January 22, 2018

Comparing online learning in k-12 and post-secondary education in Canada

Barbour, M. and LaBonte, R. (2017) State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada 2016 Edition The Canadian eLearning Network

Why a post on online learning in the k-12 sector?

My blog, rightly or wrongly, is focused primarily on post-secondary education, for several reasons. The first is that I’ve always had a problem keeping up with developments in online learning in just the post-secondary education sector, and I decided very early on that I could not do justice to both sectors. Secondly, my experience of online learning has been almost entirely in the post-secondary sector, so it made sense to focus there. Thirdly, I did teach (face-to-face) for three years, many years ago, in the k-12 sector, so I am well aware that there are considerable differences in funding, context and approaches. My wife is also now a retired school teacher and I learned early in my marriage not to mess in her area of considerable expertise.

However, it would be foolish to deny that there are also many synergies between the two sectors, and both sectors lose by being isolated from the other. This became obvious when I was doing research on the national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education. For instance, when designing the web site (after we had collected the data) I came across the web site of  ‘State of the Nation’, a set of research reports on the Canadian k-12 sector of which, to my shame, I was totally ignorant. I deeply wished that I had read these reports before I started on the post-secondary survey.

The ‘State of the Nation’ Reports

A pan-Canadian network of K-12 online and blended learning schools and organizations – the Canadian e-Learning Network, or CANeLearn – was formed at a Montréal July 2013 Summit meeting of key stakeholders. CANeLearn’s mission is to provide leadership that champions student success in online and blended learning and provides members with networking, collaboration and research opportunities. Its initial focus is on sharing resources, professional development and research.

The 2016 edition is the ninth edition of their report, which together with brief issues papers, ‘vignettes’ and individual program surveys are all available on a new web site

The website includes a profile for each jurisdiction that is organized in the following manner:

  • a detailed description of the distance, online and blended learning programs operating in that jurisdiction;
  • a discussion of the various legislative and regulatory documents that govern how these distance, online and blended learning programs operate;
  • links to previous annual profiles;
  • an exploration of the history of e-learning in that jurisdiction; 
  • links to vignettes (i.e., stories designed to provide a more personalized perspective of those involved in K–12 e-learning) for that jurisdiction; 
  • links to any brief issues papers (i.e., more detailed discussions of specific issues related to the design, delivery and support of K–12 e-learning) in that jurisdiction;
  • the most recent responses to the individual program survey; and
  • an overview of the jurisdictions policies related to importing and exporting e-learning.

Finally, the website includes a blog that allows the research team to share relevant news and comment on issues related to K-12 distance, online and blended learning in Canada.

Key findings

As always, it is important to read the actual report, especially as the k-12 system in Canada is complex and devolved, so there are often qualifications and caveats to most of the findings, but here are my own main take-aways from this report, with comparisons with our national post-secondary education survey:

  1. Online and distance programs are available in the public k-12 sector in almost all provinces and territories: this is very similar in the post-secondary sector.
  2.  Approximately 5.7% of the 5.1 million k-12 students are enrolled in an online or distance education program. In Canadian post-secondary education, we estimate that approximately 12% of college course enrolments are online, and 16% in universities.
  3. Over the last few years, online and distance enrolments in the k-12 sector have remained steady (between 5.5% to 6% of all students), whereas there has been rapid growth over the last five years in all post-secondary sectors except for the CEGEP system in Québec.
  4. Tracking blended learning has proved equally difficult in the k-12 sector as in the post-secondary sector.
  5. Even though this report represents the ninth annual State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada study, the lack of reliable data continues to persist in many jurisdictions. There is no requirement in either sector to track online or distance education activities, but without systematic and reliable data collection in this area, it is difficult to measure the impact of policy decisions or the extent to which Canadian education is moving to digital learning.

In addition to these national findings, the report provides a useful province-by-province breakdown of online and distance education activity


Although 5-6% of students enrolled in online and distance education programs may not seem like a great deal of activity compared with the 12-15% at the post-secondary level, it should be remembered that online and distance programs are often focused mainly on the older age groups in k-12, particularly grades 11 and 12. Distance and online learning also require a good deal of self-discipline and independent learning skills, which tend to develop with age.

