Reports from the 2018 survey

The main public report on online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions was published last month and is available, in English and French, at either or

However, we are also publishing four regional reports:

  • Western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba)
  • Ontario
  • Quebec
  • Atlantic (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador)

The Western Canada and Ontario reports are due to be published this week at:

This blog post is about the results from Western Canada (I will do separate blog posts about the other regional reports and possibly about the Arctic/North).

What is Western Canada?

Good question! At least in terms of online and distance learning, the differences between provinces are as great as the similarities. First, BC and Alberta have significantly more post-secondary institutions (26 and 21 respectively) than Manitoba or Saskatchewan (nine and twelve respectively), so it was necessary to look at institutional responses from each province separately, as well as Western Canada as a whole. With only six institutions responding to the survey in Saskatchewan, and eight in Manitoba, great care is needed in interpreting their results. 

Response rates

The overall response rate from Western Canada was slightly less than for the whole country (76% compared to 80%). This was due to a lower response rate from Saskatchewan regional colleges. We believe this is because some Saskatchewan regional colleges do not offer their own online or distance education courses. The other provinces’ response rates were the same or slightly higher than the national average.

Main results

In this post I will concentrate only on the main differences. For the full results see the full regional report.

Extent of online learning

Online and distance education courses for credit (in Canada as a whole nearly all DE courses are now delivered online) are offered by nearly all institutions in Western Canada, except the Saskatchewan regional colleges.

Alberta has many more online students and course registrations than the national average, mainly due to Athabasca University, which is a fully distance university. In Alberta, 28% of all students are taking at least one online course, compared to the national average of 17%, and in Alberta 13% of all course registrations are in online courses, compared with the national average of 8%.

British Columbia is close to the national average, with 16% of students taking at least one online course, and 9% of all course registrations being online.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan however are below the national average. In term of students taking at least one online course, Manitoba has 11% and Saskatchewan 12%, compared to the national average of 17%, and in terms of online course registrations, Manitoba has only 4% and Saskatchewan 7%, compared to 8% nationally.

Trends in online registrations

It is not so much the actual, current registrations that are so different from the national average as the differences in trends. 

Online enrolments are definitely growing at a slower rate than in the rest of the country in British Columbia and Manitoba, and probably in Saskatchewan (where the institutional response rate is too low to be sure). In British Columbia, eight out of 19 institutions (42%) reported a decrease in online enrolments in 2016-2017, and four institutions (the only ones out of 184 institutions in the whole of Canada that responded to this question) predicted a decrease in online enrolments in the coming year. In Manitoba, enrolments were down from the previous year in three of the six institutions that responded to this question.

In comparison, almost two thirds of institutions in Canada reported a growth in online enrolments from the previous year, with less than a quarter reporting a decline. Just over a third reported modest growth (up between 1-10%) and almost a third reported fast growth (more than 10% from last year). Three quarters of all Canadian post-secondary institutions anticipated increases in enrolments from 2016-2017 to 2017-2018. Alberta was similar to the rest of Canada.


The only major difference with the rest of the country is that institutions in British Columbia and Manitoba were slightly less likely to use synchronous live online lectures than elsewhere in the country. I’m guessing that this is because BC at least was earlier into the game than the rest of the country and relies more on asynchronous LMS-based courses, whereas many of the more recent newcomers to online learning are opting for web-based lectures.


Western Canada is the region with the highest percentage of institutions using open textbooks (75% of institutions). The highest proportions of institutions using open textbooks were in British Columbia (90%) and Alberta (78%). This reflects the impact of the BC Open Textbook project that has now been running for five years.


A slightly higher proportion of institutions in Western Canada offered MOOCs than in the rest of Canada (22% compared to 18%), with two institutions in Alberta, five in British Columbia, one in Manitoba and three in Saskatchewan offering MOOCs.

Strategic plans for online learning

A slightly higher percentage of institutions in Western Canada than the average for Canada as a whole reported that they did not have a plan but needed one, mainly in Alberta (37%) and British Columbia (38%).

An even higher percentage of responding institutions in Alberta (75%) and British Columbia (76%) considered a strategic plan for e-learning to be extremely or very important. However, in Manitoba only three out of eight institutions and in Saskatchewan three out of six responding institutions reflected this view.


