Contact North (2012) Online Learning in Canada: At a Tipping Point Sudbury ON: Contact North

Contact North’s report

Contact North in Ontario has just published a 29 page overview of the current state of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education. The report covers the following topics:

  • setting the context
    • social and economic
    • demographics
    • socio-economic conditions
    • post-secondary infrastructure
  • post-secondary infrastructure and the role of the private sector
  • distance education and on-line learning focused universities
  • dual mode universities
  • college and technical education
  • student success (really, online student numbers and enrollments)
  • online learning technology in Canada
  • challenge and opportunities
  • cross country check-up
    • British Columbia
    • Alberta
    • Saskatchewan and Manitoba
    • Ontario
    • Québec
    • Atlantic Canada
  • the future
  • online learning in Canada at a tipping point.

It should be stated that this is a work in progress. The report is stronger about online learning in some provinces than others, as one would expect, so if you feel essential information is missing, please contact Sara Best at Contact North.

The report raises a number of interesting points about online learning in Canada. I have chosen just a few to give a flavour:

  • there are no reliable national statistics on online learning, but Contact North estimates there are approximately just under one million online course registrations equivalent to about 100,000 FTEs
  • there is a good deal of innovation and development of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, but it is mainly at the grass roots level, promoted or supported increasingly by strong, professional centres of teaching, learning and technology within the institutions;
  • quality still varies considerably (although not as much as in the USA), despite most provinces having in place best practice guidelines for degree approval processes
  • although Canada currently has a robust post-secondary online learning culture at a grass roots level, a lack of strategic focus on online learning at national, provincial and above all institutional levels threatens its future development and may well result in Canada being left behind by international competitors.

The Advisory Committee on Online Learning (2001)

It is interesting to compare Contact North’s report with the 2001 report of the Federal Government’s Advisory Committee for Online Learning. How far has Canada developed in the 12 years?

The Advisory Committee (which was chaired by David Johnston, then the President of the University of Waterloo and now Canada’s Governor-General) had three ‘overriding preoccupations’:

  • fostering a culture of lifelong learning
  • using online learning to improve access to lifelong learning
  • ensuring that Canadian post-secondary institutions and Canada’s e-learning industry are well placed to secure the benefits of online learning.

In particular, the Advisory Committee was concerned that if there was no ‘action plan’ for online learning, ‘it will be increasingly provided to Canadian learners by off-shore institutions and corporations.’ Although that threat has not yet materialized in any significant way over the last 12 years, it has by no means gone away (for instance, Stanford and MITs more recent promotion of MOOCs).

To neutralize that threat, the Advisory Committee recommended a Pan-Canadian Action Plan ‘to accelerate the use of online learning in post-secondary education and in lifelong learning.’ The Advisory Committee saw a critical role for the Federal government in implementing such a plan, and called for cross-provincial collaboration between governments and institutions to develop online content and the telecommunications infrastructure to deliver it. The report called for more research into learning and support for ‘learnware product development.’ Finally it proposed a Pan-Canadian Online Learning Service that would ‘capture economies of scale, build critical mass and create important synergies.’

The Canadian Council on Learning’s report re-iterated the recommendations of the Advisory Committee, without analysing why, eight years later, these recommendations had failed to be implemented.


First, a declaration of interest: I work for Contact North and provided comments on an earlier draft of the document.

However, the Contact North report  is undeniably timely, as in such a decentralized, provincial system as Canada’s, it is very difficult to get an overview of what is going on across the country. Post-secondary education is primarily a provincial responsibility, and there is no single body that collects data on online learning in Canada. The last report on online learning by the Canadian Council on Learning was woefully inadequate in providing any factual information about the current state of online learning in Canada, so Contact North’s report is much needed. I strongly recommend reading the full report. But how much progress has been made since 2001?

The raw numbers are impressive. As far as can be determined, somewhere between 10-15% of all post-secondary enrollments are now in online courses. This figure is similar to reports and surveys from the USA. In size, online learning enrollments are equivalent to a whole post-secondary education system the size of British Columbia or Alberta. Which makes the lack of any reliable national statistics on online learning all the more shocking.

Second, the Advisory Committee’s desire for a national plan or strategy for online learning never got further than a report on a Federal minister’s desk. Certainly there is almost no chance that the current Federal Conservative government will take a leadership role on this issue. Its focus is mainly on economic development through resource extraction and possibly manufacturing, but it has shown no leadership in supporting a knowledge-based economy (other than when it supports resource extraction), which was the Advisory Committee’s major justification for promoting online learning. The Federal Conservatives recognize that education is a provincial responsibility, and don’t want to get involved. Indeed the Conservatives have made deep cuts to Statistics Canada, so the one body that could provide reliable national statistics is hamstrung and has no resources now to do this.

However, although no national pan-Canadian strategy has developed, several of the provinces have put in place organizations that now carry out very similar functions to the Pan-Canadian Online Learning Service proposed by the Advisory Committee. For instance BCCampus, e-Campus Alberta, and Contact North itself, all provide one-stop shopping for online courses, fund collaborative program development, and support not only faculty development and training in online learning, but also provide institutions with policy and research support in the areas of online learning. Thus at a provincial level there has been substantial progress.

What hasn’t happened, as is pointed out in the Contact North report, is cross-provincial collaboration, and perhaps even more importantly, collaboration or partnerships between the substantial online technology industry in Canada and the post-secondary institutions. Here surely is a role for national organizations such as the AUCC and ACCC, or for professional organizations such as the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education.

But that brings me to my next point. The Contact North report highlighted the failure at an institutional or provincial government level to recognize the critical role of online learning for 21st century teaching and learning in post-secondary education. The Contact North report states that there is a lack of strategic focus on online learning in most post-secondary institutions. The priority of most university and college leaders is to enhance and expand classroom teaching, rather than use online learning as an alternative way to develop the skills and competencies needed in the 21st century. Until online learning is seen as a strategic priority by the leadership of Canadian post-secondary institutions, it is pointless to look to AUCC or ACCC to provide pan-Canadian actions or cross-provincial collaboration in this area.

Perhaps most critical of all, Canada still lacks a clear strategy for fostering lifelong learning. Certainly in the USA, and probably in Canada, the biggest expansion of online learning has been in continuing professional education: professional masters programs, diplomas and certificates, bachelor degree completion and even virtual high schools for those who lack high school qualifications. MOOCs are also emerging as another strong support for lifelong learning. But lifelong learning is not the core focus of most Canadian universities or even two year colleges, who are still transfixed on a declining demographic: the 18-24 year old, full-time, campus-based student, the best of whom will support the research professors when they graduate. The future of Canadian universities lies in serving lifelong learners as well as high school leavers, and this requires more flexible delivery, and in particular a much greater strategic focus on hybrid and fully online learning.

So, Canada: a C+, but could do much better.

Your views on online learning in Canada

If you are Canadian, does the Contact North report reflect your knowledge of online learning in Canada? What grade would you give Canada?

If you are not Canadian, how similar or different is the situation in your country?

What single step, if any, do you think should be taken (or have been taken) that would make your country a ‘world leader’ in online learning, in terms of actions by:

  •  the national government
  • the regional or local government
  • your institution

Further reading

Phillips, B. (2011) Researching Virtual Initiatives in Education: Canada  VISCED/Re.Vica

Canadian Council on Learning (2009) State of e-Learning in Canada Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning

The Advisory Committee for Online Learning (2001) The e-learning e-volution Ottawa: The Government of Canada




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