A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada

March 23, 2016 Tony Bates

February 22, 2016 – The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, today welcomes Canada’s new education brand, "EduCanada’. The new EduCanada logo will appear on branded materials produced by the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments and by institutions active in the international sphere, such as Canadian universities, colleges, CEGEPs

February 22, 2016 – The Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, today welcomes Canada’s new education brand, “EduCanada”. The new EduCanada logo will appear on branded materials produced by the Government of Canada, provincial and territorial governments and by institutions active in the international sphere, such as Canadian universities, colleges, CEGEPs

Martel, C. (2015) Online and distance education capacity of Canadian universities Montreal QC: EduConsillium

At last we have a national survey of online learning in Canadian universities. This study was carried out on behalf of Global Affairs Canada by EduConsillium, a Montreal-based consultancy that specializes in the strategic deployment of education and training and events management.

Purpose of the study

The goal of this research is to investigate Canada’s use of and capacity in digital and online education, but since it was commissioned by Global Affairs Canada, its focus is primarily on the potential of online and distance learning for attracting international students. Nevertheless this report provides the most extensive data-based analysis to date of online and distance learning in Canadian universities.

I will provide an extensive summary and analysis of this report, but as always, you are recommended to read the full report, which can be accessed (for free) by writing to education@international.gc.ca.

Methodology

The consultants approached 93 universities. (There are 99 members of Universities Canada, but some are theological colleges attached to a larger university) and there were 73 responses for a 78% response rate.

Although the response rate is high, there are some significant omissions (for example, the University of Waterloo and the University of Saskatchewan, which have significant online programs, and the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Mount Royal in Alberta, which have few or no distance programs). In particular, data for Alberta in the report are significantly skewed by Athabasca University, which is the main distance education provider in Alberta. There are no full universities in the three territories. For these reasons analysis by province/territories is not always reliable in the EduConsillium report.

The report never defines online learning or distance education. The terms seem to be used synonymously. In particular no distinction is made between blended, hybrid and fully online learning, but the assumption appears to be that the responses were for fully online courses.

It will be seen that the the data is somewhat skewed by the contribution of the large fully distance universities in Canada, such as Athabasca University, Royal Roads and TELUQ. It would have been preferable to have segmented the data between fully distance and dual-mode institutions, but this was not done.

Lastly, the method of counting online students leaves much to be desired. This is discussed in more detail in the comment section.

Results

Programs and courses

Of the 73 institutions responding, 68 (93%) offer online and distance courses. However, this may range from one to several hundred courses, and of course, some institutions will not have responded to the survey because they did not offer online or distance courses.

The survey identified a total of 12,728 online courses, of which 68% were undergraduate, and a total of 8% of all courses offered by Canadian universities.

The survey also identified a total of 809 online programs (72% of which are undergraduate).

However, the proportion of undergraduate online courses and programs is inflated by the large distance teaching universities, Athabasca, Royal Roads and TELUQ. The proportion of graduate online courses is likely then to be much higher for dual-mode institutions. Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan have the highest number of online courses.

Students

The report identified 360,000 students (29% of all Canadian university students) registered in online courses. Again, this figure needs careful interpretation as it does not indicate how many online courses students were taking.

Alberta (mainly through Athabasca) was identified as having the largest number of online students (10,850), with Ontario (nearly 7,000), Québec (6,300) and British Columbia (nearly 6,000) the next largest provinces in terms of online students.

Over a third of those that responded to the survey provided no data on international students taking online courses. Of the two-thirds that did respond, 10% of the online enrolments were international students.

Policies and Strategies

The survey asked institutions what strategic purpose online learning served. No copy of the questionnaire is provided with the report, but it appears that a multiple choice question was offered with space for comment, so respondents were limited to the choices provided. However, in response to this question:

  • 68% of the institutions answered: to increase registration without adding infrastructure costs
  • 75% to widen the institution’s traditional catchment area
  • 5% to attract international students

However, it should be noted that many institutions offer individual online courses that can be taken instead of on-campus courses, so the main purpose of such courses is to provide more flexibility for learners. This option though was not apparently available for respondents.

In terms of how online learning is developed and delivered:

  • 61% of all surveyed institutions have a dedicated group responsible for development standards
  • 91% use an LMS
  • 21% use external contractors to develop online programs
  • 67% charge the same fees for online as for campus courses, while 22% charge more.

There is a section in the report on instructional strategies used for online learning, but again it appears to have been a multiple choice question, and the categories provided made little sense to me. One difficulty is that within an institution, there can be a wide variety of approaches to instructional design (even when there is a central unit responsible for development). This is not an area of enquiry that lends itself to multiple choice, single answer surveys.

Main conclusions of the report

There is a very brief section setting out conclusions, mainly focused on the potential of online learning for attracting international students, which reflects the interest of the report’s sponsor.

The report recognizes that online learning is moving from a fringe to a mainstream activity and that there is potential for growth in the international market. It notes that Canada’s rate of expansion of online learning (roughly 8.75% per annum) is about the average for other countries worldwide. At one point it laments the slow growth, comparing it to growth rates of 30% or more in other countries such as Vietnam, Romania, India and China, and that Canada ‘cannot be considered a leader in this field as more than 20 countries invest about twice as much in their accredited online learning.’ However, no source is given for this statement.

