October 19, 2017

Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario

Babson 2012 enrollment graph Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

This is the eleventh annual report in this invaluable series on tracking online education in the United States of America. It is invaluable, because, through the consistent support of the Sloan Foundation, the Babson College annual survey provides a consistent methodology that allows for the tracking of the growth and development of online learning in the USA over more than a decade.

There is nothing comparable in Canada, but nevertheless I will use this post to try and draw some comparisons between the development of online earning in the USA and at least the largest system in Canada, that of Ontario, which does have at least some data. Also, Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a system wide initiative aimed at strengthening Ontario’s online learning activities. The Sloan/Babson surveys have important lessons for Ontario’s new initiative.


The survey is sent to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of every higher education institution in the USA (private and public, universities and two year colleges), over 4,600 in all. Over 2,800 responses were received from institutions that accounted for just over 80% of all higher education enrollments in the USA (most non-responses came from small institutions, i.e. institutions with 1,500 students or less, who were far less likely to have online courses, as a sector).

An online course is defined in this report as one in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online as a normal part of an institution’s program. MOOCs are therefore considered a completely different category from the ‘normal’ credit-based online courses in this report.

What is the report about?

The scope of the report can best be described from the questions the report seeks to answer:

  • What is Online Learning, what is a MOOC?
  • Is Online Learning Strategic?
  • Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?
  • Schools Without Online Offerings
  • How Many Students are Learning Online?
  • Do Students Require More Discipline to Complete Online Courses?
  • Is Retention of Students Harder in Online Courses?
  • What is the Future of Online Learning?
  • Who offers MOOCs?
  • Objectives for MOOCs
  • Role of MOOCs

Main findings

This relatively short report (40 pages, including tables) is so stuffed with data that it is somewhat invidious to pick and choose results. Because it is short and simply written you are strongly recommended to read it yourself in full. However, here are the main points I take away:

Growth of credit-based online learning continues but is slowing

Sounds a bit like an economic report on China, doesn’t it? Allen and Seaman claim that a total of 7.1 million students are now taking at least one online course, or roughly 34% of all enrollments. (Note: ‘% taking at least one course’ is not the same as ‘% of all course enrollments’ which would be a better measure.) Online learning enrollments were up 6.5% in 2013, a slowing of the rate of growth which had been in the 10-15% range per annum in recent years. Nevertheless, online enrollments are still growing five times faster that enrollments in general in the USA, and most CAOs anticipate that this growth in online learning enrollments will continue into the future.

MOOCs are still a very small component of online learning

The number of institutions offering MOOCs rose from 2.6% in 2012 to 5% in 2103. The majority of institutions offering MOOCs are doctoral/research and there is a high proportion in the private, not-for-profit sector. This sector has been historically less involved in credit-based online learning.

Graph sectors with online learning

Less than a quarter of CAOs believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012, and a majority of academic leaders (64%) have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.

Sector differences

The report identifies some clear differences between the different sectors in the USA’s very diverse post-secondary education system. Small institutions (less than 1,500) and doctoral/research institutions are far less likely to offer online courses. CAOs from institutions not offering online learning tend to be more critical of the quality of online learning and far less likely to think it essential to their future.

Of the CAOs from institutions offering online courses, nearly one-quarter believe online outcomes to be superior, slightly under 20 percent think them inferior, with the remainder (57%) reporting that the learning outcomes are the same as for classroom delivery

What about Canada – and Ontario in particular?

I have long lamented that we have no comparable data on online learning in Canada. The government of Ontario did do a census of all its universities and colleges in 2010 and found just under 500,000 online course registrations, or 11% of all university and college enrollments, with online enrollments in universities (13%) higher than in two-year colleges (7%). If we extrapolate from the USA figures (highly dubious, I know) which showed a 16% increase in online enrollments between fall 2010 and fall 2012, this would put Ontario’s online enrollments in 2012 at approximately 563,000.

More significantly, the Ontario government survey provided hard data on course completion rates:

  • the median in the college sector for the 20 colleges that responded to the question was 76.1% with most institutions reporting results between 70% and 79%.
  • the median in the university sector for the 15 universities that responded was 89% with most universities reporting results from 85% to 95%.

