February 23, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?

Distance education: anyone sitting more than 10 rows from the front

Distance learning: anyone sitting more than 10 rows from the front

The short answer to this question is: no, online learning is neither inherently worse – nor better – than face-to-face teaching; it all depends on the circumstances.

The research evidence

There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education.

With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies. A meta-study combines the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, usually studies that use the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2011; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference in the modes of delivery, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2011), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

However, the ‘no significant difference’ finding is often misinterpreted. If there is no difference, then why do online learning? I’m comfortable teaching face-to-face, so why should I change?

This is a misinterpretation of the findings, because there may indeed within any particular study be large differences between conditions (face-to-face vs online), but they cancel each other out over a wide range of studies, or because with matched comparisons you are looking at only very specific, strictly comparable conditions, that never exist in a real teaching context.

For instance the ‘base’ variable chosen is nearly always the traditional classroom. In order to make a ‘scientific’ comparison, the same learning objectives and same treatment (teaching) is applied to the comparative condition (online learning). This means using exactly the same kind of students, for instance, in both conditions. But what if (as is the case) online learning better suits non-traditional students, or will achieve better learning outcomes if the teaching is designed differently to suit the context of online learning?

Asking the right questions

Indeed, it is the variables or conditions for success that we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:

What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:

What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

So what are the conditions that best suit online learning?

There are a number of possible answers:

  • learners:
    • fully online learning best suits more mature, adult, lifelong learners who already have good independent learning skills and for work and family reasons don’t want to come on campus
    • blended learning or a mix of classroom and fully online courses best suits full time undergraduate students who are also working part-time to keep their debt down, and need the flexibility to do part of their studies online
    • ‘dependent’ learners who lack self-discipline or who don’t know how to manage their own learning probably will do better with face-to-face teaching; however independent learning is a skill that can be taught, so blended learning is a safe way to gradually introduce such students to more independent study methods
  • learning outcomes:
    • embedding technology within the teaching may better enable the development of certain ’21st century skills’, such as independent learning, confidence in using information technologies within a specific subject domain, and knowledge management
    • online learning may provide more time on task to enable more practice of skills, such as problem-solving in math
    • redesign of very large lecture classes, so that lectures are recorded and students come to class for discussion and questions, making the classes more interactive and hence improving learning outcomes

Even this is really putting the question round the wrong way. A better question is:

What are the challenges I am facing as an instructor (or my learners are facing as students) that could be better addressed through online learning? And what form of online learning will work best for my students?


However, the most important condition influencing the effectiveness of both face-to-face and online teaching is how well it is done. A badly designed and delivered face-to-face class will have worse learning outcomes than a well designed online course – and vice versa. Ensuring quality in online learning will be the topic of the last few blogs in this series.


  1. Don’t worry about the effectiveness of online learning. Under the right conditions, it works well.
  2. Start with the challenges you face. Keep an open mind when thinking about whether online learning might be a better solution than continuing in the same old way.
  3. If you think it might be a solution for some of your problems, start thinking about the necessary conditions for success. The next few blog posts should help you with this.

Follow up

Here is some suggested further reading on the effectiveness of online learning:

Up next

‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’ (to be posted later in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Comparing modes: horses for courses

Comparing modes: horses for courses

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Gisbert, T. and Bullen, M. (2015) Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds: Strategies and Issues in Higher Education Tarragona Spain: Publicacions Universitat Rovira i Virgili (pdf version available online for 2.84 Euros).

What the book is about

From the Introduction

[The book] examines the teaching and learning process in 3D virtual learning environments from both the theoretical and practical points of view. It is divided into four sections:

  • the first section discusses education in the 21st century from the perspective of learners in a digital society and examines the basic competences students need to respond to the personal and professional challenges they are likely to face. It also explores the issue of quality…..
  • the second section focuses on the educational and teaching strategies higher education professionals must take into account when developing educational processes in technology environments…in such environments simulation will be our best teaching strategy and evaluation our greatest challenge.
  • the third section explores the use of 3D virtual environments in education in general and in higher education in particular….
  • The fourth section examines the range of experiences we consider to be good practice when applying 3D technological environments to the teaching of competences at secondary and tertiary levels of education both nationally and internationally.