One of the biggest differences between Western Canada and the national average was in the number of institutions that rated inadequate training/pedagogical knowledge available for faculty in online learning as being an important or very important barrier to online learning. The figure for Western Canada was 82% of institutions, compared with the national average of 73%


A much higher proportion of institutions in Alberta (50%), British Columbia (53%) and Manitoba (50%) reported faculty acceptance of online learning than in the rest of the country (32%), again possibly reflecting the maturity of the online market in Western Canada.

However, institutions in Western Canada were less likely to report that students were as satisfied with online courses as with face-to-face courses. Only 32% of institutions in Western Canada agreed with this statement, compared with the national average of 61%.

Slightly more institutions in Alberta (36%) and British Columbia (31%) reported that retention rates for online students are a problem than the Canadian average of 26%.

My conclusions

I need to state that these are my personal conclusions and are not necessarily supported by the rest of the survey team.

However, I have to say as someone residing in British Columbia and who has spent a good part of my career working in online learning here, that I was somewhat disappointed with these results.

Is Western Canada falling behind in online learning?

Alberta established Athabasca University in the 1970’s, and British Columbia established the Open Learning Agency, Thompson Rivers Open University, Royal Roads University and BCcampus over the next 20-25 years. UBC offered the first fully online graduate programs in 2003. There was a big expansion of online learning in BC between 2006-2011, partly due to targeted funding through BCcampus. Thus, Western Canada has in the past been leaders in Canada in open, distance, and online education.

This no longer appears to be the case. British Columbia is still leading in open educational resources through its highly successful open textbook project, and Athabasca University still enables Alberta to boast the highest proportion of online enrolments in the country.

However in terms of the actual delivery of online courses, Western Canada is at best in the middle of the pack. More significantly, there is evidence from this survey that Western Canada is falling behind in the growth of online learning. BC was the only province in Canada where some institutions believe that online enrolments will decline in the coming year. Manitoba and Saskatchewan appear to be well below the national average in online enrolments.

At the same time, Ontario has been rapidly increasing its online enrolments through funding from eCampus Ontario. Almost all conventional institutions in Ontario now have substantial online enrolments. Laval University in Québec has almost as many online course registrations as Athabasca.

There could be numerous explanations for this. Western Canada is a more mature market and growth in mature markets is always more difficult. It is clearly a policy decision to invest more in open textbooks than in online courses and it could be argued that this has more direct impact on student access.

Nevertheless there are good reasons why enrolments in fully online and especially blended/hybrid learning continue to grow in the rest of Canada. There is probably considerable room for growth from the current figures of 9% of all course registrations being online in BC, and even less in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. One obvious reason is still the increased access and flexibility that online learning provides. The need for flexibility in particular will become even more important as the student demographic changes towards more part-time students and lifelong learners.

Perhaps a more important reason is that many institutional leaders in both Canada and the USA see online learning as providing the context for innovation in teaching that will help develop the knowledge and skills needed in the future. This may well be more significant than the actual number of fully online enrolments. Western Canada cannot afford to get behind in supporting and implementing innovation in teaching in post-secondary education.

The need for better faculty development and training

Inadequate training/pedagogical knowledge available for faculty in online learning was reported by 82% of the institutions in Western Canada, compared to 73% in the rest of the country. It should be noted that this comes from institutional leaders, which suggests there are systemic issues in providing this training, i.e. there are factors beyond the power of Provosts/Vice-Presidents Education that prevent better training for faculty.

This challenge is likely to increase rather than decrease over time as more and more instructors move into blended learning, and suggests the need for system-wide approaches to providing training and support for instructors. This is as much an economic as an educational issue, because without instructors that are comfortable in using digital technologies, it is less likely that they will be able to help students to develop the knowledge and skills needed in an advanced digital economy. This is an issue this should be on the top of any Ministry of Advanced Education’s agenda.

The role of government in the development of online learning

The two annual surveys both clearly indicated the importance of provincial government policies and activities in supporting online learning. Ontario in particular has benefited over the last few years from an aggressive policy to increase online learning throughout all the institutions in the province. BC used to have such a policy but not in recent years, focusing almost exclusively on the open textbook project and OER in general. There is evidence that some of the other Alberta universities besides Athabasca University are moving into online and particularly blended learning, but like Manitoba and Saskatchewan there seems to be no particular government strategy to support such moves (other than strengthen Athabasca University).

