ONCAT’s Student-Centred Approach: Privileging Student Perspectives on the Ontario Transfer System

ONCAT's Student-Centred Approach
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The development of effective and efficient transfer pathways between institutions—and across the system—requires an understanding of student transfer behaviours and trends, as well as the current and emerging needs and interests of students, communities, and Ontario’s workforce. Transfer pathways, developed among and between Ontario’s public colleges, universities, and Indigenous Institutes, should ensure high-quality academic programming and curricular alignment that meets the needs and interests of transfer students—and prepares them for future success. In this article, ONCAT’s Carolyn Poplak explores several critical ways our organization works with, and for, students across the province.

At ONCAT, postsecondary students are at the centre of our work. While most of our collaborations are with the institutions that serve these students, we recognize and commit to transfer students as a key focus of our sector engagement activities.
ONCAT engages transfer students in a variety of ways, as their voices are integral to everything we do. For example, ONCAT coordinates a Student Transfer Expert Panel (STEP), which is a working group of transfer students who provide insights and support on various ONCAT activities. One of the key contributions of STEP participants is serving as part of the external review process on our funded projects. This unique opportunity ensures that we have a student lens on our grant-making process — and provides STEP members with an opportunity to build their skills and understanding of how funding works and decisions are made within a committee structure.
ONCAT also provides grants to students through our Transfer Student Action Fund, which funds short-term projects exploring key areas that support activities for transfer students. These may include projects that focus on building community, tools, and resources, and raising awareness about transfer-related issues. In the summer of 2020, ONCAT had the opportunity to fund three transfer student-led projects that will highlight the diverse and varied experiences of transfer students as they navigate Ontario’s postsecondary system. We will be sharing these project findings in the new year.
Furthermore, ONCAT leads the Transfer Experience Student Survey and we will be launching our second survey in 2021.

One of the student-led projects I want to highlight is The Student Mobility Final Report (ONCAT, April 2019): a highly creative and student-centred initiative ONCAT supported in 2018/2019. This was a collaboration we implemented with eCampusOntario that focused on transfer student journeys in Ontario. Authors Nikole Hidalgo McGregor, Roya Matsui, Angelina Pletneva, and Christina Park provided key insights into the transfer experience that have since formed the basis of student engagement and inquiry for ONCAT. What will follow is a brief overview of the project, its approach, and a summary of recommendations. A full summary of the research findings is available in the Report itself in Appendix D: User Research Findings: Full Report (p. 30).

The Student Mobility Team started with a key problem statement: How might we ensure students’ timely access to essential information while aligning their needs to the existing transfer process? A complex question, to be sure. They acknowledged that student experiences are varied and unique and that navigating the postsecondary landscape is challenging enough without the additional complexities of the transfer process. The study identified the challenges in meeting current transfer student needs for those “who consume information in a more dynamic, synthesized and responsible manner in this data-intensive society” (p. 3). 
The team took a user-centred design approach and conducted journey-mapping sessions with 23 students from 20 Ontario postsecondary institutions. Chiefly, students were asked about their transfer experiences; but more specifically, they were asked what worked smoothly, where they faced challenges, and what resources and tools they used that might have further supported or impeded their transfer journey. The team also asked the students what could help improve the experience for future transfer students.
The insights from the Report echoed some of the challenges ONCAT has heard about from those working most closely with transfer students at their institutions. Studies like these offer a valuable contribution: they turn anecdotal narratives into documented experiences that help anchor the student voice in ONCAT’s work.