However, this doesn’t quite capture for me what the book is really about, so I will discuss a little more closely below some of the themes addressed by individual chapters.

As a point of clarification, I will use the term ‘immersive environments’ as a shorthand to describe simulations, games and virtual reality, a point I will come back to in my comments at the end of this post.

Who wrote it

The book is edited by Mercè Gisbert of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain, and Canadian Mark Bullen, formerly of the University of British Columbia and the Commonwealth of Learning. However, the majority of chapters are based on a study (Simul@) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education and coordinated by Universitat Rovira i Virgili, but involving universities in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, thus providing a valuable insight into the thinking about immersive environments for education in Europe.

Full disclosure: I wrote a short prologue for the book.

Themes covered in the book

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, I have selected certain themes that re-occur through the book.

1. Digital learners

There is a lot of discussion in the book about the nature of digital learners and their ‘readiness’ for learning through digital technologies. In particular, Bullen and Morgan summarise the conflicting views and the research around digital natives and digital immigrants, and provide a more ‘nuanced’ profile of categories of digital learners.  Martinez and Espinal in their chapter provide a detailed description of digital competence and how to assess it. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the need to ensure that learners have the necessary ‘digital competences’ to benefit fully from the use of immersive technologies for learning purposes (although the same applies to teachers, of course). For instance, de Oliveira et al., in their chapter, identify various components of digital competences.

2. Competences

One of the strengths of the book is that several authors make the point that the main educational value of immersive learning environments is for the development of ‘general competences’ such as learning to learn, teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision-making. Astigarraga provides a very good overview of the definition, identification and evaluation of competences, and Isus et al. develop this further with a chapter on evaluating the competences of teamwork and self-management. Larraz and Esteve devote their whole chapter to evaluating digital competence in immersive environments. These chapters will be valuable for anyone interested in competency-based learning, whether or not using immersive learning environments.

3. Key educational principles and affordances of immersive technologies

Another strength of the book is that several authors related the features of immersive environments to possible educational affordances, and the educational principles needed to exploit such affordances. Camacho and Esteve-Gonzáles have a list of 14 educational reasons for using immersive environments for learning and Cervera and Cela-Ranilla have collated from the general research literature about 15 key pedagogical principles ‘to be observed during learning processes’ when using immersive technologies for learning purposes.

4. Planning and implementing virtual learning environments

Towards the end of the book there are several chapters focusing on more practical issues. Marqués et al. describe the planning and implementation of a virtual world built in Sloodle, which combines OpenSim with Moodle, for educating both physical education and business management students. Estevez-González et al. take this further with a chapter on the tools used in Sloodle and the necessary steps needed to integrate OpenSim and Moodle. Lastly, Cela-Ranilla and Estevez-Gonzàlez provide an educational rationale for the design of the project. Garcia and Martin set out a design methodology for an immersive learning environment.

5. Experiences and good practices

The book ends with five chapters that describe actual applications of immersive learning environments, including PolyU developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (hotel and tourism management), a review of applications in economics and business courses, the use of an educational platform Virt-UAM developed at Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, and applications in law and psychology, and lastly a review of applications in secondary/high school education.


First, this is a very welcome and timely publication for several reasons:

  • it sets out very clearly the pedagogical rationale for the use of immersive learning environments;
  • it links immersive technologies very strongly to the development of competences;
  • it provides practical advice on the planning and implementation of immersive learning environments;
  • it provides a welcome European perspective on the topic.

From a personal perspective, it complements very nicely my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, where, because of space and time issues, I was unable to give this topic the treatment it deserves. Although not an open textbook, it is very accessible, available online for less than three euros ($3-4).

