Online learning in Canada
I was doing my usual stuff in Denmark this week, a keynote on ‘Teaching for a digital age: why blended learning is so important,’ when someone at the end of my keynote asked me why does Canada have so much online learning.
The question kind of stopped me in my tracks. My presentation was about designing courses for a digital age, not about our recent survey, but I had thrown in a couple of slides to show the expansion of online learning both in the USA and in Canada over the last 10-15 years. Our survey did indicate quite clearly the following (among other things):
- the vast majority of post-secondary education institutions in Canada do offer at least some credit-based online learning courses
- the rate of growth in fully online enrolments over the last five years has been strong (between 12-15% per annum)
- online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all credit based teaching
- as well as fully online courses, a large majority of Canadian universities and colleges are moving aggressively into blended and hybrid learning
- most Canadian post-secondary institutions consider online learning very or extremely important for their future.
Remember, this expansion is in credit-based online learning, not MOOCs. In Canada. less than 20% of institutions were developing MOOCs in the year 2015-2016.
But is this a lot?
Well, everything’s relative.
We tend to compare ourselves with the USA, and our results weren’t so different from the Babson and the more recent U.S. Federal government surveys, although making such comparisons are always fraught because the two systems are somewhat different. Nevertheless in comparison for instance with the U.S. public universities and two year colleges, it is likely that Canada has at least the same proportion of online course enrolments, if not more.
I’m not sure whether 12-15% of courses enrolments being fully online is a lot in absolute terms. There’s probably more room for growth yet, but I doubt if most of the existing campus-based institutions will go much over 20% of all their teaching being fully online. Where the real growth is likely to be from now on is in blended and hybrid learning.
I’m assuming from the question that Denmark does not have a lot of fully online or distance learning. However, I also came across a recent opinion piece from Richard Garrett of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, entitled: ‘Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?’. Garrett pointed out that in the United Kingdom:
‘distance, flexible and distributed’ students peaked at about 11% of undergraduates (c.220,000) and 10% of postgraduates (c.55,000) in 2009/10. By 2015/16, total distance enrollment had fallen by 35%, most obviously at sub-degree level but also among bachelor’s and master’s students. Over the same period, full-time students were up 9%.
This of course is completely different from what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada. So what is the explanation for this discrepancy between North America and at least two countries in Europe?
Key factors influencing growth in online learning
This is one of those questions where I think your guess will be as good as mine. This is an area where we need more facts and more research. However, here are my thoughts on this.
1. The growth of lifelong learning
With the development of a knowledge-based economy,and with the amount of research and knowledge increasing rapidly each year, more and more people will need to go on learning new things well after they finish their full-time post-secondary education. A lot of this can be done informally (such as through the Danish adult education centres or MOOCs), but there has certainly been strong growth in North America in fully online professional masters programs, for instance. Such programs will become increasingly important given the need for continuous learning in a knowledge-based society.
2. History and geography
It is important to understand that Denmark is a small, compact European country that you can drive across in five hours. Hardly anyone lives more than an hour’s drive (or bike ride) from a post-secondary institution, tuition is free, and there is an excellent campus-based higher education system – so there has probably been little demand for distance education programs in Denmark.
Also for many, many years Scandinavian countries have had a very strong adult education movement, where both credit and non-credit courses are taken in the long, dark evenings at local adult education centres, thus catering for lifelong learners.
On the other hand, in both Canada and many parts of the USA, many provinces and states established public, land-grant universities with a mission to provide not only on-campus education, but lifelong learning opportunities, particularly in health and education, for everyone in the state or province, including or especially those living in sparsely populated areas. At such institutions, distance education was offered long before online learning appeared. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, started offering correspondence-based distance education in the late 19th century, using the Royal Mounted Police to deliver the packages to remote areas. The University of British Columbia, one of the largest campus-based research universities in Canada, located in Vancouver, has offered distance education across the whole province since the 1930s.
