Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Glen Murray has given Ontario post secondary institutions until September 30 to define the three things that make them special. This deadline follows a series of summer meetings with various stakeholders to discuss a vast array of considerations in an effort to make post secondary education more efficient for government and more affordable and accessible for students. The return of a three year B.A. option, the introduction of an online university, year-round use of campuses, funding tied to learning outcomes, and greater mobility of credits between institutions, are all part of the discussion, and may lead to dramatic changes in the way post secondary education is delivered over the next few years.

Ontario is not alone in examining traditional education platforms. This spring Harvard and MIT announced the launch of “Edx”, a $60 million joint endeavour to offer free online courses which claim a similar content and rigour to their residential university programs. Those who successfully complete the course will be given a certificate and a grade, but no credit. Similarly Coursera, a venture between ten global partner universities including University of Toronto, is currently offering 124 free course choices. Such free online courses have already reached over a million subscribers around the globe. President of Edx Anant Agarwal has stated that in his view Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the single biggest change in education since the printing press.

These transformational shifts will inevitably have a profound impact on the elementary and secondary school systems. Already the Kahn Academy which teaches online K to 12 courses, claims on its home page to offer a “free world class education for anyone anywhere”, and will continue to measure the growing number of lessons delivered in the millions.

Rather than a threat to the traditional classroom, these new offerings may prove to be a valuable supplement or learning alternative for many students. If lectures can be delivered by teachers who excel at that skill, and can be transmitted and archived on line, and additional curriculum materials can be made electronically available to those who learn well on their own, then we may see more teacher time made available for students who need individualized instruction.

Now is the time for boards and the teaching profession to be considering this kind of diversification and flexibility, as ministries and departments of education around the world are examining how to do more with less. Technology is reducing the need for each school to offer every course on site, and replicate lessons delivered live in the classroom. Mobility of credits, specialization, funding tied to proven proficiencies, and the application of technology to economies of scale, are concepts which are bound to migrate, so that the question posed to post secondary educators, that is“what are the things you can do really well?” may be coming soon to a public school near you.