Given the book is mostly written by people for whom English is a second language, the chapters are clearly and well written, mostly free of the European English associated with European Commission projects.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has adopted the term competence rather than competency, which really irritates me, and this term is used throughout the book, when what the authors are really talking about are skills. Competent is an adjective meaning a minimal capacity to do something; incompetent is more frequently used in English English, and it is used to describe inadequacy. What we are really talking about here are skills, not competence. Skills have no limit, while competence tends to be categorical: you either have it or you don’t, which is why competency-based learning often requires 100% pass-rates. But skills such as problem-solving can get better and better, and that’s what we should be striving for in higher education, not a minimal pass requirement.

The editors have done a good job in ensuring that there is a coherence and progression between the different chapters, always a challenge in a multiple-authored book. However, I would have liked a summary chapter from the editors that pulled all the threads together, and also some more information about the authors.

The books strength and its weakness is the academic nature of the book, with more focus on theory, competences and affordances, and less on the actual technology design issues, although to be fair these start to appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen more integration in the writing throughout the book between theory and practice.

The main omission is any discussion of costs in planning and developing immersive learning environments, which are time demanding of both learners and teachers. There are clear economies of scale that need to be employed to justify the high cost of initial design. If a virtual world and allied teaching strategies can be shared across several courses or even disciplines, the cost becomes more acceptable. There is also a high cost for students in terms of the time needed to master the technology and its educational applications if they only get one course in a virtual world. So it is a pity that there was so little discussion of costs and time in the book, and about the transfer of innovation into mainstream practice, which are significant challenges for the wider adoption of immersive technologies in education.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would highly recommend to all concerned about the implications of technology for learning design. Virtual learning environments hold great promise. We need more concerted efforts in higher education to use immersive learning environments, and this book is an essential guide.

Privacy and the use of learning analytics

Image: from Michael Radford's movie, 1984 - Big Brother is watching you!

Image: from Michael Radford’s movie, 1984 – Big Brother is watching you!

Warrell, H. (2105) Students under surveillance Financial Times, July 24

Applications of learning analytics

This is a thoughtful article in the Financial Times about the pros and cons of using learning analytics, drawing on applications from the U.K. Open University, Dartmouth College in the USA, student monitoring service Skyfactor, and CourseSmart, a Silicon Valley start-up that gives universities a window into exactly how e-textbooks are being read.

The UK Open University is using learning analytics to identify students at risk as early as a week into a course.

An algorithm monitoring how much the new recruits have read of their online textbooks, and how keenly they have engaged with web learning forums, will cross-reference this information against data on each person’s socio-economic background. It will identify those likely to founder and pinpoint when they will start struggling. Throughout the course, the university will know how hard students are working by continuing to scrutinise their online reading habits and test scores.

The article also discusses Dartmouth College’s mobile phone app which:

tracks how long students spend working, socialising, exercising and sleeping. The information is used to understand how behaviour affects grades, and to tailor feedback on how students can improve their results.

The article also tries to get a handle on student attitudes to this form of monitoring or surveillance. Not surprisingly, students appear to be somewhat ambiguous about learning analytics and differ in their acceptance of being monitored.


What was particularly interesting is the range of justifications given in this article for monitoring student behaviour through data analysis:

  • the most obvious is to identify students at risk, so that appropriate interventions can be made. However, there weren’t any examples given in the article of appropriate interventions, highlighting the fact that it is one thing to identify a problem and quite another to know what to do about it. For instance we know that from previous research that students from particular socio-economic backgrounds or students from particular ethnic backgrounds are potentially more at risk than others. What does this mean though in terms of teaching and learning? If you know this is a challenge before students start studying, why wait for learning analytics to identify it as a problem?
  • the next argument is the need to ensure that the high investment each student (or their parents) makes in higher education is not wasted by a failure to complete a program. Because of the high cost, fear of failure is increasing student stress. At Dartmouth, a third of the undergraduate student body saw mental health counsellors last year. However, the solution to that may not be better learning analytics, but finding ways to finance students that don’t lead to such stress in the first place;
  • another rationale is to reduce the financial risk to an institution. The Chief Technology Officer at Skyfactor argues that with revenues from tuition fees of around $25,000+ per student per annum in the USA, avoiding student drop-out is a financial necessity for many U.S. institutions. However, surely there is a moral necessity as well in ensuring that your students don’t fail.

