on June 18.

 

The wholesale shift to online learning as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has made digital connectivity a fundamental requirement for post-secondary education going forward. Photo: Rawpixel Ltd/Flickr

 


RECOMMENDATION: The Government of Manitoba commit to supporting a robust expansion and improvement of online learning within post-secondary education, including funding increases for Campus Manitoba and support for rural and low-income students who do not have access to reliable internet.

Specific actions:

  1. Make portions of post-secondary operating grants conditional that they to be used for the creation and adoption of free digital textbooks (OER) course content;
  2. Provide Campus Manitoba with funding to implement an online credit transfer database;
  3. Continue efforts to accelerate the expansion of rural broadband;
  4. Cover the cost of USB internet sticks for those without home access to reliable internet.

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The widespread shift to online learning as a contingency measure for the Fall 2020 term will inevitably reveal how online learning can be better utilized in Manitoba’s post-secondary context to achieve greater access and affordability for students.

Post-secondary institutions derive a huge amount of their value based on their openness, being places where large numbers of people from all different types of communities can meet, interact and learn from each other. However, these same qualities mean that these institutions are also among the entities most vulnerable in a public health crisis that requires diligent adherence to social distancing.

For this reason Manitoba’s colleges and universities were some of the first spaces to be shuttered once COVID-19 emerged in the province in March – and could be among some of the last to fully open up, especially if there are subsequent waves of contagion as many health experts are now predicting.

As a result, the province’s post-secondary institutions have resorted to online learning as the main form of course delivery for now. However, the Government of Manitoba would be wise to help encourage colleges and universities to not only improve students’ experience in the short-term, but fully embrace the opportunities that online learning presents for improving student savings and accessibility in the long term.

In terms of achieving greater student savings, the most cost-effective action that the Government of Manitoba can take is to pair a small amount of extra investment with a decision to render portions of the operating grants to post-secondary institutions conditional on progress in implementing free digital textbooks (OER) in course content – especially in first year programs. This can be achieved through institutions using this money to create strategic plans for OER implementation, paying course instructors to evaluate and adapt existing OER to their programs, or other methods as proposed by institutions.

 

The logo of the United Nations’ global OER initiative. The UN’s body for education, UNESCO, has been pushing for universal access to high quality open learning materials since 2011. Image: UNESCO

When assessing the success of OER initiatives elsewhere in Canada, Manitoba should look to the one supported by the Conservative government in Saskatchewan, which has a similarly sized student population and number of post-secondary institutions.

Beginning in 2015, $250,000 in annual investment into OER is estimated to have already secured $6.4 million in student savings – a 400% return on investment. OER also enables post-secondary education learning materials to be crafted to better align with industry needs, reflecting another mandate of the Minister of Economic Development and Training.

Likewise, to optimize accessibility to post-secondary education in the new online era, the Government of Manitoba should empower Campus Manitoba (CMB) to implement its ready-made online credit transfer database. If given approval and properly financed – likely no more than an additional $100,000 in funding – CMB could launch this database and make it publicly available within less than a year.

A free, publicly available, centralized and verified listing of course transferability and recognition from one institution to the next will prevent students from wasting money and delaying their graduation date by taking courses that are either unnecessary or redundant when finishing their program at a different institution from the one they started at.

Students would know how the courses they are taking, or have taken in the past, transfer to other institutions. If a course appears on the database it would mean that the course has been guaranteed to have formal recognition from each institutions’ registrar’s offices.

 

A publicly available online credit transfer database would save post-secondary students both time and money when considering program changes, while also reducing the administrative burden on registrars’ offices. Photo: UMSU

Currently, students wanting to change programs or institutions as a result of life circumstances must request official transcripts as part of an inquiry into course recognition, which causes major delays in program transfers. This unnecessary red tape can draw out studies, increasing time-to-completion rates, and deter mature students in particular from returning to post-secondary school and completing their degrees.

A credit transfer database would also address education gaps and skills development in rural areas by increasing the ease through which rural residents can complete entire degrees via online learning.

For Manitoba’s economy, this means more highly skilled workers will be available to enter the labour market sooner rather than struggling with administrative hurdles to find the right courses to finish their studies or certification.

A credit transfer database would also enable the collection of unprecedented amounts of data on student transfers and mobility between institutions within Manitoba, allowing for a more efficient allocation of public resources to the province’s post-secondary sector and tracking of labour market needs.

Government support for both open textbooks and a credit transfer database represent two readily achievable targeted actions for inclusion within the Minister of Economic Development and Training’s mandate of developing a first of its kind skills, talent and knowledge strategy.

Such support would also align with two of the suggestions made in the Co-Chairs’ Findings and Recommendations report on the Growing Manitoba’s Economy stakeholder consultation: a more coordinated approach to skills training for rural communities and encouraging the development of sector-specific bodies formed to exploit new technologies – in this case, CMB.

The pandemic has also underlined the imperative of making universal access to broadband internet a reality in rural communities, where 37% of Manitoba’s population lives. The Manitoba Government took an important step in this regard with its May announcement of intention to develop unutilized fibre optic cables owned by Manitoba Hydro with the help of a qualified telecoms partner.

 

A view from the back of a multi-tenant broadband internet server and data centre. Increasing broadband capacity in Manitoba’s rural areas is vital to both growing the provincial economy and making online post-secondary education more accessible. Photo: CommScope/Flickr

In the meantime, one measure that the Government of Manitoba can do to help students in rural areas or those without reliable home internet access is to cover the cost of mobile wireless internet connection devices (USB sticks).

The University of Manitoba estimates that one out of ten students does not have the reliable home internet access necessary to succeed in an online learning environment.

This could be resolved through the Government of Manitoba arranging a bulk purchase of the devices with one of the province’s telecom companies to then be distributed to eligible students that apply for a device; through making the individual purchase of devices tax deductible; or securing vouchers for the devices that are distributed to eligible students for them to go use for purchase in one of the telecom partner’s stores or its website.

 

 

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