Studying at home: and saving the college money

I’ve had one or two comments from people at presentations commenting that our recent finding from the 2018 national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian post-secondary institutions that online learning now accounts for 8% of all post-secondary teaching seems low or disappointing (if you are a supporter of online learning). For instance, in a recent report from the US Department of Education, the proportion of all students who were enrolled exclusively online in 2017 grew to 15.4 percent (up from 14.7 percent in 2016), or about one in six students, or almost double the rate in Canada.

Second, our numbers are lower for the number of individual students taking at least one course online: 20% of students in Canada are taking at least one online course across all universities, and across all colleges outside Québec, compared with 33% in the USA.

I’m now going to give you some personal comments which are not necessarily shared by the rest of the team. Indeed, our team is making a full analysis of the differences between the USA and Canada for our report, so I will wait to explain in more detail the differences. But here are some general points to remember.

8% is still significant

First this statistic refers only to fully online courses for credit. It does not include blended or hybrid courses, or non-credit courses. It also includes students at all the 74 institutions that do not offer fully online courses.

Second, this is an average figure. Some institutions have a surprisingly high proportion of online students. As well as the three or four institutions in Canada that are fully online (with 100% of their students fully online), five institutions had more than one third of their students fully online (two universities and three colleges).

Third, in terms of actual numbers, 8% is equivalent to an extra four universities of 20,000 each PLUS four colleges equivalent to 12,000 full-time students PLUS another CEGEP of 3,000 students or a total of 160,000 FTEs(see Table 1 below) if these online students had taken campus-based courses. 

Table 1: FTE equivalents of online course enrolments in Canada

  Online Ave. FTEs
  course course load  
  registrations (all students)  
Universities 825,589 7.55 109,350
Colleges outside Québec 468,746 9.87 47,492
CEGEPS 34,364 10.39 3,307
Private subsidized colleges Québec 6,867 9.80 701
Total 1,335,566 8.44 158,242


Put another way, this is equivalent to an average of 1,300 full time students per university, and an extra 600 full time students for every college outside Québec. 

When considering the cost of online learning it is worth remembering the savings on physical overheads from these 160,000 FTEs not using campus facilities such as building maintenance and heating, classroom spaces, parking places, etc. And remember, this does not include students taking blended courses with a reduced amount of classroom time.

The problem is that most students taking online courses in Canada are not taking a full program online. They are usually on-campus students taking a few courses online, for a variety of reasons. One reason for this is that our three or four fully distance teaching universities are relatively small compared with several of the behemoths in the USA, such as the University of Phoenix, the University of Southern New Hampshire, the University of Maryland University College, Western Governors University and colleges such as Mariscopa in Arizona.

This means that most Canadian universities and colleges are not reaping the full benefits of scale; at the same time, it appears from our data that this ‘integration’ of online learning is leading to more faculty acceptance than in the USA.


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