Making sense of learning analytics

The Open University has always collected data on students since it started. In fact, McIntosh, Calder and Smith (1976) found that statistically, the best predictor of success was whether a student returned a questionnaire in the first week of a course, as this indicated their commitment. It still didn’t tell you what to do about the students who didn’t return the questionnaire. (In fact, the OU’s solution at the time was not to count anyone as an enrolment until they had completed an assignment two weeks into the course – advice that MOOC proponents might pay attention to).

As with so many technology developments, the issue is not so much the technology but how the technology is used, and for what purposes. Conscientious instructors have always tried to track or monitor the progress of individual students and learning analytics merely provides a more quantitative and measurable way of tracking progress. The issue though is whether the data you can track and measure can offer solutions when students do run into trouble.

My fear is that learning analytics will replace the qualitative assessment that an instructor gets from, for instance, participating in a live student discussion, monitoring an online discussion forum, or marking assignments. This is more likely to identify the actual conceptual or learning problems that students are having and is more likely to provide clues to the instructor about what needs to be done to address the learning issues. Indeed in a discussion the instructor may be able to deal with it on the spot and not wait for the data analysis. Whether a student chooses to study late at night, for instance, or only reads part of a textbook, might provide a relatively weak correlation with poorer student performance, but recommending students not to stay up late or to read all the textbook may not be the appropriate response for any individual student, and more importantly may well fail to identify key problems with the teaching or learning.

Who gets to use the data?

Which brings me to my last point. Ruth Tudor, president of the Open University’s Students’ Association, reported that:

when the data analytics programme was first mooted, participants were “naturally” anxious about the university selling the information it collected to a third party.

The OU has given strong assurances that it will not do this, but there is growing concern that as higher education institutions come to rely more on direct funding and less government support, they will be tempted to raise revenues by selling data to third parties such as advertisers. As Andrew Keen has argued, this is a particular concern about MOOCs, which rely on other means than direct fees for financial support.

Thus it is incumbent on institutions using learning analytics to have very strong and well enforced policies about student privacy and use of student data. The problem then though is that can easily lead to instructors being denied access to the very data which is of most value in identifying student learning difficulties and possible solutions. Finding the right balance, or applying common sense, is not going to be easy in this area.


McIntosh, N., Calder, J. and Swift, B. (1976) A Degree of Difference New York: Praeger


Lessons about researching technology-enhanced instruction

Meiori, Amalfi Coast

Meiori, Amalfi Coast – when it’s not raining

Lopes, V. and Dion, N. (2105) Pitfalls and Potential: Lessons from HEQCO-Funded Research on Technology-Enhanced Instruction Toronto ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Since it’s raining heavily here on the Amalfi Coast today for the first time in months, I might as well do another blog post.

What this report is about

HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) is an independent advisory agency funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to provide recommendations for improving quality, accessibility, inter-institutional transfer, system planning, and effectiveness in higher education in Ontario. In 2011, HEQCO:

issued a call for research projects related to technology-enhanced instruction…. Now that the technology studies have concluded and that most have been published, this report draws some broader conclusions from their methods and findings.

What are the main conclusions?

1. There is no clear definition of what ‘technology’ means or what it refers to in many studies that investigate its impact on learning:

One assumes that the nature of the tools under investigation would have an impact on research design and on the metrics being measured. Yet little attention is paid to this problem, which in turns creates challenges when interpreting study findings.

2. There is no clear definition of blended or hybrid learning:

The proportion of online to face-to-face time, as well as the nature of the resources presented online, can both differ considerably. In a policy context, where we may wish to discuss issues across institutions or at a system level, the lack of consensus definitions can be particularly disruptive. In this respect, a universal definition of blended learning, applied consistently to guide practice across all colleges and universities, would be helpful.