Contact North did a ‘cross-country check-up’ in 2012. It concluded (p.14):

Using proxy data (estimates provided by a variety of different organizations and a standard measure of full-time equivalent student set at 9.5 course registrations per FTE), we can estimate that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 – 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time.

The problem though is that these are one-off studies. While the government of Ontario is to be congratulated on doing the 2010 survey, it decided not to continue it in the following years (or more accurately, it did not decide to repeat it.) The Contact North data is at best a rough estimate, again valuable in itself, but needs to done on a more systematic and regular basis across the country (Canada’s higher education system is devolved to each of 12 provinces with no federal responsibility or office for post-secondary education, and Statistics Canada has been cut back in recent years by the current Conservative Government).

However, there is now hope. The government of Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a collaborative Centre of Excellence that will be governed and operated by the province’s colleges and universities. It has a start-up budget of $42 million. One of the first things it should do is to repeat and expand the 2010 survey, to establish a baseline for measuring the province’s progress in online learning. The expansion should include also measurement of hybrid/blended learning (preferably using the same definitions as the Babson survey for comparative purposes.) To do this accurately, institutions will need to categorize the type of courses they are offering in their courses’ database, if they have not already done this to date. Without such a baseline of data, it will be almost impossible to assess not just the success of Ontario Online, but of online learning in general in Ontario.

I would also hope that as the country’s largest province, with probably the greatest number of online courses and enrollments, Ontario will take leadership at the national Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to get the survey it has developed adopted and administered by all provinces across Canada. Politicians and experts can huff and puff all they like about the importance of online learning, but if they don’t measure it, it’s all just hot air.

In summary, many thanks to Sloan and Babson College for their invaluable work. Ontario has done far more than any other province in Canada to identify the extent of online learning, and is poised to make an even greater breakthrough through its new Ontario Online initiative. However, systematic data collection is essential for measuring the success of any online learning initiatives or strategies.

Ontario at last establishes “Ontario Online”

 Ontario map

Bradshaw, J. (2104) Ontario to launch $42million central hub for online postsecondary classes, Globe and Mail, January 14

After more than two years discussion and consultation, it has been officially announced that Ontario’s government will spend $42-million establishing a centre that aims to drive new online learning opportunities for university and college students across the province.

At this stage, there seems to be four key goals for the new centre:

  • offer ‘state-of-the art, scalable’ online courses that can be used across the province
  • automatic credit transfer of these courses between member universities, and between member two-year colleges (thus avoiding unnecessary duplication, and obtaining economies of scale)
  • a sharing of best practices in online pedagogy and resources
  • a common portal of courses (which Contact North has already in place – whether this will be replaced or amended remains to be seen).

Ontario Online will be run by the province’s colleges and universities as an independent not-for-profit enterprise. The province has established a ‘sector steering committee’ with representatives not only from the universities and colleges, but also from OntarioLearnOntario Universities Online and Contact North, to oversee implementation. (Although, according to the Globe and Mail, the province’s instructors who are already delivering online learning are a little miffed that they are not directly represented on the steering committee.)

It won’t start actual operations until 2015, although $12 million will be available to the designated Centre of Excellence in fiscal year 2013-2014, i.e. before April, and $2.5 million has already been allocated for online learning projects under the province’s Productivity and Information Fund.

It should be noted that this initiative will build on an already very active post-secondary online learning environment, with more than 500,000 online registrations in over 18,000 online courses offered by the province’s post-secondary institutions, according to data collected by the provincial government in 2010.


It will be quite a challenge for Ontario’s 22 universities and 24 colleges to come together and work co-operatively through Ontario Online. It seems that participation in Ontario Online is voluntary, so it will be interesting to see who finally signs up to join, and what degree of success they have in developing ‘common’ courses that can be used across different institutions. $42 million may sound like a lot of money, but it won’t go far among 46 institutions.

Also, there are likely to be elections in Ontario before the centre is finally operational, so it will also be interesting to see if the new government will continue to support this initiative, given that the province is struggling with a large budget deficit and a faltering economy.

