February 23, 2018

Comparing online learning in k-12 and post-secondary education in Canada

Barbour, M. and LaBonte, R. (2017) State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada 2016 Edition The Canadian eLearning Network

Why a post on online learning in the k-12 sector?

My blog, rightly or wrongly, is focused primarily on post-secondary education, for several reasons. The first is that I’ve always had a problem keeping up with developments in online learning in just the post-secondary education sector, and I decided very early on that I could not do justice to both sectors. Secondly, my experience of online learning has been almost entirely in the post-secondary sector, so it made sense to focus there. Thirdly, I did teach (face-to-face) for three years, many years ago, in the k-12 sector, so I am well aware that there are considerable differences in funding, context and approaches. My wife is also now a retired school teacher and I learned early in my marriage not to mess in her area of considerable expertise.

However, it would be foolish to deny that there are also many synergies between the two sectors, and both sectors lose by being isolated from the other. This became obvious when I was doing research on the national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education. For instance, when designing the web site (after we had collected the data) I came across the web site of  ‘State of the Nation’, a set of research reports on the Canadian k-12 sector of which, to my shame, I was totally ignorant. I deeply wished that I had read these reports before I started on the post-secondary survey.

The ‘State of the Nation’ Reports

A pan-Canadian network of K-12 online and blended learning schools and organizations – the Canadian e-Learning Network, or CANeLearn – was formed at a Montréal July 2013 Summit meeting of key stakeholders. CANeLearn’s mission is to provide leadership that champions student success in online and blended learning and provides members with networking, collaboration and research opportunities. Its initial focus is on sharing resources, professional development and research.

The 2016 edition is the ninth edition of their report, which together with brief issues papers, ‘vignettes’ and individual program surveys are all available on a new web site

The website includes a profile for each jurisdiction that is organized in the following manner:

  • a detailed description of the distance, online and blended learning programs operating in that jurisdiction;
  • a discussion of the various legislative and regulatory documents that govern how these distance, online and blended learning programs operate;
  • links to previous annual profiles;
  • an exploration of the history of e-learning in that jurisdiction; 
  • links to vignettes (i.e., stories designed to provide a more personalized perspective of those involved in K–12 e-learning) for that jurisdiction; 
  • links to any brief issues papers (i.e., more detailed discussions of specific issues related to the design, delivery and support of K–12 e-learning) in that jurisdiction;
  • the most recent responses to the individual program survey; and
  • an overview of the jurisdictions policies related to importing and exporting e-learning.

Finally, the website includes a blog that allows the research team to share relevant news and comment on issues related to K-12 distance, online and blended learning in Canada.

Key findings

As always, it is important to read the actual report, especially as the k-12 system in Canada is complex and devolved, so there are often qualifications and caveats to most of the findings, but here are my own main take-aways from this report, with comparisons with our national post-secondary education survey:

  1. Online and distance programs are available in the public k-12 sector in almost all provinces and territories: this is very similar in the post-secondary sector.
  2.  Approximately 5.7% of the 5.1 million k-12 students are enrolled in an online or distance education program. In Canadian post-secondary education, we estimate that approximately 12% of college course enrolments are online, and 16% in universities.
  3. Over the last few years, online and distance enrolments in the k-12 sector have remained steady (between 5.5% to 6% of all students), whereas there has been rapid growth over the last five years in all post-secondary sectors except for the CEGEP system in Québec.
  4. Tracking blended learning has proved equally difficult in the k-12 sector as in the post-secondary sector.
  5. Even though this report represents the ninth annual State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada study, the lack of reliable data continues to persist in many jurisdictions. There is no requirement in either sector to track online or distance education activities, but without systematic and reliable data collection in this area, it is difficult to measure the impact of policy decisions or the extent to which Canadian education is moving to digital learning.

In addition to these national findings, the report provides a useful province-by-province breakdown of online and distance education activity

Conclusions

Although 5-6% of students enrolled in online and distance education programs may not seem like a great deal of activity compared with the 12-15% at the post-secondary level, it should be remembered that online and distance programs are often focused mainly on the older age groups in k-12, particularly grades 11 and 12. Distance and online learning also require a good deal of self-discipline and independent learning skills, which tend to develop with age.

As the report states:

Canada continues to have one of the highest per capita student enrollment in online courses and programs of any jurisdiction in the world and was one of the first countries to use the Internet to deliver distance learning courses to students.

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two studies is the continued difficulty of obtaining reliable data and the almost grassroots, bottom-up approach to finding resources, designing the studies, and disseminating the results. This is both the strength and limitation of these two studies.

Maybe it is time for national and provincial agencies to start taking online and digital learning seriously, and find ways to fund and organise basic data collection in this area on a more systematic and consistent basis.

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