3. Students need orientation to/training in the use of the technologies used in their teaching: they are not digital natives in the sense of being intuitively able to use technology for study purposes.

4. Instructors and teaching assistants should also be trained on the use and implementation of technology.

5. The simple presence of technology will rarely enhance a classroom. Instead, some thought has to go into integrating it effectively.

6. New technologies should be implemented not for their own sake but with a specific goal or learning outcome in mind.

7. Many of the HEQCO-funded studies, including several of those with complex study designs and rigorous methodologies, concluded that the technology being assessed had no significant effect on student learning.

8. Researchers in the HEQCO-funded studies faced challenges encouraging student participation, which often led to small sample sizes in situations where classroom-based interventions already limited the potential pool of participants.

9. The integration of technology in postsecondary education has progressed to such a point that we no longer need to ask whether we should use technology in the classroom, but rather which tool to use and how.

10. There is no single, unified, universally accepted model or theory that could be applied to ensure optimal learning in all educational settings.


I need to be careful in my comments, not because I’m ticked off with the weather here (hey, I live in Vancouver – we know all about rain), but because I’ve spent most of my working life researching technology-enhanced instruction, so what appears blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. So I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this report, except to say I found it immensely depressing.

Let me start by saying that there is really nothing in this report that was not known before the research was done (in other words, if they had asked me, I could have told HEQCO what to expect). I am a great supporter of action or participant research, because the person doing the research learns a great deal. But it is almost impossible to generalise such results, because they are so context-specific, and because the instructor is not usually trained in educational research, there are often – as with these studies – serious methodological flaws.

Second, trying to define technology is like trying to catch a moonbeam. The whole concept of defining a fixed state so that generalisations can be made to the same fixed state is entirely the wrong kind of framework for researching technology influences, because the technology is constantly changing. (This is just another version of the objectivist vs constructivist debate.)

So one major problem with this research is HEQCO’s expectations that the studies would lead to generalisations that could be applied across the system. If HEQCO wants that, it needs to use independent researchers and fund the interventions on a large enough scale – which of course means putting much more money into educational research than most governments are willing to risk. It also means sophisticated design that moves away from matched, controlled comparisons to in-depth case studies, using though rigorous qualitative research methodology.

This illustrates a basic problem with most educational research. It is done on such a small scale that the interventions are unlikely to lead to significant results. If you tweak just a little bit of a complex environment, any change is likely to be swamped by changes in other variables.

The second problem in most of the studies appears to be the failure to link technology-based interventions to changes in learning outcomes. In other words, did the use of technology lead to a different kind of learning? For instance, did the application of the technology lead students to think more critically or manage information well rather than reproduce or memorize what was being taught before? So another lesson is that you have to ask the right kind of research questions that focus on different kinds of learning outcomes.

Thus it is pointless to ask whether technology-based interventions lead to better learning outcomes than classroom teaching. There are too many other variables than technology to provide a definitive answer. The question to ask instead is: what are the required conditions for successful blended or hybrid learning, and what counts as success? The last part of the question means being clear on what different learning outcomes are being sought.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that it may be better not to set firm outcomes before the intervention, but to provide enough flexibility in the teaching context to see what happens when instructors and students have choices to make about technology use. This might mean looking backwards rather than forwards by identifying what most would deem highly successful technology interventions, then working back to see what conditions enabled this success.

But fiddling with the research methods won’t produce much if the intervention is too small scale. Nineteen little, independent studies are great for the instructors, but if we are to learn things than can be generalized, we need fewer but larger, more sophisticated, and more integrated studies. In the meantime, we are no further in being able to improve the design of blended or hybrid learning than before these research studies were done, which is why I am depressed.

Choosing a ‘good’ post-secondary online learning program

woman at computer 2

I am constantly asked to recommend ‘good’ online learning programs. This is a difficult question to answer, as it’s impossible for any single person to know all the good online programs, and in any case, any selection is going to be highly subjective. However, it is possible to suggest a set of criteria or questions to help you in your decision, if you are thinking of taking an online program.

