Helped a great deal by Jeff Seaman of the Babson Survey Research Group, I have spent the last few weeks (when not on holiday in Portugal), crunching the data on online course enrolments from this year’s national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education. 

Good 2018 data

First, the good news. This year, we have really solid data from the institutions about online enrolments. Of the 234 institutions in the roster, 131 provided detailed and credible information on online course registrations, as well as overall course registrations. Taking out the 74 or so institutions that do not appear to offer online learning, this gave us a response rate regarding enrolment data of 82% for the 160 institutions in Canada that do have online learning. This enabled us to make more precise estimates for those institutions that did not provide data. We are very confident now that our data accurately reflect the Canadian post-secondary system as a whole.


We collected data on four key data points:

  • the number of individual students taking at least one online course for credit over the academic year 2016-2017
  • online course registrations for the whole year 2016-2017
  • overall course registrations for the whole year 2016-2017
  • the total number of students enrolled during the year 2016-2017.

For the 29 institutions offering online courses that did not provide course registration data, we looked at similar institutions in the same (or neighbouring) province, and took the average enrolment data weighted by the overall number of students from the institutions that did provide data then applied them to those institutions for which data were missing. This allowed then for provincial variations, variations between types of institution, and for variations between large and small institutions when making estimates, rather than applying a single national average.

We also took a strict definition for institutions that did not offer any online learning. Some reported this on the survey; for those for which we had no information we conducted searches of institutional web sites for evidence of online courses. If we could not find any evidence, I counted them as not having any online courses, although these may be hidden behind their institutional web sites. This resulted in a total of 74 institutions (32% of the roster) without any online courses. Nearly two-thirds (65%) were colleges or CEGEPs located in Québec.

Thus our estimates for the extent of online learning are very conservative, and are likely to be very reliable, especially for all universities, and for all colleges outside Québec. The following data are rounded to the nearest 1,000 to reflect that they are estimates rather than actual figures.


  1. Students taking at least one online course

In 2016-2017, there were 365,000 students taking at least one online course for credit in Canadian universities and colleges, out of a total of 2,070,000.

This represents 18% of all Canadian post-secondary students:

  • 19% in universities,
  • 21% in colleges outside Québec.
  • 4% in CEGEPs
  • 3% in private subsidised colleges in Québec.

In other words, roughly one in every five students is taking an online course for credit, except for colleges in Québec. 

2. Online course registrations

There were a total of 1,335,000 online course registrations in 2016-2017, representing 8% of all course registrations, both for universities, and for colleges outside Québec. For CEGEPs and colleges in Québec, the figure was 4%.

3. Provincial differences

Newfoundland, Alberta and the Yukon had the largest proportion of students taking at least one online course and the largest proportions of online course enrolments.

It is noticeable that the Arctic territories of Nunavut and North West Territories had almost no online enrolments, probably because of lack of Internet bandwidth. New Brunswick also had a low proportion of online enrolments (3%).

These figures are somewhat lower than we anticipated. In our 2017 report, we had estimated an overall proportion of:

  • 16% of online course enrolments in universities, 
  • 12% in colleges outside Québec
  • 6% in CEGEPs
  • 11% for all institutions.

However, we did not have anywhere near the same quality of data in 2017 that we have in 2018. I believe the 2018 ‘base’ of 8% to be more accurate, although it might be a slight underestimate, but if so by no more than 1%-2%. 

4. The growth in online learning

We also asked institutions the following two questions:

  • How do this year’s online course registrations compare to last year’s?

  • How do you expect next year’s online course registrations to compare to this year’s?

Nearly two-thirds of the institutions (66%) reported that their online enrolments were up from last year, 11% reported online enrolments were the same as last year, and 23% said they were down. More institutions in British Columbia (42%) reported a drop in online enrolments than institutions in other provinces. In contrast, 45% of the institutions in Ontario reported increases of more than 10% from last year.

Even more institutions (74%) expected an increase in online enrolments next year. Only 3% (four colleges, all in British Columbia) expected a decline. This is at a time when overall enrolments are more or less steady in Canadian post-secondary education.

With the exception of four colleges in British Columbia, online enrolments appear to be growing, in most institutions at a rate of between 1%-10%. However, it will take data over a few more years to be able to identify a clear trend. 

Thus enrolments in fully online courses are a relatively small but still significant proportion of overall course enrolments, and are increasing while overall enrolments remain steady.

I will be reporting on other results from the survey in later posts. In the meantime we are really grateful to the institutions who provided such valuable data this year.


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