Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2015) La formation à distance dans les universités québécoises: un potential à optimiser Québec: Gouvernement du Québec
This report is now nearly 18 months old, but I did not know about it until I was given a copy when I was in Québec last week. The report is in French and there is no English version, and it contains such a lot of good information that I want to make it more widely available to anglophones.
(There is supposed to be an English version of the summary, but I was unable to locate it on their web site. In any case, the most useful information is available only in the full report in French. Si on peut lire français, on devrait lire le rapport lui-même.)
The Higher Council of Education in Québec is an autonomous body, separate from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education with a mandate to advise the Minister on all matters relating to education. It can choose the topics and the themes of the reports it produces on the state and needs of education. It has 22 members chosen from the field of education and beyond.
This report examines the issues for the Québec university system arising from the growth of new methods of teaching and learning, and provides some guidelines for the medium and long term. The decision to focus on distance education was influenced particularly by the growth of non-traditional methods of study by Québec students, the growth of part-time studying, and the increased application of new technologies for teaching.
The report covers the following aspects of distance education in Québec universities:
- The growth of new modes of education
- What’s happening in Québec
- A quick look at what’s happening outside Québec
- The Council’s guiding principles and recommendations
Pay attention to the methodology
For me, Chapter 2 (What’s happening in Québec) was the most interesting chapter, because it provides extensive and relatively reliable data about student enrolments in distance education courses and programs in Québec universities.
It is really important to understand the definitions and terminology in the data about distance education enrolments used in the report. The report itself reports on the difficulty of finding reliable data, partly because distance education comes in many forms and partly because the whole field is very dynamic and fast-changing. The report then focuses on trends over time.
Asynchronous vs synchronous courses
The report makes the distinction between asynchronous courses where students can access the courses at any time and place (e.g. courses using learning management systems), with synchronous courses (primarily using web- or video-conferencing). This distinction is made by the Ministry purely for financial reasons to identify how many teaching spaces are required in an institution.
The data used in the report refers only to enrolments in asynchronous courses. However, the report also acknowledges that the modes of distance education are rapidly evolving. There is an interesting description for instance of how L’Université Laval has moved over time from TV and print-based courses to collaborative learning to ‘virtual synchronous’ classes, the latter being driven as much by instructors in face-to-face teaching as by distance education courses.
Student enrolments vs course enrolments
In most of the tables or graphs provided in the report, the unit of measurement is a student taking at least one asynchronous distance education course. Such students may then be enrolled in just one distance course or several, but they are only counted once. These tables are derived by data collected by the Ministry.
However, there is at least one graph that is derived from data provided by CLIFAD, a liaison committee of some of the major distance education institutions in the province, that refers to all distance education course enrolments, from three specific institutions. In this case it is the course enrolments that are counted, not the students.
However, so long as the unit of measurement is the same, either can be used to track trends over time.
Most of the data refers to enrolments in the fall term of 2012, so it is already four years out of date, and four years is a long time in this area. However, data is provided in some of the tables for a period of over 12 years, and in the case of the CLIFAD data, over a period of 18 years, allowing clear trends to be identified.
Measuring distance education in Québec
Despite the issues around measurement, the report presents some clear facts about distance education in Québec:
- steady growth in distance education students and enrolments at a higher rate than enrolments in general; for instance the overall number of students in universities grew by 27%, whereas the number of distance students grew by 38%
- the proportion of students enrolled in (asynchronous) distance education courses grew from 6% in 2001 to nearly 12% by 2012
- Laval has the highest number of students enrolled in distance courses (13,000), or 30% of all its students; TELUQ (a fully distance university) and Concordia (25% of all students) both have just under 10,000 distance education students; Sherbrooke, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Université du Québec à Rimouski, and University du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) have around 1,000 distance students but in the case of UQAT this is more than a third of its students;
- MOOCs (CLOMs in French) are fairly popular in Québec, being offered by HEC Montréal, McGill, TELUQ, Laval and UQTR.
Guiding principles and recommendations
The report identifies three guiding principles and makes 13 recommendations.
- Accessibility to university study. The Council recognizes the importance of distance education in increasing accessibility to higher education in Québec, especially given its size and scattered population. The Council wants to optimise this potential, but to do this Internet services must be improved throughout the province.
- The quality of distance learning in Québec universities. The Council recognizes that distance education courses can be of high or low quality: it is the pedagogical approach and the design that matters.
- The economic viability of the Québec university system. The Council has a concern about the long-term financial viability of its higher education system, and recognizes that distance education can make a contribution towards the long-term sustainability of the system through:
- sharing of resources;
- collaboration between institutions on course design and delivery;
- widening access to students in Québec through programs offered from beyond the immediate locality of students in Québec;
- helping with the recruitment of students from outside Québec.
The Council makes 13 recommendations which are difficult to summarize but include the following:
- universities need to clarify for students the differences between different modes of education, and in particular how MOOCs differ from other forms of distance education;
- universities need to pay attention to the specific requirements of developing and delivering distance education, and should address issues such as support and training for faculty, recognizing that different categories of staff are needed, and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of faculty;
- universities need to take into account the requirements of different modes of delivery when evaluating courses;
- universities should ensure that students have adequate access to the technologies and human support they need for studying at a distance;
- the Ministry should fund research on the impact of distance education on accessibility, quality and the viability of the system, and take into consideration the technology needs of universities when budgeting;
- greater sharing of resources between the universities;
- the Ministry, together with the universities, should reconsider the regulations regarding the admission and financing of students from outside Québec who take courses at a distance from Québec universities.
This is a thoughtful and well-researched report that provides a good picture of the state of distance education in Québec, and has a good discussion of many of the issues, even if the recommendations are a little insipid. (I don’t disagree with any of the recommendations but I don’t see them leading to any major changes). The report will go some way to increasing the legitimacy of distance education, if that is needed in the Québec higher education system.
On a more mundane technical level, the report shows how difficult it is to use existing data collected by government to measure the state of distance education or online learning in Canada. Where data has been collected it is often for another purpose, such as deciding how much to fund physical facilities, or is inaccessible to those wishing to do research. Definitions of distance, online and blended learning also vary. In particular the growth of synchronous online learning seems to be largely ignored or at least under-measured.
These are all challenges we are facing in developing our national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, but the Québec report if anything has reinforced my belief in the importance of having a systematic survey that is conducted nationally with definitions and measurements that are consistent across the country, even – or especially – if the provision of online learning and distance education varies a great deal.