Criteria for selection

1. What prior qualifications do I need in order to take this program? Although courses may be online, they are not necessarily open. Generally high school completion is the minimum level of qualification for admission for a college or university online program, or a bachelor’s degree for graduate programs, except for open universities (see below).

2. What is the general status of the offering institution, for example, is it an accredited school with a generally good reputation?

3. Experience in online learning: how long has it been offering online programs? Institutions, like people, get better with practice.

4. The size of the operation: does it have many online courses, whole online programs, and lots of online students? If it does it is likely to have good systems in place to support online learning. On the other hand, if it’s grown very rapidly, it may have cut corners on quality.

5. Does any tenured or full-time instructor have overall responsibility for the course or program? If not, it is likely to be primarily a money-making operation for the institution.

6. What is the instructor:student ratio? Will students be taught by full-time faculty, adjunct faculty or teaching assistants? (I have no problem with adjunct faculty, so long as they are well qualified academically and responsible to a full-time faculty member, but beware of courses taught online by teaching assistants or unqualified ‘tutors’.)  Do instructors or faculty receive any training in teaching online? (This is especially important for contract or adjunct instructors.)

7. Do you personally know anything about the program? Have you studied any of their online courses – or on-campus courses for that matter? Do you know the people managing the online program?

8. What do students think about the program? What’s the completion rate? (Well designed online courses should have a successful completion rate of above 80%, and for a whole program, more than half of those who start the program should complete it.)

9. How expensive is it? Can I afford it? Will I be eligible for grants or student loans if I take this program?

10. What can I do with the qualification? Can I transfer the credits from an online course into an on-campus program? Will the qualification be recognised by any appropriate professional or accrediting agency?

My recommendation to anyone considering an online course or program is to apply the above criteria to any course or program you are interested in. Any self-respecting institution should be able to answer these questions, through the program web site, or by your calling the office that supports the program. Getting answers to these ten questions is more likely to enable you to find the right course than any recommendation I may make about individual courses or programs.

Personal recommendations

Nevertheless, I’m willing to stick my neck out, based mainly on my personal knowledge, but caveat emptor: you are responsible for your own decisions, so don’t blame me if one of these recommendations doesn’t work out for you. And just because I haven’t mentioned a particular institution doesn’t mean that it has poor quality programs – there are too many good programs to list them all.

1. Publicly funded dual mode institutions

These are publicly funded and accredited institutions that offer both on-campus and distance teaching, and usually have done so for many years. Typical examples are the land grant universities in the USA, which were established originally with state-wide responsibilities, e.g. Penn State’s World Campus, the University of Wisconsin System eCampus, and the University of New Mexico Online. These online courses and programs carry exactly the same weight as their on-campus courses. In Canada, similar institutions would be Memorial University, Laval University (in French), the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, and the University of British Columbia.

These universities usually use their own ‘on-campus’ faculty combined with professional support staff such as instructional designers experienced in online and distance learning, although they usually also hire contract or adjunct instructors to support the main faculty instructor.

In Mexico, the Universidad de Guadalajara has an excellent online program in Spanish through its Virtual Campus.

There are many others, too numerous to list all of them, so check your local state or province’s public universities and then ask the ten questions above, as not all ‘dual-mode’ institutions have moved quickly enough away from print-based to fully online, so check that the course or program you are interested in is available online.

However, in general, choosing an online program from any university in this category is probably your safest bet in terms of quality and value.

2. Publicly funded universities that have specialised in online or blended learning.

These are universities or colleges that did not have much prior history of distance education but have moved extensively into online learning, both in blended and fully online formats. The best example in the USA is the University of Central Florida, Another with a strong online program is Empire State College in the State University of New York system. In Canada, the University of Guelph, the University of Ottawa (English and French), Laurentian University (English and French) and Queen’s University in Ontario, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, all have extensive online programs.

