December 16, 2017

‘Why does Canada have so much online learning?’

My workshop in Denmark on the design of blended learning 

Online learning in Canada 

I was doing my usual stuff in Denmark this week, a keynote on ‘Teaching for a digital age: why blended learning is so important,’ when someone at the end of my keynote asked me why does Canada have so much online learning.

The question kind of stopped me in my tracks. My presentation was about designing courses for a digital age, not about our recent survey, but I had thrown in a couple of slides to show the expansion of online learning both in the USA and in Canada over the last 10-15 years. Our survey did indicate quite clearly the following (among other things):

  • the vast majority of  post-secondary education institutions in Canada do offer at least some credit-based online learning courses
  • the rate of growth in fully online enrolments over the last five years has been strong (between 12-15% per annum)
  • online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all credit based teaching
  • as well as fully online courses, a large majority of Canadian universities and colleges are moving aggressively into blended and hybrid learning
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions consider online learning very or extremely important for their future.

Remember, this expansion is in credit-based online learning, not MOOCs. In Canada. less than 20% of institutions were developing MOOCs in the year 2015-2016.

But is this a lot? 

Well, everything’s relative. 

We tend to compare ourselves with the USA, and our results weren’t so different from the Babson and the more recent U.S. Federal government surveys, although making such comparisons are always fraught because the two systems are somewhat different. Nevertheless in comparison for instance with the U.S. public universities and two year colleges, it is likely that Canada has at least the same proportion of online course enrolments, if not more.

I’m not sure whether 12-15% of courses enrolments being fully online is a lot in absolute terms. There’s probably more room for growth yet, but I doubt if most of the existing campus-based institutions will go much over 20% of all their teaching being fully online. Where the real growth is likely to be from now on is in blended and hybrid learning.

I’m assuming from the question that Denmark does not have a lot of fully online or distance learning. However, I also came across a recent opinion piece from Richard Garrett of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, entitled: ‘Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?’. Garrett pointed out that in the United Kingdom:

‘distance, flexible and distributed’ students peaked at about 11% of undergraduates (c.220,000) and 10% of postgraduates (c.55,000) in 2009/10. By 2015/16, total distance enrollment had fallen by 35%, most obviously at sub-degree level but also among bachelor’s and master’s students. Over the same period, full-time students were up 9%.

This of course is completely different from what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada. So what is the explanation for this discrepancy between North America and at least two countries in Europe?

Key factors influencing growth in online learning

This is one of those questions where I think your guess will be as good as mine. This is an area where we need more facts and more research. However, here are my thoughts on this.

1. The growth of lifelong learning

With the development of a knowledge-based economy,and with the amount of research and knowledge increasing rapidly each year, more and more people will need to go on learning new things well after they finish their full-time post-secondary education. A lot of this can be done informally (such as through the Danish adult education centres or MOOCs), but there has certainly been strong growth in North America in fully online professional masters programs, for instance. Such programs will become increasingly important given the need for continuous learning in a knowledge-based society.

2. History and geography

It is important to understand that Denmark is a small, compact European country that you can drive across in five hours. Hardly anyone lives more than an hour’s drive (or bike ride) from a post-secondary institution, tuition is free, and there is an excellent campus-based higher education system – so there has probably been little demand for distance education programs in Denmark.

The University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitet), Odense

Also for many, many years Scandinavian countries have had a very strong adult education movement, where both credit and non-credit courses are taken in the long, dark evenings at local adult education centres, thus catering for lifelong learners.

On the other hand, in both Canada and many parts of the USA, many provinces and states established public, land-grant universities with a mission to provide not only on-campus education, but lifelong learning opportunities, particularly in health and education, for everyone in the state or province, including or especially those living in sparsely populated areas. At such institutions, distance education was offered long before online learning appeared. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, started offering correspondence-based distance education in the late 19th century, using the Royal Mounted Police to deliver the packages to remote areas. The University of British Columbia, one of the largest campus-based research universities in Canada, located in Vancouver, has offered distance education across the whole province since the 1930s.

When online learning appeared around the early 1990s, it was natural for the departments providing distance education in Canada to move into online learning. Our survey found that many institutions in Canada have been offering online learning for 15 years or more.

This experience in fully online learning of course is invaluable as instructors move more into blended and hybrid learning.

3. Government policy

The sudden drop in distance education (and hence online) students in the U.K. is almost certainly due to recent government policy. Garrett wrote:

The primary cause of the distance learning drop was higher tuition fees and reduced public funding for part-time undergraduates. Almost all domestic distance learners in UK higher education study part-time. Distance enrollment held up better than part-time numbers overall, which almost halved over the period.