Nevertheless, whatever the challenges, this is clearly a move in the right direction. It offers an opportunity to provide a more integrated post-secondary system (Ontario is notorious for its lack of credit transfers between institutions), and perhaps more importantly, to experiment with ways to increase both quality and productivity through online learning.

A review of the HEQCO report on productivity and quality in online learning in higher education

The view from HEQCO, Toronto

The view from HEQCO, Toronto

Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Why this paper is important

In July, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario published the above report. This is a very important development for online learning in post-secondary education as it takes a very hard look at quality, cost and productivity and comes forward with recommendations to government. This is a paper that is likely to be read (and should be read) by legislators, state and government policy makers, university and college boards and senior university and college administrators.

I am also exploring through a series of blogs the issue of productivity and online learning, partly because of dissatisfaction with the current state of thinking about this issue, which became apparent working with this project.

For this reason, I am setting aside my hat as an Advisory Board member who commented on the penultimate draft, and and am here providing a full analytic review of the paper. To do this, I have had to reproduce key parts of the document, but I strongly recommend that the HEQCO document is read in full. Quotes from the actual paper are in italics, although I have edited and abbreviated in part.

The paper focuses on the following questions:

  • What are the cost implications of a shift to online learning? Specifically, does a greater use of online instruction save institutions or systems money and, if so, under what circumstances?
  • What do we know about the relationship between online learning and important variables that are often considered when discussing the “quality” of an institution or of a system?

Main findings

  • The evidence reviewed suggests that, for a range of students and learning outcomes, fully online instruction produces learning that is on par with face-to-face instruction.
  • the students most likely to benefit are those who are academically well prepared and highly motivated to learn independently. Students who are not well prepared to learn at the postsecondary level or do not devote the necessary time to learning are less likely to benefit from online learning and may in fact do better in a face-to-face setting.
  • the provincial government… should have an interest in making sure [well-prepared and motivated students] have online learning opportunities available to them. These opportunities should serve students’ learning needs, and – if carried out at large scale – should produce cost efficiencies for higher education institutions, the student or both.
  • there is no evidence that all of the learning outcomes expected of postsecondary students in Ontario can be achieved solely by online learning. 

Main recommendations to the Ontario provincial government and Ontario universities and colleges

  • set a target that, within three years, a specified list of high-demand university and college programs that are primarily or entirely online will be available to Ontario students.
  • set a target that, within three years, a specified list of high-demand courses will be available online and will be accepted for credit at all Ontario universities and colleges that offer a program in that discipline.
  • a set of high-quality degree programs that qualify the student for admission to any Ontario graduate school, and a set of high-quality courses that are accepted for credit by every Ontario institution, will be preferable to a multiplicity of courses and programs that operate on a small scale.
  • By working with other institutions in Ontario and elsewhere, Ontario colleges and universities can leverage and help shape emerging developments in online learning.
  • Coordination will be required to ensure that economies of scale are achieved in an environment of rapid technological change. 
  • Ontario colleges and universities should be encouraged to work with peer institutions to ensure that engagement with advances in online learning fully supports the province’s strategic goals for quality and access in a time of constrained funding. 
  • An effective government strategy will begin by adapting existing regulatory infrastructure to remove unnecessary barriers to high-quality online education. 
  • Hybrid courses that blend online learning with face-to-face instruction should also be encouraged where they improve learning outcomes. Hybrid courses fit well within the government’s existing regulatory structure and so present fewer policy challenges. 


We have looked especially for meta-analyses which compare traditional versus online education at a system, course or activity level. We have made only secondary use of studies and reports from individual instances or instructors where institutionalization and sustained use have not been addressed.


There is remarkably little empirical literature that documents the costs of online education relative to face-to-face education. So very little evidence on costs is available in this report

The authors though do provide an extensive list of barriers to cost reduction.

The authors conclude this section as follows:

To the extent that online education reduces costs, there is no consensus about who should or would benefit from the reduction. Students seek lower tuition fees; governments seek reduced subsidies for higher education; university employees seek better compensation. This situation presents a principal-agent problem: it is difficult to motivate change when those affected by change will not receive the contemplated financial benefit.