When online learning appeared around the early 1990s, it was natural for the departments providing distance education in Canada to move into online learning. Our survey found that many institutions in Canada have been offering online learning for 15 years or more.
This experience in fully online learning of course is invaluable as instructors move more into blended and hybrid learning.
3. Government policy
The sudden drop in distance education (and hence online) students in the U.K. is almost certainly due to recent government policy. Garrett wrote:
The primary cause of the distance learning drop was higher tuition fees and reduced public funding for part-time undergraduates. Almost all domestic distance learners in UK higher education study part-time. Distance enrollment held up better than part-time numbers overall, which almost halved over the period.
The UK’s largest distance institution, the Open University, dropped from 209,000 to 126,000 students between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Other institutions saw distance enrollment rebound in recent years but the total is still short of the 2009/10 baseline, and some 64,000 domestic distance students are scattered across 124 colleges and universities.
4. 21st century skills
One other factor that is likely to increase pressure for more online or at least blended learning is the need to develop the skills that students will need in the 21st century, such as independent learning, IT skills embedded within a subject domain, and knowledge management. Online learning is particularly useful in not only helping students directly to develop such skills, but also in providing opportunities for practicing and demonstrating such skills, through, for instance, e-portfolios.
5. The negative impact of open universities on online learning
More controversially, I will argue that where there has been a large and important open university, this has resulted in slower growth in online learning, for two separate reasons.
Most open universities were designed in the 1970s around a heavy, front-ended print development model requiring a very large investment. It is common in such institutions for it to take two years or more to develop a course, with an army of support staff as well as faculty. This was possible with very large numbers of enrolments, through economies of scale.
However, such large industrial-type organizations have found it very difficult to move into online learning, and especially into more rapid, lightweight designs. Even now, there are still large numbers of either print-based courses, or print-based courses merely transferred to online delivery, in many of the open universities. As a result, enrolments are dropping in open universities, while more traditional universities have been able to adopt a more agile and low-cost but still good quality online course design and development model. Indeed, long-established open universities seem to be struggling in all countries where online learning is being developed.
Also, there was evidence from the Canadian survey that where a fully distance institution or open university operated, this seems to have inhibited or slowed down the adoption of distance and hence online courses in the campus-based institutions within the rest of the province. Thus in Alberta, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary have really left distance programs (other than MOOCs) to Athabasca University, whose enrolments have been in decline (partly because they have lost lots of students from Ontario, where online learning has been growing rapidly in Ontario universities and colleges). Similarly in Québec, the province-wide Cégep à Distance been losing enrolments without a corresponding increase in online enrolments from the other Cégeps. Open or distance universities or colleges then tend to have a negative effect on online enrolments in the overall system.
Is more online learning a good thing?
But is this general growth in online learning a good thing? For instance, will this undermine the value of the campus? As someone working in online learning, it is an assumption on my part that in general, if done well, online learning is a good thing and we could do with more of it, mainly because it suits a large number of students, giving them flexibility and easier access, but also because I genuinely believe that it can help develop somewhat better than traditional teaching the knowledge and skills that students will need in the 21st century. However, it does not suit all students or subject disciplines or topics, so it needs to be used selectively.
Furthermore, as with all teaching, it can be done well or it can be done badly. There is no or little evidence to date that online learning is any less costly than campus-based teaching, mainly because with developments spread across a large number of institutions, it is difficult to generate economies of scale. Quality online learning requires good faculty development and adequate technical and pedagogical support, and that costs money.
Nevertheless, online learning in general will probably continue to grow, especially through blended or hybrid learning, mainly for economic reasons, because online learning is a very powerful means to develop the knowledge and skills that our students will need in the future, and because of the greater flexibility and access to learning it provides for students.
Correction: an earlier version of this post attributed the Observatory of Borderless Education quote to David Kernohan. It was actually Richard Garrett whom I was quoting. My apologies to Richard and David.