There was extensive faculty development during 2020: Image: OISE Education Commons

Johnson, N. (2021) Digital Learning in Canadian Higher Education in 2020: National Report Canadian Digital Learning Research Association: Halifax (francophone version will be available from May 4).

Declaration of interest

I am the Chair of the Board for the organisation that conducted this report.

2020: A Difficult Year

The CDLRA/ACRFL is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that conducts an annual survey of digital learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. In previous years, it sent out an online survey to all public post-secondary institutions in April/May.

However, 2020 was not a normal year. All institutions had suddenly pivoted in March to emergency remote learning, meaning in effect that almost all teaching was online, in some form or other. Also, all institutions were working flat out to pivot to emergency remote learning. Collecting institution-wide data or even answering surveys at an institutional level was completely unrealistic during a pandemic.

As a result, the CDLRA itself needed to pivot away from an annual research survey focused primarily on collecting statistics about online and blended learning enrolments, future plans, etc. (see Donovan et al, 2019 for an example), to two ‘Pulse’ surveys, one in Spring 2020 and one in Fall 2020.

The Pulse surveys aimed ‘to capture the transformations that were taking place over the course of the year’ as a result of the pandemic, and ‘to gain a sense of the changes and challenges that faculty and administrators experienced as the year unfolded’. This required a completely different approach than the previous CDLRA national surveys.


The Canadian Pulse Project consisted of two short surveys, one in Spring 2020 (April 24-May 1) and one in Fall 2020 (August-September). The surveys were a collaborative effort between the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, George Veletsianos of Royal Roads University, Jeff Seaman (Bay View Analytics), and Academica Group.

Recruitment for the Spring survey was done via the Academica Top Ten and included 273 higher education faculty and administrators from across Canada, with most of the responses coming from Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia.

Recruitment for the August/September survey was done in a similar way and included 427 higher education faculty and administrators from across Canada with most of the responses coming from Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. No breakdown of the numbers between faculty and administrators is given.

In addition Nicole Johnson, the CDLRA Research Director, in collaboration with eCampus Ontario, reached out to senior administrators (e.g., Provost, VP Academic) across Ontario to schedule semi-structured interviews. The Research Director conducted these one-on-one interviews from October through December via video-conferencing software to understand better how institutions adapted to a model of primarily online course delivery in the pandemic context, and reached out to administrators in other provinces by email to conduct further interviews to confirm whether the key findings from Ontario were present at other institutions outside the province. The results were reported to be consistent across the country

Main results

I provide a very brief summary below. For more details go to the report itself.

  • The need for developing consistent definitions for terms related to digital learning (e.g. remote learning, online learning, blended/hybrid learning) is imperative for tracking the long-term impact of the pandemic on postsecondary education.
  • Providing the time, support, and resources to set faculty and students up for success is imperative. The rapid shift to emergency remote teaching placed considerable burden upon faculty and students, which will need to be reduced going forward. 
  • Despite the challenges of Spring 2020, most faculty felt prepared to teach online by Fall 2020. Regardless of the type of professional development, it was perceived as effective by faculty. Professional development related to teaching online was widely available to faculty as they prepared for the 2020 Fall semester.
  • If online and hybrid learning is going to occur to a greater extent post-pandemic, then affordable widespread access to high-speed Internet, affordable learning devices, and accommodations for students with disabilities must be addressed.
  • Institutions must consider the unintended consequences of expanding online and hybrid offerings and develop strategies to mitigate possible negative impacts for students and faculty.

The report provides a good deal of open-ended comments from faculty and administrators, which provide more nuance and more context for the findings.

My comments

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Quick and dirty research is better than no research at all. This study was certainly quick and dirty, and does provide one picture of what happened during the pandemic.

However, I for one cannot wait for the time when we can go back to conducting more systematic research, based on proper samples. But collecting reliable and comprehensive data on online or digital learning in Canada remains a huge challenge, with issues around definitions, reliable and accurate data collection, and adequate funding, and these challenges will remain after the pandemic.

Institutions, administrators and faculty have been as collaborative and helpful as possible, but most institutions lack consistent ways of tracking the mode of teaching, in terms of how much digital learning is taking place, and in what form. This is a particular challenge for blended or hybrid learning, which is mutating faster than the Covid viruses.

However, the move to digital learning is the future of post-secondary teaching. Institutions – and to a lesser extent governments – need accurate data and descriptions of what is occurring within their institutions before they can even begin to evaluate it. This is the challenge, not only for the CDLRA, but for all post-secondary institutions.

Our economic development, as well as the well-being of future generations, depend on ensuring post-secondary teaching is relevant to the needs of a digital society. We cannot begin to assess how well we are doing in meeting such goals if we cannot describe accurately what we are doing. I believe there are ways institutions can up their game and improve their data collection in this area – but that’s a topic for another time and another place.

In the meantime, this report provides one look at what happened during 2020 and how this affected faculty and administrators. For other research on this topic, see Research reports on Covid-19 and emergency remote learning/online learning



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