As the report states:

Canada continues to have one of the highest per capita student enrollment in online courses and programs of any jurisdiction in the world and was one of the first countries to use the Internet to deliver distance learning courses to students.

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two studies is the continued difficulty of obtaining reliable data and the almost grassroots, bottom-up approach to finding resources, designing the studies, and disseminating the results. This is both the strength and limitation of these two studies.

Maybe it is time for national and provincial agencies to start taking online and digital learning seriously, and find ways to fund and organise basic data collection in this area on a more systematic and consistent basis.

What inter-provincial differences tell us about government policy on online learning

I have just completed two sub-reports on the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. The first was on the responses from Ontario institutions, and the second on responses from institutions in British Columbia (also to be available shortly on the survey web site). 

When the results from these two surveys, together with the response from Quebec institutions in the main report, are analysed, some interesting inter-provincial differences emerge, indicating the impact of different government policies towards online learning.  

Response rates

Responses to the survey varied considerably from province to province, although there was a response from at least one institution in every province or territory except Nunavut.

Table 1: Response rates by province

Responses were particularly high from Ontario, with 39 out of 46 (86%) institutions responding. On the other hand, institutions in Québec had a lower response rate on average. The response rate for Québec universities was slightly lower than the national average (two thirds responded compared with three-quarters nationally) but there was a much lower response from the equivalent of colleges in the Québec system, the CEGEPs (29 out of 50 – 58%). 

Institutions offering distance education courses

Distance education includes all forms of delivery to students off-campus, not just online. Of the 140 institutions responding to the questionnaire, 116 (83%) said they offered distance education courses, and 19 (13%) did not. In all provinces and territories except Nunavut, there was at least one institution offering distance education programs. Institutions responding that they did not offer distance education programs were smaller in size, with fewer than 7,500 students.

Of the 19 institutions who replied that they do not offer distance education, 16 were CEGEPs. This is not surprising in that there is a central distance education program for CEGEPs, Cégep à distance. Nevertheless, in addition to the Cégep à distance program, 12 of the CEGEPs surveyed also offered their own distance education courses. The lower response rate for CEGEPs is probably because a larger proportion do not offer distance or online courses compared with the rest of Canada.

On the other hand almost all responding institutions in Ontario and British Columbia offer online courses, as well as all ten responding universities in Québec (even though Université Téluq is a specialist fully distance university in Québec).

Varying rates of growth

The most striking differences between the three provinces were in terms of the rate in which online course enrolments are growing. Table 2 provides a comparison of rates of growth in online enrolments.

Table 2: Differences in annual online course enrolment growth rates, 2011-2015

It can be seen that for those institutions that provided data, online course enrolments grew across the country by an average of 13% per annum in universities and 15% per annum in colleges, between 2011-2015.

The growth rate though was much greater in Ontario (enrolments actually doubled in the college sector over the five years) and considerably less in British Columbia than the national average (especially low growth in the BC college sector).

However, in Québec, online enrolments in the CEGEP sector actually went down by 3% overall between 2011 and 2015. The cause for this was a sharp drop in course enrolments at Cégep à distance during this period (see Table 4 below), although the change was volatile, Cégep à distance enrolments increasing in 2012 before declining in the remaining three years. More importantly, perhaps, though is the steady increase in online enrolments from the regular CEGEPs, which increased seven-fold over the five years, although they still constitute just a quarter of all the CEGEP enrolments.

Table 3: Online course enrolments, CEGEPs, 2011-2015

Nevertheless it appears that there are major changes taking place in the CEGEP sector, which raises questions about not only institutional but also provincial goals and strategies in this sector.

However all the results regarding online course enrolments need to be viewed with caution. We were able to get online course enrolment data from only about a half of the institutions across the country, and some key institutions offering online learning did not or were unable to provide the data.

Also growth rates are heavily influenced by market maturity. It is difficult to grow if you have reached capacity. We are not able to tell from the overall course enrolment data exactly how many overall course enrolments there are in each province, so we don’t know if the slower rate of growth in BC is because it is reaching capacity quicker than the rest of the system because it started earlier and from a larger enrolment base. We are aiming to get better data in subsequent surveys.

