March 21, 2018

Web discussion on the future of the distance teaching university

If you have an hour to spare and are interested in this topic, you can access a video of this webinar organized on March 5 by EDEN as part of Open Education Week.

The recording can be accessed here. You will need to install Adobe Connect to replay the recording.

Further details:

Moderator: Mark Nichols, Open University, UK


  • Sir John Daniel, former Vice-Chancellor, UK Open University
  • Dr. Ross Paul, former President, Windsor and Laurentian Universities, and Vice-President Academic, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Professor António Texeira, Universidade Aberta, Portugal
  • Dr. Tony Bates, a founding member of the UK Open University and now distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.

Questions discussed:

  • What are the big challenges distance education universities face at the moment?
  • What do you think is their best response to these challenges?
  • Do you have a vision for the future of distance education universities? If so, what is it?
  • What is it that distance universities offer that might be unique in what will increasingly be an online education future?
  • How might distance universities become flexible to adapt to new markets and opportunities?

More advice to students thinking of studying online

Image:, 2013

One of my most popular blog posts is A student guide to studying online. However, it was written five years ago, so I have just updated it, making sure all the links are still working and where necessary replacing dead links with new ones. 

In particular, I have added links to an excellent new book on how to master an online degree, and a link to a very useful general study guide from the UK’s 360 GSP. Below are reviews of both resources.

Mastering an online degree

Kayser, C. (2016) How to Master an Online Degree: A Guide to Success Calgary: Cybercrime Analytics Inc.

This is an excellent, short book (60 pages) that ‘is a must-read for anyone who endeavors to earn a degree online.’ It is written from a (successful) online student’s perspective, based on Christopher’s own experience leading to a fully online Bachelor of General Studies from Athabasca University in Canada, an online Masters in Criminal Justice and an additional Graduate Certificate in Cybercrime and Security from Boston University in the USA. Christopher has walked the talk.

The book covers the following topics:

  • Basic considerations for every course (including timelines, meeting deadlines, writing skills, etc.)
  • Technology tips
  • Developing meaningful relations with administrators and faculty
  • Discussion boards and discussions
  • Quizzes, exams and assignments
  • Research, plagiarism and citations
  • Navigating the ‘Course from Hell’ (extremely valuable advice here!)
  • Surviving a course meltdown
  • Course evaluations

I don’t know of any other book that builds so well on a student’s hard-earned experience of online learning and that shares that experience so well in advising others contemplating online learning.

My only disappointment is that the book itself is neither online nor open, although it costs under $10 and is easily ordered and delivered via Amazon.

53 smart tips for students

360 GSP (2018) Comprehensive Guide to Better Study: 53 Smart Tips for Students London, UK: 360 GSP. 

This ‘extensive guide shares more than 50 detailed, science-backed tips on everything to do with study. It’s jam-packed with useful resources, links, quizzes and recommendations to help you study more effectively.’

Although this is a general guide for students, including on-campus and corporate learners, it contains excellent advice that will be very useful for online students, covering the following topics:

Part 1 – Read more effectively

Part 2 –  Write more effectively

Part 3 – Improve your memory

Part 4 – Improve your concentration

Part 5 – Build your study environment

Part 6 – Manage your time

It had lots of tips that were new to me. I liked the CARS framework for choosing quality sources, for instance, which is really important for digital learning, and who knew coffee was bad for studying? (I’ll stick to wine, thank you.) The section on organising your home study environment is particularly important for online learners (no stooping over the computer, please).

I have only two, minor criticisms. It did read a lot like my mother giving me good advice. She may have been right, but I could feel myself wriggling at times. The second is a bit more serious and might have stopped the wriggling. The site claims that the tips are ‘science-based’ but no links or evidence were given. I would have found that useful, especially about the negative effect of coffee on studying: after all, the site does suggest checking your sources.

However I hope these and the other resources available at A student guide to studying online will help you, if you are a student, to achieve all your learning goals.

Is distance education stealing on-campus students?

On campus – or online?

Poulin, R. (2018) Distance Ed Growth – Access is a Big Motivator, but it’s Complicated, WCET Frontiers, February 1

This post is essential reading for university and college administrators. It combines the latest U.S. Department of Education data on distance and overall enrolments with a specific survey asking institutions why online and distance education is growing so rapidly when overall enrolments in the USA are static. It therefore raises some fundamental policy issues for institutions.

For Canadian readers, while there are significant differences between the two systems, I think the findings here will be equally true for Canada, since I will show in this post that we have a similar situation with even greater expansion of online learning while overall enrolments have been largely static over the last couple of years.

Enrolments trends


Phil Hill of eLiterate did an analysis of the data recently released by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Russ Poulin of WCET summarised this in his blog post in the table below:

Table 1: Growth in DE and overall enrolments in US Higher Education: 2012-2016

Source: Poulin, 2018, from Hill, P. and NCES

It can be seen that the number and percentage of ALL students enrolled in higher education is slightly down, but the number of students taking all courses at a distance has grown by 30.1%.


We can see a similar trend in Canada. The graph below is from Alex Usher’s One Thought blog, which in turn is derived from Statistics Canada.

Figure 1: Total enrolments by Institution Type, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-16

Source: Usher, A. (2018) Student Numbers, One Thought to Start Your Day, January 9

It can be seen that overall enrolments in universities have been almost flat over the last four years and have declined slightly in colleges over the last two years.

