© CVU, 2012 Creative Commons License

Canadian Virtual University (2012) Online University Education in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities Athabasca University AB: Canadian Virtual University.

The report was commissioned by the Canadian Federal government’s Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. CVU is a consortium of 12 Canadian universities collaborating in online university education.


This report seeks to provide a better understanding of the impact and potential of online Canadian university education and learning in an increasingly digital world. Specifically, it examines impacts, innovations, effectiveness, adoption, cost‐benefits, business models, and barriers to the expansion of online university education. Open Educational Resources (OER) were also included because of the part they may play in many of those areas.

Above all, the aim of the document is to provoke a discussion or dialogue about ‘the status quo’ and ‘the way forward’. (And you will certainly get that from me).

Definitions here are important. This report is not about blended or hybrid learning but focuses on online distance education. I think this is a pity, because much of the argument in this document applies just as much to these other areas of online teaching and learning, and hence if these had been included, the report would get more traction within and attention from conventional institutions, where, I will argue, the problem lies.


The report covers a number of interesting areas, and has some important things to say about the following areas:

Quality, ease of use, and choice

© CVU, 2012 Creative Commons License

Data on Canadian online university education

The report makes an heroic effort to provide some national statistics, despite the fact there is no systematic collection of data. You will have to judge for yourself how reliable or useful are the data provided.


The lack of online university data in Canada prevents meaningful comparators with other countries; indeed, we found so little data that we cannot comment on whether—or how—Canada is keeping up in increasing access to underrepresented populations…apart from some limited student loan‐based data, national and multi‐institutional data and indicators for underrepresented students seem to be largely absent. This puts Canadian universities in the challenging position of having to decide whether and how to increase accessibility for underrepresented groups through online delivery without the data to inform them and their governments of its impact.

We observe several barriers to accessibility to underrepresented and underprepared populations: (lack of) specifically designed courses and student supports, lack of national data, and lack of clear information to students.

Aboriginal education

Aboriginal communities are challenged in terms of breadth and depth of academics that can be provided locally, and universities are challenged to address the academic and support needs of those communities. Online education has the potential to address some of these challenges…..However, formidable barriers to increased Aboriginal participation remain…A national strategy to address these barriers—specifically in the context of online education—could increase access to higher education within Aboriginal communities.

Cost-effectiveness/Economies of scale/business models

Online R&D and Workplace Partnerships

Main conclusions

  • Canadian university online education is constrained by lack of national data and strategic planning, cross‐jurisdictional collaboration, business models, economies of scale, resources
  • This limits universities’ ability to capitalize on the potential of digital technologies to improve uptake, quality, accessibility, return on investment, tactical innovation, and knowledge transfer 
  • The ongoing strategic vacuum creates an environment that fosters weakness and duplication and is causing Canada to fall behind other nations in online education 
  • A national e‐learning strategy based on collaboration could address these weaknesses and maximize the potential of online education to prepare Canadians for the digital economy.


As always, I recommend that you should read this document for yourself. There is a lot of interesting material in it.

I would like to see the Federal government integrating online education as part of its digital economy strategy, and certainly developing strategies for proselytizing the importance and value of online learning in a knowledge-based economy or society. Even a few strategically placed Federally funded projects to support lifelong learning or work-force training through online learning, to demonstrate its importance, would be welcome, and certainly national statistics on online learning in Canada are desperately needed.

However, I have a curious reaction to this document. I think it is more a matter of tone than substance, but I found it a less than convincing document, despite the fact that I agree with most of the information it provides about the shortcomings of Canadian university online education.

Unfortunately, this document never clearly sets out responsibilities for addressing the numerous shortcomings in Canadian online learning that it identifies. Nevertheless the target audience for this document clearly seems to be the Federal government. The central question though revolves around the role that the Federal government should play in supporting university online education. Indeed, I would argue that many of the faults lie within the institutions themselves. In other words, be careful what you wish for – if the Federal government did step in to address some of the issues raised, this would lead to a loss of autonomy for the university sector and it would certainly tread on provincial and aboriginal toes. But I’m not going to worry about that – it ain’t going to happen.

Certainly, there is a Federal role in setting national strategies, especially regarding economic development, and in setting national standards. But post-secondary education is clearly a provincial responsibility in Canada, and the current Federal Conservative government has shown no inclination to interfere in provincial matters, not even in health, where it has much clearer constitutional responsibilities.

I agree that online education has the potential to help aboriginal education, but a national strategy? Which nation? Any aboriginal education strategy has to be centred on aboriginal needs. The trend is away from a national strategy in aboriginal education because of the blatant failure of the Department of Indian Affairs to deliver quality aboriginal education. More progress will be made by individual universities sitting down with their local First Nations and listening to their needs than in seeking a national strategy from the Federal government.

It is very unfortunate that there are no national statistics on online learning. But the current Federal government abolished the long census, so there is no hope that it will take responsibility for collecting national data on online learning, no matter how important that is. This is something the inter-provincial Council of Ministers of Education could and should undertake – but won’t. This would set a dangerous precedent where provinces were actually held accountable for their education policies.

Underlying this paper is the argument for national funding for a national organization (such as the CVU) so that it can achieve economies of scale in online learning, like the big national open universities in the UK, Europe, and Asia. There are some potential economies of scale in online learning (an example would be OER), and I’m all for voluntary collaboration, but the real benefit of online learning is in economies of scope, and in particular the individualization or personalization of learning, and this is killed by any attempt to emphasise economies of scale. We need more diversity in our post-secondary educational provision, not more of the same, and certainly not the large industrial models of distance education in a country such as Canada.

I would have been much happier if some of the excellent suggestions in this paper, such as the need for quality assurance and best practices in online learning, had been addressed to the university sector itself. Keep the Feds out of it. At the end of the day, I felt that those parts of the paper that I agreed with could by and large be resolved by the universities themselves. This won’t happen though by treating fully online learning, or distance education, separately from other areas of learning technology development, such as hybrid learning. What is needed is not so much national as institutional strategies for online learning, and this is within the jurisdiction of the universities themselves.

But read the paper for yourself – I am probably misrepresenting it – and it does raise some good questions for debate.

Note: thanks to Stephen Downes/George Siemens for directing my attention to this report




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