The UK’s largest distance institution, the Open University, dropped from 209,000 to 126,000 students between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Other institutions saw distance enrollment rebound in recent years but the total is still short of the 2009/10 baseline, and some 64,000 domestic distance students are scattered across 124 colleges and universities.

In comparison several provincial governments in Canada, and federal and state governments in the USA, have encouraged online learning through targeted funding. For instance several provinces have set up eCampuses to provide funding for online courses, open textbooks and open educational resources, for faculty development opportunities, and for shared services, to encourage online learning. Although the Obama administration’s tightening of student financial aid rules has led to a large drop in online enrolments in the for-profit university sector, this has been more than compensated by increases in online enrolments in the state-funded universities and colleges in the USA. 
 
Again, given the ‘gig’ economy, the need for lifelong learning, and the increasing proportion of students who are working to keep down the debt resulting from tuition fees of $16,000 a year, the U.K. government’s policies regarding student financial support, and its impact on online learning and lifelong learning, could be considered catastrophic for the future British economy, unless it is quickly reversed.

4. 21st century skills

One other factor that is likely to increase pressure for more online or at least blended learning is the need to develop the skills that students will need in the 21st century, such as independent learning, IT skills embedded within a subject domain, and knowledge management. Online learning is particularly useful in not only helping students directly to develop such skills, but also in providing opportunities for practicing and demonstrating such skills, through, for instance, e-portfolios.

5. The negative impact of open universities on online learning

More controversially, I will argue that where there has been a large and important open university, this has resulted in slower growth in online learning, for two separate reasons.

Most open universities were designed in the 1970s around a heavy, front-ended print development model requiring a very large investment. It is common in such institutions for it to take two years or more to develop a course, with an army of support staff as well as faculty. This was possible with very large numbers of enrolments, through economies of scale.

However, such large industrial-type organizations have found it very difficult to move into online learning, and especially into more rapid, lightweight designs. Even now, there are still large numbers of either print-based courses, or print-based courses merely transferred to online delivery, in many of the open universities. As a result, enrolments are dropping in open universities, while more traditional universities have been able to adopt a more agile and low-cost but still good quality online course design and development model. Indeed, long-established open universities seem to be struggling in all countries where online learning is being developed.

Also, there was evidence from the Canadian survey that where a fully distance institution or open university operated, this seems to have inhibited or slowed down the adoption of distance and hence online courses in the campus-based institutions within the rest of the province. Thus in Alberta, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary have really left distance programs (other than MOOCs) to Athabasca University, whose enrolments have been in decline (partly because they have lost lots of students from Ontario, where online learning has been growing rapidly in Ontario universities and colleges). Similarly in Québec, the province-wide Cégep à Distance been losing enrolments without a corresponding increase in online enrolments from the other Cégeps. Open or distance universities or colleges then tend to have a negative effect on online enrolments in the overall system.

Is more online learning a good thing?

But is this general growth in online learning a good thing? For instance, will this undermine the value of the campus? As someone working in online learning, it is an assumption on my part that in general, if done well, online learning is a good thing and we could do with more of it, mainly because it suits a large number of students, giving them flexibility and easier access, but also because I genuinely believe that it can help develop somewhat better than traditional teaching the knowledge and skills that students will need in the 21st century. However, it does not suit all students or subject disciplines or topics, so it needs to be used selectively.

Furthermore, as with all teaching, it can be done well or it can be done badly. There is no or little evidence to date that online learning is any less costly than campus-based teaching, mainly because with developments spread across a large number of institutions, it is difficult to generate economies of scale. Quality online learning requires good faculty development and adequate technical and pedagogical support, and that costs money.

Nevertheless, online learning in general will probably continue to grow, especially through blended or hybrid learning, mainly for economic reasons, because online learning is a very powerful means to develop the knowledge and skills that our students will need in the future, and because of the greater flexibility and access to learning it provides for students.

Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of fairy tales, such as ‘the Emperor’s Clothes’

Correction: an earlier version of this post attributed the Observatory of Borderless Education quote to David Kernohan. It was actually Richard Garrett whom I was quoting. My apologies to Richard and David.

Results from the Canadian survey of online learning now available

Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

The anglophone version of the public report, as well as the full technical report, is now available for free downloading (Click on the title above or onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca – you will be asked for your e-mail address and a password).