On the other hand, our national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education found that over the period 2011-2015, online college enrolments outside Québec increased by 15% per annum (60% 0verall), and for all universities (including Québec) increased by 14% per annum (56% overall). The situation in the Quebec colleges (CEGEPs) was more complicated with an overall decline of 5% in online enrolments over the same period.

Are online enrolments eating the campus lunch?

Russ Poulin at WCET was gnawing away at two questions that these data raised in his mind:

  • what is driving the expansion of online/distance education when overall enrolments are flat? Access, more money, other reasons?
  • are online enrolments being achieved at the expense of campus-based classes?

So, as any good researcher would, he sent out a questionnaire to WCET member institutions and received 192 responses, including a very interesting set of open ended comments. His blog post summarises the responses and I recommend you read it in full, but the following chart gets to the essence:

Figure 2: Reasons for the growth in Distance Education

Source: Poulin, R. (2018)

What does it mean?

Here are my key takeaways:

  • it’s complex: there are several reasons for the growth of online learning: increasing access and/or greater student convenience are not mutually exclusive to increasing revenues, for instance;
  • only 19% believed the move to online learning is primarily about increasing revenues;
  • just under half said it does not affect campus-based enrolments; these are students who would not have come to campus
  • nearly two thirds reported that distance education (probably meaning online learning, the distinction was not made in the survey) is leading to more blended/hybrid options, i.e. it is beginning to impact on classroom teaching, a similar finding to ours in the national survey.

The primary reason for ‘flat’ or declining overall enrolments is demographic. There are fewer 18 year olds than 10 years ago in both countries (and if the Dreamers in the USA are kicked out, that number will go down even more). However, both international and online students, many of them older and in the work force, have helped to compensate for this demographic loss, although recently international on-campus student enrolments have decreased in the USA and accelerated in Canada, making the growth of online learning even more important for the USA institutions.

Faculty and instructors should welcome this surge in online learning, because without it, many would have lost their jobs.

Lastly, online learning is now impacting classroom teaching. This means that institutions need policies, strategies and probably some funding reallocation to support the move to blended/hybrid learning, and faculty development and training in digital learning will become even more essential. Institutions that do not move in this direction run the risk of losing enrolments and with it funding.

Isn’t it nice to see policy issues being driven by data rather than opinions? Well done, Russ and WCET.

Distance education on a roll in the USA

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States Wellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Boy, does that guy Jeff Seaman keep busy! Hard on the heels of quarter-backing the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education, here he is with colleagues producing an even more comprehensive update on online and distance education in the USA.

There are several things though that make this report different, both from the Canadian study and previous Babson Reports:

  • first, online enrolments are now placed firmly in the context of overall student enrolments in the USA. While overall enrolments in the US higher education system have slowly declined (by almost 4% between 2012 to 2016), online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the same period. In comparison online enrolments in Canada grew by 40% in universities and by 60% in two year colleges over the same five year period, while overall enrolments grew slightly (by around 2%).
  • There are now fewer students studying on campus than at any point since 2012 in the USA. There are now over a million fewer students coming to campus in 2016 than there were in 2012.

  • As of Fall 2016, there were 6,359,121 students taking at least one distance education course, comprising 31.6% of all higher education enrollments. So online and distance students have been shoring up student enrolments in the USA over the last five years.
  • 83% of distance students are taking undergraduate courses and 17% post-graduate courses.
  • There are wide variations between the different HE sectors in the USA, both in terms of overall enrollments, and also distance education enrollments. Overall enrollments grew modestly in the public and private not-for-profit institutions over the four years but declined dramatically in public two year colleges (down 14%) and even more so in the private, for profit sector (down 32% and 40% respectively for four year and two year colleges).
  • For-profit institutions have seen their total distance education enrollments decrease during these time periods. These changes of course occurred before the Trump election and reflect the impact of the Obama administration’s regulatory efforts. It will be interesting to see how things change if at all during the Trump administration.
  • The majority of distance education students in the USA (69%) are in public institutions.
  • Distance education is generally local. The vast majority (84%) of students taking exclusively distance courses enrolled at public institutions are located in the same state as the institution.
  • Distance education is not international in the USA: In Fall 2016, there were only 45,475 students located outside of the United States taking exclusively distance courses. This represents only 1.5% of students taking exclusively distance courses, and only 0.7% of all distance education students.
  • Students enrolled in distance education remain highly concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions. Almost half of distance education students are accounted for in just 5% of institutions: the 235 institutions that represent only 5.0% of the higher education universe command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrollments. The top 47 institutions, representing only 1.0% of all institutions, enroll 22.4% (1,421,703) of all distance students. This is very different from Canada, where distance education students are much more evenly distributed across almost all institutions.
  • There are wide variations between the different U.S. states. The report provides a breakdown of online enrolments for each state.
  • The study identifies the 50 institutions with the most distance education enrollments. The top seven are:

  • The enrollment data for this report uses information from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) database.  IPEDS is a national census of postsecondary institutions in the U.S., which represents the most comprehensive data available. No such comprehensive post-secondary education data are publicly available in Canada.

This report indicates the value of an openly accessible national system of tracking online and distance education enrolments. Institutions must provide the data, especially as it influences federal state aid to students. Once such data are made publicly available, there are opportunities for all kinds of analyses to be made. The value though is that this is just part of a national program of data collection on higher education enrolments. We are nowhere close to matching this in Canada.

‘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.