Nevertheless because institutions who did provide data were able to provide consistent data internally for online enrolments between 2011 and 2015, the results should be considered reasonably reliable, although more and better data are needed in future years.

Use of technology

There were also differences between the three provinces in their use of technology.

Institutions in all provinces used learning management systems.

However, institutions in Québec and British Columbia were more likely also to use web conferencing and Ontario less likely than the national average. On the other hand institutions in Québec made greater use of recorded video than institutions in other provinces.

Both BC and Ontario institutions were more likely to use social media and Québec less than the national average.

Both BC and Ontario used OER more and Québec considerably less than the national average, and the use of open textbooks was higher in BC than elsewhere.

Benefits and challenges

Ontario institutions were more likely to see online learning as helping with a shortage of physical teaching spaces, and also this applied to institutions in British Columbia.

Institutions in British Columbia in particular complained of  lack of training for instructors in teaching online.

Lastly, Québec institutions were much more likely to report lack of provincial government support for online learning as a barrier, and institutions in Ontario and to a lesser extent in British Columbia were much less likely to report this.

Varying provincial policies

These results need to be set in the context of different provincial policies for online learning.

British Columbia was first to develop a provincial strategy for online learning. In 2003 it created BCcampus, a province wide organization that works with the post-secondary institutions. BCcampus offered a range of services, including shared services such as province-wide software licensing, a community of practice for those working in online learning, and significantly, funding opportunities for the institutions to develop online courses. This led to a growth of online courses up to about 2011, when there was a change of strategy and the resources for online learning were re-allocated to support open educational resources and open textbooks.

In Alberta, eCampus Alberta had a somewhat similar role to BCcampus, providing a portal for online courses, but was funded mainly through contributions from the provincial post-secondary institutions, and when there were severe budget cuts due to the sudden drop in oil prices in 2014, funding stopped and it closed in 2016. However Campus Manitoba is still active.

The big change though came in Ontario. First in 2013 the provincial government allocated funds to the Council of Ontario Universities to develop online courses and a portal for all the post-secondary online courses, then in 2015 the provincial government created eCampus Ontario, with funds to allocate to institutions for the development of online courses and programs and open educational resources, as well as a research and development fund.

However, Québec, the second largest province in Canada, has no equivalent service. Instead it has two fully distance institutions, Téluq in the university sector, and Cégep à distance in the college sector.


While it is necessary to hedge these conclusions with concerns about the quality of the data, there does seem to be strong evidence that the growth of online learning is driven as much if not more by government policies and strategies as by institutional initiative. Basically, money talks. The recent rapid growth in online enrolments in Ontario coincide with the Ontario government’s funding of eCampus Ontario, whereas in British Columbia, the initial burst of online course development in the early 2000s has slowed as the funding for online course development has been switched to open textbooks and OER.

Québec on the other hand is (as usual) more complex and interesting. The regular universities appear to be moving into online learning at about the same pace as the rest of the country, but if anything the college sector is going backwards in terms of enrolments, mainly due to the dramatic drop in enrolments in Cégep à distance in the last two or three years. However there are signs that some of the regular CEGEPs are moving to fill this gap. 

I am reluctant to comment on the CEGEP sector as it is very different and I live very far away. CEGEPs range from large urban colleges, to small regional colleges, and many place a heavy emphasis on engagement with their local community. However, the Québec Minstière de l’Education et de l’Enseignement supérieur is faced with a challenge here. How important is online learning to its college sector? If it is important, what needs to be done to strengthen it? Put more money into Cégep à distance to strengthen its online capacity, or encourage the other CEGEPs to move into space – or both? 

In the meantime, what about British Columbia? Is it reaching capacity in its fully online enrolments or is it now falling behind the rest of the country? In this context, are open textbooks the best place to put its resources? 

Lastly, the results showing greater use of OER in British Columbia and Ontario and open textbooks in British Columbia raises the question about what Québec’s strategy should be for OER. Given that French is a minority language and therefore there is likely to be a shortage of francophone OER, should Québec try to be an international leader in the development of francophone open educational resources or is this not where Québec’s focus in online learning needs to be? Are there greater priorities?

These are all questions that more and better data could help answer – although more data may raise even more questions!

I’d be really interested in your views on some of the questions I’ve raised.


Francophone version of the national survey of online and distance learning now available

I am very pleased to announce that the French translation of the public report is now available for downloading from here: https://formationenlignecanada.ca/

I would like to thank in particular Eric Martel from Laval University, Denis Mayer, one of our research team, and the translator, Carole Freynet-Gagné for their hard work in making the francophone version available. It was not a simple job as charts and diagrams had to be translated as well as text.

The report is a translation of the main public report, not a separate report on francophone institutions, although the main public report does highlight some key differences between francophone institutions, especially CEGEPs, and the rest of the Canadian post-secondary system.


Note that to download any of the reports you need to register (when you click on the download button, you will see under the boxes a ‘register’ sign in blue. Click on this to register).

You need to register only once. Once you have registered you can then use this log-in and password to download any reports as many times as possible. The registration process is the only check we have on who is accessing the reports.

I will be announcing the availability of a separate report on Ontario institutions in another blog post shortly.


Responses to the Canadian survey of online and distance learning

Hi, everyone, and welcome back. I hope you all had a great summer. As many readers will know, I am leading a team conducting a survey of online and distance learning in Canadian public post-secondary educational institutions. You can get more general information about the survey from earlier posts:

During the summer the survey team has been extremely busy. We have now completed the collection of data and have started on the analysis and report writing.

Thanks to support from Contact North, we are building a web site for the survey which will contain news about the survey, access to the reports, and opportunities to discuss the results and their implications. However this won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, so I wanted to provide an update on where we are at the moment, especially as I know some of you have been engaged in collecting data for the survey (many thanks!). 

Building a database of institutions

As this is the first year for the survey the focus is exclusively on provincially funded and accredited post-secondary educational institutions, which still represent by far the majority of post-secondary institutions and students in Canada.

One challenge the survey faced was the lack of a commonly used, publicly accessible database of all Canadian public post-secondary educational institutions. We worked our way through the membership listings of Universities Canada, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICAN), Maclean’s EduHub, and provincial government web sites. From Statistics Canada we could find only aggregate data on student enrolments broken down by province and by part-time or full time students, but not data for individual institutions. 

We ended up with a list of 203 institutions, once we had eliminated duplications, incorporated affiliated colleges and universities with the main institution awarding the qualification, and removed institutions not funded by provincial governments. We also identified institutions by language (anglophone or francophone) and their total student headcount (full-time and part-time), almost entirely from information publicly available through provincial government web sites, although not all provinces provide this information. We then had to identify the appropriate contact person in each institution (usually Provosts or VPs Education).

This process resulted in 

  • 72 universities (35%),
  • 81 colleges outside Québec (40%), and
  • 50 CEGEPs/colleges within Québec (25%).

Of the 203 institutions, 70 (34%) were either francophone institutions or were bi-lingual institutions with a separate francophone program. 

One thing that became clear even at this stage is that there is no consistency between provinces and Statistics Canada on how data about students is collected or reported. Several different measures are used: student headcount (full time, or full time and part-time); student course enrolments; student FTEs (full-time equivalents); and student program enrolments, with variations within each of these broad categories. Also some data include non-credit, continuing education students as well as students taking courses for credit. All this variation in student statistics makes inter-provincial comparisons very difficult. In the end, for the database of all institutions, we used primarily official provincial student headcounts, the measure most common across all provinces.

Statistics Canada’s most recent figures for Canadian post-secondary student enrolments are for the fall of the 2014/2015 academic year (in our survey, we are looking at fall 2016 enrolments). Statistics Canada’s enrolment numbers are based on program counts and not student counts. If a student is enrolled in more than one program as of the snapshot date, then all of their programs are included in the count.

Table 1: Comparison of StatCan student enrolment numbers, and student headcount totals from institutions in the survey population base

Without knowing more about the basis on which Statistics Canada built its data, we cannot explain the difference between the two populations sets, but the differences are relatively small, except for CEGEPs. We are confident we have included all the CEGEP institutions but we probably do not have all enrolled students counted, just those for which the Québec provincial government provides funding, from which we derived the data. Nevertheless, if we take Statistics Canada data as the comparator, our population base appears to represent a very large proportion (93%) of students studying for institutional credit at Canadian public post-secondary institutions.