Faculty development and training in particular need a more strategic and system-wide approach, if online and blended learning are not only to increase access, but also to develop better learning outcomes more appropriate for developing students with 21st century skills. Government has a key role to play in supporting such a move. I hope this report provides a stimulus to appropriate government action in Western Canada.




  1. Tony, I am struggling with your conclusions that things are worse in Saskatchewan. Sitting here at the U of R, i know that I calculated (with the Registrar) that online enrolments was between 10 and 11% of enrolments in both the fall and winter semesters. I also know that online enrolments are growing, we noted in the survey up over 10% year over year.

    Maybe this is at the U of R, and not the combined with U of S and SaskPolyTech.

    Also, the regional colleges are brokers, they have no original programming. They get no revenues from online enrolments (but do from face to face brokered), so they generally do not support it. Shouldn’t really be in the database

    • Thanks, Harvey. The roster is based on all publicly funded institutions on Canada, so the Saskatchewan regional colleges should be included.

      The national (and provincial) online course enrolment percentage is a percentage of all course enrolments, whether or not an institution offers online learning, so the regional colleges will pull down the overall provincial percentage as a result. The same happens in Québec, with the CEGEPs. Like U of R, the Québec universities are slightly above average but the overall provincial figures are lower.

      Our goal is to get an accurate indication of the overall presence of online learning in Canada and that should be measured against all enrolments nationally.

      Lastly, I wouldn’t use the word ‘worse’. There may be very good reasons why certain institutions do not offer online or distance courses. Many very small institutions, such as the regional colleges, just cannot manage the start-up costs and the infrastructure needed to support online learning effectively, and may indeed wish to use their small size as a strength in terms of face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless I am sure there are students in more remote parts of Saskatchewan who would benefit from online learning at the college level. The report I hope provides some factual base to inform discussions on the best way to do this.

  2. I think that it may be falling behind a little bit. There needs to be a resurgence in Western Canada, and it needs to happen soon. I know a way through which this can happen, but there should be collective agreement.

  3. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for your thoughts. One sentence had me truly baffled however: “Western Canada cannot afford to get behind in supporting and implementing innovation in teaching in post-secondary education.”

    How I read it was the opposite of what you meant. I read: “Western Canada cannot afford to get behind supporting and implementing innovation in teaching in post-secondary education.” What? Then I realized it was also language: I read “get behind” as to support (We need to get behind our team!), versus “fall behind”. ALso, missed the tiny preposition “in”. btw, I agree that wetern Canadda is definitely falling behind the ROTW. 🙁

  4. One more question: What are distance education resources? How are these linked to online learning in your title? A big obstacle in the discussion of online versus distance, is that it is NOT just the technology used, but the pedagogy. And more importantly, the theory of learning of online education versus that of distance education. To continue linking them up in various awkward ways doesn’t clarify, but leaves the two modalities confused and confusing.
    We need to create sharper definitions….debate, disagree but eventually come to a position

    • Thanks for your comments, Linda – sorry about my clumsy writing leading to confusion.

      On the point of definitions, the report provides the following definitions:

      Distance education courses are those where no classes are held on campus – all instruction is conducted at a distance

      [Online learning is] a form of distance education where the primary delivery mechanism is via the Internet. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. All instruction is conducted at a distance.

      A blended/hybrid course is designed to combine both online and face-to-face teaching in any combination. For the purposes of this questionnaire, we are interested in those courses where some, but not all, of the face-to-face teaching has been replaced by online study.

      Institutions were specifically asked to compare their internal definitions of distance education, online courses, and blended/hybrid courses to those presented in the survey. Institutions were then requested to share their definition if it didn’t match the one provided.

      Between a half and two-thirds of the respondents reported that their internal definition matched that provided in the survey. There was more agreement on the definition of online courses and less on the definition of distance education. Perhaps more significantly, between a fifth to a quarter of the institutions have no definitions of these terms.

      The survey was therefore focused primarily on mode of delivery. Because the survey was an institutional survey it did not examine different pedagogical models. The CDLRA though is hoping in future research to examine variations in pedagogical models in both fully online and blended learning courses. However we don’t have the funding to do that at the moment.

  5. Thank you for the input, Tony. The article may be a notch dated, but you must’ve witnessed how much has happened in the past year (in both Ontario and Alberta where I am writing from) in the education area. You think things will get better in 2020?


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