Emerging developments

The following emerging developments are discussed:

  • Affordable and open textbooks
  • Adaptive interactions with learning resources
  • Optimizing student-instructor interaction time
  • Targeting instructional effort based on student program data
  • Minimizing marginal costs via Massive Open Online Courses

The authors also identify several common themes across the individual developments:

  • Aligning Support to the Student’s Individual Learning Needs
  • “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” to Achieve Benefits at Scale
  • Transparency and Knowledge Intensity in Instructional Design
  • Reputational Capital From and For Online Learning
  • The Challenge of Investment at/for Scale

Observations (for recommendations, see above)

Fully online education presents opportunities for major economies of scale. By definition, these economies can only be achieved if a large scale is reached.

Fully online education has the potential to provide a high-quality education – for some students, in some fields of study – at significantly lower unit costs than traditional forms of instruction. The cost savings have the potential to help fund the cost of improving traditional learning, including the costs of introducing hybrid models that lead to better learning outcomes. The challenge is to make it happen.

What is striking to us about these viewpoints is the agreement that what is least likely to be done effectively at scale and with technological mediation is precisely what matters most in higher education.

My critique

Overall, this is an excellent report that will be valuable to policy makers, if they read it in full. The danger is that they will jump to the recommendations, which are not really the strength of this report. Its value lies in exploring assumptions and beliefs about online learning and productivity and providing data and evidence that sometimes supports such beliefs, and other times challenges them. The section on emerging developments is particularly strong, especially the analysis of common themes across the individual developments.

Comparative quality of online learning

Although the authors focused their literature review on ‘meta-analyses of rigorous experimental studies’, the result is a master lesson on why such studies are usually a waste of time, particularly with regard to ‘quality’ defined in this report as to whether online learning achieves equal learning outcomes to face-to-face teaching. Such studies on using different media and technologies to deliver education date back until the early 1970s, and results are consistent: mode of delivery is less important than method of teaching and multiple other factors. In statistical terms, variance within experimental groups is larger than variations between experimental groups. In plain language, the pedagogy matters, a point recognized by the authors later in the document when they acknowledge the importance of instructional design.

This is one reason why I am cautious about the research on ‘non-traditional’ students that suggests that online learning works less well for them. While I do not disagree with this in general, it can work well for some in this group when designed to meet their specific needs. The problem is that the Jaggars and Di Xu research quoted to support the conclusion in the HEQCO report is based on data from U.S. community colleges, many of which have a very poor record of using instructional design and best practices in online learning. You have to look at the quality of the teaching (in both modes), not just the delivery method.The HEQCO authors also correctly note that while many of Jaggars/Di Xu findings point to performance differences between online and face-to-face learning that are statistically significant, the differences are fairly small.


This is by far the most disappointing part of the study. The report draws on only two actual studies of the costs of online learning (both from the USA), neither of which are very helpful.

For reasons of time pressure and consistency, the authors decided to limit their research review to studies published in the last five years. As a result, studies such as my own on the cost of the University of British Columbia’s fully online Master in Educational Technology (which was originally published in 2003) are not included, even though the study provides a comprehensive analysis of the costs and more importantly the cost structures of a program that is still running on much the same cost basis as in 2003. This program has been remarkably successful with the following features:

  • fully cost-recoverable (including overheads and planning) from tuition fees alone
  • tuition fees the same as for on-campus graduate programs (fee level regulated by government)
  • over 300 students in the program each year with over 900 course enrolments
  • courses can be taken and paid for individually
  • 70-80 admissions a year, and 70-80 graduates a year, thus with a degree completion rate (for those enrolling in the full degree program) of over 90%.

This program alone has more than doubled the number of graduate students in the whole of the Faculty of Education and UBC has adopted this cost model for a number of its other professionally based masters programs, such as rehab science and creative writing. Not to include this because the study was done 10 years ago is almost perverse, because it shows that for certain kinds of courses, and certain kinds of students, online learning can be far more productive than face-to-face teaching. It is perverse, because real productivity gains only become apparent over time – a five year window is often too small to see the full benefits.

Emerging developments

For me, this was by far the strongest part of the paper, particularly the analysis of common themes across the developments. The paper is worth reading for this section alone.


Although I would support all the recommendations, they are very cautious.Partly because of the weakness or lack of research into online learning, costs and productivity, the recommendations necessarily have to be cautious.

However, since HEQCO itself is a government-funded policy research organization, perhaps an obvious recommendation would have been for more research on the costs of online learning, given the paucity of studies. Another area for research would be on institutional barriers and government policies that prevent greater scalability or adoption of online learning in Ontario universities.

It is still shocking to me that Ontario has such a poor system of credit transfer even between universities that make it almost impossible to set up consortium programs or enable student students to select combinations of courses/programs from different universities, given that a main advantage of online learning is that students could take courses from any university in Ontario. Maybe government regulation is necessary in this area, since the universities and colleges were given $65 million I believe over a year ago to solve this problem and haven’t done so yet.

None of the recommendations really addresses the issue of scale. I’m not sure I agree with the statement on p. 43:  What is striking to us about these viewpoints is the agreement that what is least likely to be done effectively at scale and with technological mediation is precisely what matters most in higher education, i.e. modelling, coaching, enabling students to construct knowledge, etc. Certainly, most MOOCs don’t do this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that with a focused effort on instructional design, we could not design more cost-effective, high quality learning experiences through online programs on a larger scale than at present but not necessarily at massive level. This would combine lower cost per student with higher quality learning: the Nirvana of educational productivity

Thus I would like to have seen a recommendation to government and the institutions to put in the same level of investment as for MOOCs, but to develop a model that combines best practices in online learning combined with new technologies such as social media, to build partly self-supporting student learning communities on a larger scale than current campus-based programs, with high quality learning outcomes and completion rates. I think it could be done, but it needs substantial investment beyond the risk level of most individual universities, which is why government should be a partner.


Despite my criticisms this is an excellent report on a difficult topic and completed within a tight timeframe. It provides grist for productive discussions on costs and quality and really advances our understanding of the challenges of increasing productivity without losing quality in higher education.


Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2013) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (especially Chapter 7: Resources, Money and Decision-Making).


What happened in online learning in the summer? – 3

Egmont, BC

Egmont, BC

An Ontario online university?

I have a strict rule when reporting news to make sure it’s based on published secondary sources – in other words, if I get it wrong, I can blame someone else. Now I’m no longer working for Contact North, I don’t have such good access to ‘official’ developments in Ontario, but some of my colleagues in other Ontario institutions have been passing on rumours about the possible development of an institution-wide Ontario online initiative, a step beyond the original proposal for an Ontario Online Institute that sank from sight when Ministers changed last year.

Apparently there was a meeting in Toronto in July between Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MCTU) bureaucrats and university and college presidents at which the following was discussed:

  • the setting up of a not-for-profit consortium to develop and deliver online degrees and diplomas across the province
  • the consortium would somehow represent all public post-secondary institutions in the province (or at least those interested in joining the consortium)
  • a sum of $42 million to support the initiative
  • the universities and colleges were then to come back with a proposal for this organization on which they all agreed. (I don’t know how this was going to be done, or by whom).

Now summer is the silly season for news, and I may have got this all wrong. However, if anyone can provide me with further information on this (especially if it’s ‘official’), I’d be grateful.

Call for papers on student support services

Open Praxis, the peer-reviewed online journal of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, has a call for papers on innovative and effective student support services in open, distance and flexible education for its Volume 6, No. 1 edition. Contributions that address aspects such as the following will be accepted:

  • Distance learning students’ needs and justification of support services in open and distance education.
  • Innovative services to promote students’ retention, performance and occupational guidance.
  • Role of technologies for student support services. Possibilities and limits.
  • Successful and relevant experiences of student support services in distance learning higher education institutions.

Deadline for submission: October 30th 2013 (please send to Open Praxis)

Publication: January-March 2014

European Conference on Open and Flexible Higher Education

What: This year’s theme is about “Transition to open and on-line education in European universities“.

Who: The European Association of Distance teaching Universities (EADTU) and EADTU and hosted by the Fédération Interuniversitaire de l’Enseignement à Distance, France (FIED), with the support of the French Ministry of Education and Research

Where: Paris, France

When: 23-24 October, 2013


The following keynote speakers are confirmed, and details of their presentations can be seen by selecting the links.

How: Go to the conference web site

Call for papers for The Arab Open University’s 1st Conference on Open Learning

What: The following themes:

  • Techniques and methods of open learning and the required learning resources
  • Academic accreditation for open learning degrees and institutions
  • International trends and experiences in open learning
  • Quality assurance in open learning
  • The role of open learning in development
  • Success stories in open learning

Who: the Arab Open University (AOU) in collaboration with the Regional Center for Development of Educational Software (RedSOFT).

Where: Kuwait

When: 25-27 November, 2013

Deadline for papers: August 31

How: Go to conference web site

This is the last of my ‘catch-up’ posts for the summer. I will revert to single posts from now on.

Online learning set to expand and become a core function in Ontario’s universities and colleges

The flag of Ontario

Contact North (2013) An Overview of the Strategic Mandate Agreement Proposals Prepared by Ontario’s Public Colleges and Universities: Online Learning Set to Expand and Become a Core Function Sudbury ON: Contact North|Contact Nord

The context

Ontario is the largest province in Canada, geographically, demographically and economically. It has 24 universities and 24 colleges, and hence is a driving force in Canadian post-secondary education.

In response to the challenges of increased access, higher quality, and fiscal constraint, Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities requested in August 2012 that each post-secondary education institution in the province submit a strategic mandate agreement (SMA) proposal. Each institution was asked to provide a brief submission identifying three priority objectives, and a vision of how the institution plans to implement the objectives, using a template provided by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. (The documents submitted by each institution are available online.)

Contact North, Ontario’s publicly-funded Distance Education and Training Network, has published a ‘non-exhaustive’ analysis of the institutions’ proposed priority objectives to highlight the key patterns related to educational access, flexibility, student success, and university and college cooperation – and the central role to be played by technology in the future of postsecondary education in Ontario.

Key findings from the analysis

  • goals in the mandates reflect the needs of a very diverse population and a massive geographical territory
  • enhanced services and possibilities for specific populations, including Aboriginals and Francophones
  • a planned rapid expansion of online and hybrid learning, as well as an increased use of technology for classroom-based learning
  • a rapid deployment of emerging learning technologies, such as mobile learning, simulations and virtual worlds
  • an expansion of credit transfer between and among colleges and universities, and within consortia
  • pathways being opened to more rapid diploma and degree completion
  • an enhanced focus on experiential learning, applied research and entrepreneurialism
  • new programs and institutes to address regional and provincial needs
  • an expansion of institutional collaboration and cooperation

Among the 21 universities submitting agreement proposals, 18 specifically mentioned plans for an increase in online and/or blended learning activities.

Among the 23 colleges submitting agreement proposals, 21 specifically mentioned plans for an increase in online and/or blended learning.

The analysis identified five common elements emerging from the mandate statements:

  1. Specific educational goals related to the needs of local communities;
  2. More choice and flexibility for learners;
  3. Greater co-operation and collaboration between the provincial post-secondary institutions;
  4. Increased innovation in teaching and better learning outcomes as a result;
  5. An expectation of greater productivity: more and better learning for each dollar invested.

Online and hybrid learning seem set to expand rapidly on an already extensive base, and perhaps more significantly, online learning is becoming a core function and competency of nearly all public post-secondary institutions in the province.

The Contact North document covers a wider range of activities than just online learning, and also provides detailed examples to illustrate each finding.

Next steps

The strategic mandate statements are just one of a range of written submissions and discussions that will provide ‘direct input to the development of a post secondary productivity and transformation strategy‘ by the Ministry. However, this will not become clear until after the government has a new premier and cabinet following a leadership contest this coming weekend.

Declaration of interest

I am a Contact North research associate and contributed to the publication.