The francophone version of the public report will be available on October 27 from https://formationenlignecanada.ca

Key findings of the report are:

  • Canada is a ‘mature’ online learning market: almost all Canadian colleges and universities now offer online courses and many have been doing so for 15 years or more;
  • there is at least one institution in every province that offers online courses or programs;
  • online enrolments have expanded at a rate of 10%-15% per annum over the last five years;
  • online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all post-secondary teaching for credit;
  • online learning courses can be found in almost all subject areas;
  • online learning is providing students with increased access and greater flexibility;
  • two-thirds of Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as very or extremely important for their future plans

  • most institutions have or are developing a strategy or plan for online learning
  • LMSs are used in almost every institution, but no particular brand dominates the Canadian market
  • a wide range technologies are being used with or alongside the LMS,the most predominant (over half the institutions) being online conferencing/webinar technologies, video-streaming and print;
  • OER are used in just under half of all institutions but moderately and open textbooks in less than 20%
  • there was no or little use reported of learning analytics, AI applications or competency-based learning, although tracking such use is difficult, as they are instructor- rather than institution-driven
  • hybrid learning (defined as a reduction in classroom time replaced by online learning activities) is widespread in terms of institutions, but low in use in most institutions (less than 10% of classes), although again this is not easily tracked; however, it was reported to lead to innovative teaching;
  • MOOCs were delivered in less than 20% of institutions in the 12 months prior to the survey, and one third reported they did not intend to offer MOOCs in the future
  • the main benefits of online learning were seen as:
    • increased access/flexibility
    • increased enrolments
    • more innovative teaching;
  • the main barriers were seen as:
    • lack of resources (particularly learning technology support staff)
    • faculty resistance
    • lack of government support (reported most in Québec and least in Ontario);
  • there were difficulties in obtaining reliable online course enrolment data: most institutions are not systematically tracking this and there are variations between provinces;
  • the report ends by recommending a standard system for reporting on digital learning.

Implications

The report deliberately does not draw out any implications or make any value judgements. Readers should draw their own conclusions. However here are my personal thoughts on the results, and these do not necessarily reflect those of the rest of the team:

  • smaller institutions (below 2,000 students) found lack of resources particularly difficult and were less likely to offer online courses: what could be done to provide better support for such institutions that want to offer more online teaching?
  • government support to institutions for online learning varied widely from province to province, and this showed in the figures for enrolment and for innovative teaching: some provinces may need to reconsider their policies and support for online learning or they will fall further behind other provinces in online provision for students
  • many institutions are in the process of developing strategies or plans for online learning: what worked and what did not work in those institutions that already have plans in place that could help inform those institutions now still developing plans in this area?

Next steps

This report would not have been possible without the support of many different organizations which are listed in the report itself. In particular, though, we are indebted to the staff in all the institutions who responded to the survey.

This is the first national snapshot of online and distance learning for both colleges and universities in Canada but its value will be much enhanced by a more longitudinal set of studies. The research team is working with potential sponsors to establish a stronger organizational structure, more secure long-term funding, and a more representative steering committee for the survey. I will be reporting back as these developments evolve.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who helped make this report a reality.

A brighter future for Athabasca University?

Mid-career retraining is seen as one possible focus for Athabasca University’s future

Coates, K. (2017) Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University Saskatoon, SK

This report, 45 pages in length plus extensive appendices, was jointly commissioned by the Government of Alberta and the Governors of Athabasca University.

Why the report?

Because Athabasca University, established in 1971 as a fully distance, open university, has been in serious trouble over the last 10 years. In 2015, its Acting President issued a report saying that ‘Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken.’ It needed an additional $25 million just to solve its IT problems. Two years earlier, the AU’s senior administrators were savagely grilled by provincial legislators about the financial management of the university, to such an extent that it seemed that the Government of Alberta might well pull the plug on the university.

However, comes a recent provincial election, comes a radical change of government, leading to a new Board and a new President with a five year term. Although these are essential changes for establishing a secure future of the university, in themselves they are not sufficient. The financial situation of the university is temporarily more secure, but the underlying problem of expenses not being matched by revenue remains. It desperately needs more money from a government that is short of revenues since the oil industry tanked. Also its enrolments have started to drop, due to competition from campus-based universities now offering fully online programs. Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.

So although the newish government was willing to suspend judgement, it really needed an independent review before shovelling any new money AU’s way – hence this report.

What does the report say?

