The University of Manitoba’s announcement of plans for a cautious return to in-person learning beginning next fall will have brought a sigh of relief for many. Students and faculty have struggled to adjust to remote education. Meanwhile, the provincial government’s new Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy depends on leveraging the post-secondary sector to power the province’s pandemic recovery.

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Opinion

The University of Manitoba’s announcement of plans for a cautious return to in-person learning beginning next fall will have brought a sigh of relief for many. Students and faculty have struggled to adjust to remote education. Meanwhile, the provincial government’s new Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy depends on leveraging the post-secondary sector to power the province’s pandemic recovery.

Critics say it’s ironic to see the Pallister government suddenly championing the worth of Manitoba’s colleges and universities after consistently cutting their operating grants since coming to power. The strategy has also been slammed for its supposed anti-intellectualism by seeking to more closely align curriculums with labour market needs and the economy.

And yet the strategy does promise to address many areas in which there is consensus that more needs to be done. These include, among others, providing students with more professional skills and experiences while studying, promoting reconciliation through increasing Indigenous enrolment and graduation rates, supporting entrepreneurship and improving gender equality at senior levels of business and in the trades.

Therefore, the most glaring flaw of the new plan may not be ideological, but practical: 12 months into the pandemic, Manitoba’s government still seems keen to gloss over how post-secondary education itself has been permanently altered along the way.

The phrase "online learning" appears just once in the government’s entire 16-page strategy, even though the days of cramming hundreds of students into a lecture hall are surely over — both for the remainder of this pandemic, and to help avoid the next one in the future.

Used correctly, online course delivery also represents a viable, cost-effective means to improve overall access to higher education for everyone. After all, changing demographics and ever-evolving economic demands meant Manitoba already had a pre-existing need for more skilled workers. A 2018 government labour-market forecast anticipated the province will have to fill some 12,000 jobs requiring post-secondary education annually through 2024.

Rather than treating online learning as simply a footnote in its strategy for economic revival, the government could be actively empowering Manitoba’s post-secondary institutions to develop next-generation remote-learning models and platforms to provide a more meaningful online education.

Post-secondary students across the country report worsening mental health stemming from the combined stress of paying record high tuition rates for a diminished learning experience delivered remotely. Faculty, meanwhile, have scrambled to transition course materials online across a hodgepodge of platforms with uneven results. For their efforts, many now endure the demoralizing experience of teaching to faceless black screens as checked-out students opt to join video lectures by audio only.

The caveat: this has all taken place within online learning models that were for the most part developed reactively. Beginning last spring, the pandemic triggered a wholesale shift from in-person learning to online learning, with institutions and faculty departments doing their best to improvise as they went.

A proactive approach would instead bring together stakeholders in government, business and academia to create a more coherent and rewarding online learning experience based on best practices and solutions devised in other jurisdictions around the world.

Despite the challenges associated with online learning, clear benefits of its use have also emerged. Mature and part-time students are given greater flexibility to work on their studies in their own time. Students who live far away from campus are spared long and costly commutes, while those with disabilities can now sidestep the difficulty of navigating campus facilities that are often hostile to their needs.

Online learning also normalizes the use of digital learning materials, opening up the possibility for institutions to save students enormous amounts of money by better adopting free open-source digital textbooks.

Paired with progress toward achieving universal broadband internet access, more online learning options would extend post-secondary education into rural areas — home to a third of Manitoba’s population and the majority of its Indigenous communities.

An analysis by the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board argues closing post-secondary education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Manitobans could produce $957 million in additional annual income for more than 20,000 newly employable First Nations people, generating an extra $2.8 billion in GDP for the province every year due to increased productivity.

While never being able to truly replace in-person learning experience, a more robust online learning system can become a vital branch of contemporary higher education and deliver serious improvements around access. Rather than counting the semesters until in-person learning is back in session, government and institutions should work together to find ways to keep a better version of online learning around.

Kyle Hiebert is a research and policy analyst based in Winnipeg and the former deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor.