Image: Wikipedia

This is the second in a series of posts on this topic. The first post looked at external developments that will influence Canadian post-secondary education in the future. In this post, I focus particularly on the Canadian context.

How digital is the Canadian post-secondary system?

Thanks to the national survey of online learning in Canadian universities and colleges, we have a pretty good idea.

In 2017, eight per cent of all credit course registrations were in fully online courses representing a total of just over 1.3 million online course registrations. There is therefore still plenty of room for growth, although for most campus-based institutions it is unlikely to increase to much above 20% of all course registrations These are after all students taking essentially a distance education course. However a few institutions are already above this figure. For instance institutions in the Yukon and Newfoundland have over one third of course registrations fully online.

Also, online learning is widespread across nearly all Canadian universities and colleges. There may not be much, but most institutions have at least some experience in online learning and overall the quality is good.

However, the big growth area needs to be in hybrid learning, a mix of online and face-to-face learning. This will enable students to study at least partially digitally. It will also include non-online technology applications, such as virtual or augmented reality. 

In 2017, there were many institutions (75%) with hybrid courses, but few courses (less than 10%) in a hybrid format. Some institutions such as the University of Ottawa and UBC have specific plans to increase the number of hybrid courses, but these are modest targets of around 20% of all courses over a five year period. Over a third of institutions (35%) did not have a plan (although most recognised they needed one).

And this is the problem. There is momentum in Canadian institutions towards digital learning, but it’s too little and too slow. To counter the external threats to our institutions outlined in my previous post and to ensure we are graduating students with the knowledge and skills needed in a digital society, we need at least 75% of courses to be in at least a partial digital format, and we can’t wait 20 years to get there.

Another problem is that even where hybrid courses are available, they have rarely been re-designed to exploit the unique affordances of digital learning. Many are flipped classrooms where the lecture is recorded and the students come to class for discussion. This is not developing the digital skills that students will need. It is not sufficient to move lecturing online; methods of teaching that exploit the benefits of the technology are needed.

The biggest problem though is the lack of suitable training for faculty and instructors in the use of digital learning. Inadequate training of faculty was reported by 83 per cent of the institutions. In other words, most instructors are not ready for digital learning.

In fully online learning, instructors lack of training has been offset by a team approach to course design, involving instructional designers and technology support staff. This has worked well with less than 20% of the courses being online but the model cannot be scaled up to support 75% or more of all teaching. It will be essential for instructors themselves to have the skills and knowledge required to teach digitally.

But there is innovation taking place

The picture is not completely bleak. Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation clearly demonstrates that quite a large number of Canadian faculty and instructors are innovating, by introducing digital technology into their teaching. However, the numbers are relatively small, and their innovation rarely goes beyond their own classes. Few if any institutions have a strategy for supporting ‘bottom-up’ innovation so that successful uses of digital technology spread across the institution or even the same department.

Sue Dawson at the University of Prince Edward Island video records the anatomy of a dog’s heart using a plastinated model


There is momentum for change in Canadian institutions but it is too little and too slow in comparison to the changes in the world outside. The race is not against the USA, the U.K. or Australia but against the network platforms that will come in and steal our lunch if we are not more agile and focused. Radical change in the way we teach is needed. Resources need to be reallocated and above all a clear vision is needed of how we should be teaching in a digital age. This is essentially a leadership issue. 

In the next post I will suggest seven strategies that could be used to accelerate the move to digital learning.

A full presentation on this topic can be found in my presentation to CNIE 2019.


  1. Hi Tony,
    At Université Laval (a large campus-based university and U15 member), each semester, almost 50% of all students are taking at least one online course. Our online registrations are already well above the 20% threshold of all course registrations and this number keeps growing. Hybrid and Hyflex learning are also on the rise to give more flexibility to traditional students and so-called “non-traditional” students.


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