I will try to summarise briefly the main findings and recommendations, but as always, it is worth reading the full report, which is relatively concise and easy to read:

  • there is substantial student demand in Alberta, across Canada and internationally for AU’s programs, courses and services;
  • the current business model is not financially sustainable and will not support the institution in the coming decades – but ‘it has the potential if significant changes are made to its structure, approach and program mix, to be a viable, sustainable and highly relevant part of the Alberta post-secondary system’;
  • more money is needed to support its operations, especially if it is to remain headquartered in the (small and somewhat remote) Town of Athabasca; the present government funding arrangement is inadequate for the university’s mix of programs and students, especially regarding the support needed for disadvantaged students and those requiring more flexibility in delivery;
  • the emergence of dozens of credible online university alternatives has undermined AU’s competitive advantage – it no longer has a clear and obvious role within the Provincial post-secondary system;
  • AU should re-brand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and 21st century educational technology, but although it has the educational technology professionals needed to provide leadership, it lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity;
  • Open access: AU should expand its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Alberta and Canadian post-secondary system: women in STEM subject, new Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and students with disabilities;
  • diversification of the student body is necessary to achieve economies of scale; in other words it should expand its reach across Canada and internationally and not limit itself just to Alberta;
  • AU should expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities – particularly mid-career training and training for new work;
  • although there is overwhelming faculty and staff support for AU’s mandate and general approach, there are considerable institutional and financial barriers to effecting a substantial reorientation in AU operations; however, such a re-orientation is critical for its survival.

My comments

Overall, this is an excellent report. Wisely, it does not dwell on the historical reasons why Athabasca University got itself into its current mess but instead focuses on what its future role should be, what it can uniquely contribute to the province, and what is needed to right the ship, including more money.

However, the main challenges, in my view, remain more internal than external. The Board of Governors, senior administration, faculty, staff and students still need to develop together a clear and shared vision for the future of the institution that presents a strong enough value proposition to the government to justify the increased operational and investment funding that is needed. Although the external reviewer does a good job suggesting what some of the elements of such a vision might be, it has to come from the university community itself. This is long overdue and cannot be delayed much longer otherwise the government’s patience will understandably run out. Money itself is not the issue – it is the value proposition that will persuade the government to prioritise funding for AU that still needs to be made by the university itself. In other words it’s a trust issue – if we give you more money, what will you deliver?

The second major challenge, while strongly linked to vision and funding, is the institutional culture. Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone. Without these necessary structural and cultural changes though AU will not be able to implement its vision, no matter how persuasive it is. So there is also a competency issue – if we give you more money, can you deliver on your promises?

I think these are still open questions but at least the external review offers a vote of confidence in the university. Now it is up to the university community to turn this opportunity into something more concrete. But it needs to move fast. The window of opportunity is closing fast.

Latest data on USA distance education enrolments

An extract from the Digital Learning Compass infographic available from here

Digital Learning Compass (2017) Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 Wellesley MA

A new partnership for the analysis of distance education data in the USA

First, a little background. Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the reports from the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) on the state of online learning in the USA. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey (IPEDS) began collecting data on distance learning enrolments in the Fall of 2012, BSRG stopped collecting its own data then formed a partnership with e-Literate and WCET to create Digital Learning Compass with the following goal:

To be the definitive source of information on the patterns and trends of U.S. postsecondary distance learning.

The Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 is Digital Learning Compass’s analysis of the data collected by IPEDS for the fall of 2015.

Main results

In brief, in the USA in 2015:

  • distance education enrolments increased by almost 4% 
  • almost 30% of all post-secondary students in the USA are taking at least one DE course
  • 14% of all students are taking only DE courses
  • 83% of DE enrolments are in undergraduate courses
  • just over two-thirds of DE enrolments are in public universities or colleges
  • although there has been increased growth in DE enrolments for public and for non-profit private universities, DE enrolments in for-profit institutions declined in 2015 for the third year in a row, driven by substantial decreases in just a few of the for-profit institutions
  • almost half of all DE enrolments are concentrated in less than 5% of all institutions, with the top 47 institutions accounting for almost a third of all DE students
  • the following institutions saw the greatest year-on-year growth in DE enrolments:
    • University of Southern New Hampshire (from 11,286 to 56,371 in one year)
    • Western Governors University,
    • Brigham Young University-Idaho,
    • University of Central Florida,
    • Grand Canyon University
  • the number of students studying on a campus has dropped by almost one million (931,317) between 2012 and 2015.

More detailed analysis can be found from:

Comment

First a declaration of interest: I am working closely with both Jeff Seaman of Babson and Russ Poulin of WCET on the Canadian national survey of online and distance education in Canada.

