January 23, 2017

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning


Grant, M. (2016) Learning in the Digital Age Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada

The Conference Board of Canada bills itself as ‘the foremost independent, evidence-based, not-for-profit applied research organization in Canada’. Its Board is made up mainly of representatives from major corporate or business organizations. So when it issues a report on e-learning in Canada, it is likely to be read across a broad swathe of corporate and governmental organizations not directly engaged in education, but with a major interest in the kinds of graduates being produced in Canada in a digital age. It is also something that Canadian university leaders are likely to pay attention to as well.

What the report is about

The introduction to the report states:

Information and communication technologies hold the potential to improve post-secondary learning by making learning more accessible and engaging. This report considers how and when e-learning may be used to improve post-secondary education in Canada.


Chapter 1: Introduction

E-learning is defined (‘online learning’ is considered as being more or less the same as e-learning), it is argued that the quality of teaching drops as face-to-face class sizes get larger, and e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.

Chapter 2: the 5 Ws of e-learning:

The five Ws are the what, why, when, who, and where of e-learning in Canada. The main points of this chapter are as follows:

  • E-learning uses a range of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to deliver and manage learning.
  • The inherent differences between e-learning and traditional face-to-face classroom instruction relate to two factors: organization of time and space, and use of technology.
  • E-learning is becoming more popular because it appeals to learners, is cost-effective, and its quality is improving.
  • The North American e-learning market is mature in terms of e-learning adoption, but still developing in terms of the sophistication of e-learning offerings. Other markets around the world are rapidly adopting e-learning.

Chapter 3: Post-secondary e-learning in Canada

This provides a brief summary of current e-learning provision in Canadian universities and colleges. Almost the whole of the information in this chapter is based on secondary sources. It concludes:

Canada’s post-secondary institutions have been reluctant to offer e-learning as a degree option to full-time undergraduate students; perhaps because this would compete with residential learning programs.

This chapter also argues that investments in e-learning technologies such as LMSs are considerably under-utilized, that adoption is following the path of least resistance, and for the most part, e-learning is not being used as an alternative format for younger, full-time degree students because this would undermine institutions’ need to make use of existing classroom infrastructure.

Chapter 4: Advancing e-learning

This chapter particularly looks at the perceived barriers to e-learning:

There are a variety of institutional factors that must be addressed if e-learning is to be more widely adopted in the Canadian post-secondary system. These have to do with the way capital is funded at the institutions, institution management, and the way e-learning is designed and executed.

most of the people who make decisions about funding capacity favour building more physical classes. It matters little whether this is the most efficient and effective way to conduct post-secondary education….The economics of funding capacity help to explain why e-learning adoption is low. If capacity is funded in a different way, then the economics will change.

rational capacity planning and utilization should consider optimal pedagogy and learner preferences first, followed by investing in suitable learning capacity to accommodate the volume and type of learning. Then the pricing of learning should reflect its cost to deliver.

In this chapter it is argued that there is much poor quality e-learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, but it provides three examples of effective e-learning design and execution (from York University, the University of Alberta, and Humber College).

Main report conclusions

  • E-learning holds the potential to profoundly change the way post-secondary education (PSE) is designed and delivered.
  • From a quality perspective, e-learning may be more engaging, less passive, and more customized to different learning styles than traditional lecture-based learning.
  • There are about 1.3 million enrolments in fully online university and college courses in Canada. E-learning accounts for between 10 and 15 per cent of PSE learning.
  • Greater adoption of e-learning will happen if institutional focus on traditional classroom delivery can be reduced; faculty are adequately supported when they teach online; and e-learning design, development, and delivery practices improve.

Report recommendations (summary)

‘Based on this report’s analysis, the following recommendations are made for consideration in the [Conference Board’s] Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE) national strategy:

  1. Reduce economic barriers to e-learning adoption: Institutional administrators, governments, and benefactors need to work together to change the PSE approach to capacity planning. They need to consider how to use e-learning and blended learning to lower costs, improve accessibility, and increase quality.
  2. Tackle institutional constraints to e-learning: Faculty resistance will be broken down when more faculty members are supported in approaching their teaching responsibilities through blended and e-learning formats.
  3. Adopt excellent e-learning practices: Post-secondary institutions need to recognize e-learning instructional design as a unique discipline. They need to access these distinctive skills either through their own in-house teams or external providers. Forums need to be created for post-secondary stakeholders to share and adopt best practices in e-learning design and execution.


This is a curious report and I find it unusually difficult to comment on it. Most of the conclusions I would not disagree with, but the report has a peculiar feeling of being written by outsiders who haven’t really quite grasped what’s going on. What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

The main weakness of the report is that it relies so heavily on secondary sources. It is really disappointing that the Conference Board did not do any original research to establish the state of e-learning in Canadian post-secondary education. By relying to large extent on a few selective interviews and a very limited range of previously published papers, the report suggests conclusions were arrived at early then evidence was looked for to support the conclusions. At no point does it provide any evidence to support statements such as ‘e-learning can make learning less expensive and more accessible.’ Yes, it can but we need evidence, and it would show (for instance see: Carey and Trick, 2013) that while relatively important gains in productivity can be made, there are also serious limitations to what can be done in this respect.

At the same time, it is an important report. It does make the excellent point that a great deal of investment in post-secondary education is driven by the need to maximize physical plant and that this seriously militates against the large investment needed in e-learning if it is to make a difference. Cutting ribbons on a new building is much more photogenic for politicians than enrolling another 1,000 students online.

However, when you look at the recommendations they are painfully obvious and in fact are being applied in many if not most Canadian post-secondary institutions, maybe too slowly or not aggressively enough but the report makes it clear why this is the case.

At the end of the day this report reads somewhat like the first draft of a masters’ dissertation on Canadian online learning. It does not provide the heft needed to bring about or rather accelerate the major changes I would agree that are needed in this area. In particular once again a major opportunity to provide some new, hard data on online learning, and particularly its potential for improving productivity, was missed.

Nevertheless I do hope that government policy makers, institutional leaders and corporations will pay attention to this report, because it does make clear that e-learning/online learning must be a critical component of a successful future for Canadian post-secondary education. We just need to invest more in it.


Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

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