We will be providing on the survey web site a list of all the institutions we included in the population database.

Response rates

The questionnaire itself was online and was accessed using a link unique for each participant institution. The final cut-off date for the full questionnaire was June 30, 2017. At this point, for those institutions that had not responded, an invitation was sent to complete a shorter questionnaire that excluded questions on student enrolments.

Table 2: Response rate by type of institution

It can be seen that 128 institutions (63%) completed the full questionnaire, and 140 (69%) completed either the full or the shorter version of the questionnaire. The response rate was lower for small institutions (59% overall for institutions with less than 2,000  students, compared with 79% for institutions with more than 10,000 students). The responding institutions were spread proportionately across all provinces and nearly all territories.

If we look at the response rate by the number of student enrolments, Table 3 below indicates that the survey covered institutions with 78% of the overall Canadian student population in public post-secondary education.

Table 3: Student headcounts for institutions responding compared to overall student headcounts.


It should be remembered that this was a voluntary survey with no formal government requirement to complete. Our target was a 75% response rate, which we have achieved in terms of the number of students covered by the survey, although the number of institutions covered fell a little short of the target at 69%. Nevertheless we think we have a large enough response rate to make valid and reliable statements about the state of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education.

This would not have been possible without first of all a huge effort by the institutions to provide the data, and secondly a great deal of support from the various professional associations such as CICAN, Universities Canada, the eCampuses in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, Contact North, REFAD, and others too numerous to describe in a short blog post.

Next steps

We are now in the process of analyzing the results. We expect to have a draft report that will go out to selected readers in two weeks time. We will then produce two ‘public’ reports:

  • a main executive report that covers the main findings (in English and French)
  • a full research report that provides an analysis of all the data collected from the survey.

Both these reports will be ready for publication and a launch at the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning in Toronto on October 17, 2017. 

We will also be developing a number of sub-reports, such as one on francophone institutions, and one on Ontario (which was a primary funder of the survey).

In the meantime, as soon as the survey web site is ready I will let you know. This will contain preliminary results and an update on activities surrounding the survey, such as future plans and developments, and, from October 17, copies of all the reports as they become available.

Update on Canadian survey of online learning

This update builds on two earlier posts:

The online questionnaire has now been distributed by e-mail to every public university and college in Canada, a total of 215 institutions in all. The questionnaire will have been routed through the office of the Provost or VP Education, although it is probable that several people will be involved in each institution in collecting data for the questionnaire. 

There are in fact five versions of the questionnaire:

  • anglophone universities
  • francophone universities
  • anglophone colleges
  • francophone colleges (outside Québec)
  • CEGEPs 

The questionnaire asks for data on

  • distance education enrolments, irrespective of method of delivery
  • online student enrolments (headcount and student course registrations) at different academic levels and in different program areas
  • how many years the institution has been offering online courses
  • the current status of blended and hybrid courses
  • the main technologies being used
  • information about any MOOCs offered
  • future institutional directions in online learning
  • benefits and challenges of online learning.

The deadline for completion has been set at June 12. 

We anticipate the main report will be ready in September, with sub-reports for the following sectors:

  • all universities (anglophone and francophone)
  • all colleges, institutes and CEGEPs
  • all francophone institutions (report in French)

We will also produce other sub-reports on request (for example, a provincial analysis) as well as infographics.

The reports will be available for free on request and the data will be housed at the Ontario College Application Service, and, subject to privacy requirements, will be open to other researchers.

There will be a full presentation of the report and its results at the ICDE Conference on Online Learning in Toronto in October.

We are reliant on e-mails and contact information being up-to-date and sometimes e-mails with attachments get filtered out as spam. So, if you are working in a Canadian public post-secondary institution and are not aware that this data is being collected for this survey, please contact your Provost’s Office to check that the invitation has been received. We need a high response rate from every institution to ensure that the results are valid.

However, to date we are pleased with the immediate response – we already have over 20 full responses within the first week.