Despite a small drop in overall enrolments in the USA in 2015, DE enrolments continued to grow, although in the three years from 2012 to 2015 the pace of growth has slowed. The main change was in the for-profit sector, probably affected by federal pressure on the use of student loans and congressional pressure for greater regulation of for-profit institutions under the Obama administration.

Indeed there has been a considerable shake-up in the for-profit sector in the USA, the purchase of Kaplan by Purdue, a state-funded university, being the latest example. It will be interesting to watch what happens to the for-profit DE enrolments under the more liberal regulatory environment being brought in by the Trump administration. Will they rebound? 

However perhaps the most shocking result is the drop in campus-based enrolments of almost one million, no doubt due to the increased cost of attending college in the USA – or is this in fact due to the impact of six million enrolments in distance education courses?

Once again, here in Canada we are peering over the wall at our much larger and richer neighbours, wondering what’s going on, but at least it is now a well lit property thanks to these reports.

 

What is online learning? Seeking definition

Using Kubi robots and iPads for telepresence at Michigan State University: the new online learning?

The survey

One reason I have not been blogging much this year is because I have been heavily engaged in leading a national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian public post-secondary education. We have now secured sufficient funding to at least complete the survey, thanks to further grants of $80,000 from eCampus Ontario’s Research and Innovation fund, and $20,000 from Pearson Canada.

The questionnaire for the survey has been piloted in 14 institutions and is in the process of being distributed to all the institutions this week. The questionnaire is going to 78 universities, 88 colleges and 46 Cégeps (Collèges d’Enseignment Général Et Professionnelle), a total of 212 institutions in total, all Canadian.

The questionnaire is being routed primarily through the office of the Provost or VP Education in most cases. There are francophone as well as anglophone versions of the questionnaire, depending on the main language used by each institution. Institutions have up to three weeks to complete it. We are asking all institutions to complete the questionnaire whether or not they are currently offering online or distance courses or programs as we are also asking about future directions. The results will be available in early September. 

What are we talking about?

One of our greatest challenges has been ensuring that every institution uses the same understanding of what a distance education course or program means, what constitutes a fully online course, and especially what terms such as blended or hybrid learning mean.

It was clear from feedback from the piloting of the questionnaire in 14 colleges and universities that there is no general agreement about these terms, so we have had to make somewhat arbitrary definitions to guide the institutions. I thought it might be interesting to share these with you and get your reactions, although it is now too late to change the definitions for the survey this year.

Distance education courses. Distance education courses are those where no classes are held on campus – all instruction is conducted at a distance. Distance education courses may use a variety of delivery methods, such as print-based, video/audioconferencing, as well as internet-based.

Online courses. 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.

Synchronous online courses. Courses where students need to participate at the same time as an instructor, but at a separate location other than an institutional campus. These courses may be delivered by video conferencing, web conferencing, audio conferencing, etc.

Asynchronous courses. Courses where students are not required to participate in any sessions at the same time as the instructor. These may be print-based courses, or online courses using a learning management system, for instance.

For the purposes of this survey, we wish to exclude inter-campus delivery where students are required to attend a different campus from the instructor. However, we wish to include delivery via the internet or other distance technologies to small learning centres in remote areas.

Online programs. A for-credit program that can be completed entirely by taking online courses, without the need for any on-campus classes. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously.

Blended/hybrid courses. These are courses 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.

Credit courses. These are courses that lead to institutional credits (degrees, diplomas, etc.). We wish to include information on all credit online courses, whether they are managed by a central service or by individual departments or by Continuing Studies. [For the purpose of this survey, the focus is primarily on online and distance courses and programs for credit]. 

Online contract training. These are online training programs that may or may not be for credit recognition but are designed to meet a particular industry or training need. 

MOOCs. These are massive, open, online courses. The key features are:

  • No fee (except possibly for an end of course certificate),
  • The courses are open to anyone: there is no requirement for prior academic qualifications in order to take the course,
  • The courses are not for credit.

Note that we are distinguishing between distance education and online learning. We are treating online learning as just one form of distance education. We will be particularly interested to see if there are still significant amounts of non-online distance education still in use.

The problem with definitions

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

We hope that the questionnaire will be able to capture, at least for a moment in time, the extent to which the field of online learning and distance education is fragmenting into many different approaches and delivery methods. In such a volatile context, ‘best practices’ based on a context that is no longer dominant will become more challenged and some interesting questions about the quality and effectiveness of these new approaches are bound to be raised.

But that is jumping ahead. I must learn to be patient and wait for the results to come in. In the meantime, your comments about the definitions we are using or about the value of such a survey will be most welcome.