One of the largest online programs in the USA is the University of Maryland University College, which has many US servicemen as students. However, having been a guest tutor on some of their courses, I’m not particularly impressed with the overall quality, although some individual courses/programs are good.

In Canada, Royal Roads University in British Columbia offers a unique blended learning model consisting of one semester on campus and two or more semesters online, as well as some fully online programs, mainly at graduate level.

3. Publicly funded two-year community colleges

Many publicly funded community colleges in both the USA and Canada have excellent online programs. George Brown College and Algonquin College in Ontario have extensive online programs.

The Colorado Community College System offers a wide range of courses online, including science courses using home kits and remote labs. There are several other regional or state-wide online consortia in the USA, such as the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, covering 16 states.

Rio Salado Community College in Arizona has one of the largest online programs in the USA. However, there have been criticisms about the quality, because of its heavy reliance on short-term contract instructors who often lack training in online teaching. This is something to watch for in any institution that has suddenly and rapidly expanded its online programs.

3. Private, non-profit universities

The Western Governors University specializes in competency-based learning, which allows you to study at your own pace and take into account any prior learning or competencies, which means you may be able to complete a program more quickly. Usually programs are designed in consultation with major employers, ensuring acceptance of the degree. For more on the Western Governors model, click here.

The University of Southern New Hampshire has one of the largest online programs in the USA, and is also moving heavily into competency based learning.

Tec de Monterrey is a dual-mode private, non-profit university in Mexico that offers high quality online programs in Spanish.

4. Publicly funded open universities.

The best online is the Open University of Catalonia, in Spain, which was founded in 1996 as a purely online university. It offers several graduate programs in English, and many undergraduate as well as graduate programs in Spanish and Catalan. It accepts many international enrolments, particularly from Latin America.

Tèluq in Quebec offers high quality online programs in French.

The U.K. Open University and the Open University of the Netherlands are also leaders in online learning. The U.K. Open University consistently ranks in the top ten universities in the U.K. (out of over 180) in terms of teaching.

There are many other open universities around the world, some with hundreds of thousands of students (e.g. the Open University of China, Anadolu Open University in Turkey, the Open University in Indonesia, Indira Gandhi Open University in India, and the University of South Africa). However, because many students in these countries lack easy access to the Internet, most of these universities are still primarily print-based.

Indeed, most open universities have a heavy legacy of print-based education which has limited their ability to move completely online. I’m not currently recommending Athabasca University in Canada, because it’s future is uncertain, and many of its undergraduate programs are still print-based, although it has some excellent online graduate programs. The same applies to Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning program in British Columbia.

Nevertheless, open universities offer many people their only chance of a higher education, especially in developing countries.

5. For-profit private universities

I hesitate to recommend for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or Kaplan, not because they don’t offer high quality online programs – they do – but because of ongoing problems with federal student aid and recognition of their degrees. For further discussion especially of the University of Phoenix, see ‘How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

6. MOOCs

If you are not looking for a qualification, but are just interested in a particular topic, there are many free, massive open online courses (MOOCs) available to you from many of the world’s leading universities. The following are the main platforms/sites where you can find such courses:

Open Education Europa provides a comprehensive list of MOOCs being offered by European institutions.

However, be warned: while certificates may be offered for successful course completion, these are not usually accepted by even the offering institutions towards a formal degree. However the OERu is building a free degree program on open educational resources.

7. General advice

It makes sense to take an online program from any local institution that you know well and trust. There are risks in taking online programs from out of state or out of country, unless the institution has an international reputation. There may also be language or cultural issues. It is particularly important that you get frequent and good quality interaction with an instructor on the program. Nevertheless the choice has never been so rich.

Over to you

There are many other universities and colleges offering excellent online programs, too many to number, but if you have experience of taking online programs and would like to make recommendations (positive or negative), please use the comment box below.

However, I will not publish any comments that are not offered in a thoughtful and constructive manner, and especially if they are being used solely to market (or trash) a particular program.

And any requests to list or mention the many commercial providers of online programs will be ignored.