Finally the report notes that as there is no federal system of higher education in Canada, Canadian universities might need to go through some form of aggregating organization to provide a more visible international presence.

My comments

First, kudos to Global Affairs Canada for commissioning this study. It is the first national survey of Canadian online learning since, well when?

However, I wish it had been a better study than it has turned out to be. There appear to be (I say ‘appear’ because I haven’t seen the actual questionnaire that was used) some serious methodological issues, not uncommon in attempts to measure online learning. In particular it is really important to distinguish between:

  • students as individuals
  • student/course enrolments
  • student FTEs (full-time equivalents).

It appears that the unit of measurement for students in this report is students as individuals. This means that it doesn’t matter how many online courses a student may take, it is counted as one student. Hence the figure of 360,000 individual students taking at least one online course.

However, a more accurate measurement of online learning activity would be the total number of enrolments in online courses. Thus if a student takes three online courses, that would be 3 student/course enrolments. This would measure better, for instance, the take-up of online courses, if the same students continue to add online courses to their workload.

But if we wish to compare online enrolments to ‘regular’ or campus-based enrolments, we need to look at the number of student FTEs taking online courses. This is more complicated since courses can vary in terms of the number of credits they count for, but to keep it simple, let’s assume that students need to take 10 three credit courses a year, then one student/course enrolment is one tenth of an FTE. Thus 360,000 student/course enrolments would be the equivalent of 36,000 FTEs. So either FTEs or student/course enrolments give a better picture than individual students of the impact of online learning.

One way to check the reliability or accuracy of the EduConsillium report would be by comparing it with similar studies. The problem is that there are very few similar studies, but one it should be compared with is the study conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities in 2011. This was an actual census of all its universities (and colleges). The key figures from this report for the academic year 2009/2010 are as follows:

  • At the undergraduate university level, total [online] registrations amounted to 343,434 or 13% at 19 institutions which reported.
  • At the graduate university level, total [online] registrations amounted to 10,097 or 7% of total registration of 136,800 at 11 institutions which reported data
  • At the university undergraduate level, 21 institutions reported that 4,743 courses were available in an [online] format or 7% of a total of 64,590 courses.
  • In addition, at the graduate level (university only), 13 institutions reported 505 [online] courses which represented 3% of total reported graduate courses of 16,859 at these institutions.

This gives a total of 353,531 student/course registrations, or 12.68% of all course registrations, equivalent to approximately 35,350 FTEs. There was a total of 5,248 online courses, or 6.44% of all courses.

Unfortunately the EduConsillium report does not provide raw data, but provides the average number of online students per Ontario institution at 6,908.26, or 29% of all students. There are 21 responding Ontario institutions in the survey, which makes for a total of 145,073 students taking online courses. This would require those students recorded as taking an online course to take almost three online courses each on average to match the figures from the Ontario government.

There are similar problems comparing online courses in Ontario. The EduConsillium report gives only the average number of courses per institution, which again makes it difficult to calculate the actual total number of courses, but assuming the number of Ontario institutions in the EduConsillium survey to be 21, this would give a total of 2,589 online courses in 2015, compared with the Ontario government’s figure of 5,248 for 2010.

It should also be remembered that since 2009/2010, Ontario has rapidly increased its investment in online course development, so today there will be even more student/course registrations, and considerably more online courses. However, it is not possible to do a direct comparison between the Ontario and the EduConsillium data on online student enrolments or on online courses, which is a pity. Nevertheless it does suggest that the EduConsillium figures are considerably below those of the Ontario government.

This difficulty in validating the data is a direct result of the failure of EduConsillium to take into account what little research had previously been done on online learning in Canada. The EduConsillium report states:

It is difficult to estimate where the Canadian offering stands, as there has been no systematic review or analysis covering the Canadian offering. There are a few anecdotal studies about the online ventures of some Canadian post-secondary education institutions, but no real research looking into the general Canadian offering in online/distance education and the potential strategies used by Canadian institutions. This could become an issue as institutions focus on the lucrative international student market.

However, if it had first examined the Ontario government survey results, or looked at Contact North’s report (Jean-Louis, 2015), which estimated a total of 1.3 million online course enrolments (including one and two year colleges), or my book, Managing Technology in Higher Education, which did examine online learning strategies in three Canadian post-secondary institutions, or some of the articles in journals such as IRRODL that describe online learning strategies in Canadian institutions, and taken all this into consideration before designing its study, I would have more confidence in the EduConsillium report.

Nevertheless, it is what it is. The report is probably better than nothing. It could provide a base against which further studies could be compared. However, I would not bet even my old socks on its accuracy. We need something more equivalent to the U.S. Department of Education’s annual survey or the Babson Reports that provide consistent year-on-year analysis of online enrolments and courses in Canadian universities. This is really a job for StatsCanada to do, in consultation with universities and colleges.

With regard to the bigger picture, I agree with the consultants that Canadian online courses and programs have great potential for international students. When UBC launched its online Master in Educational Technology in 2003, over 30% of the students were international. However, that program when it began was deliberately designed to appeal to both domestic and international students. It is not enough to take existing courses and hope they will automatically meet the needs of students in other countries.

Also, too many international offices in Canadian universities fear that online learning will eat into the more lucrative market of on-campus international students. Again, this is a mistake. They are two very different markets. Online learning will appeal to those who cannot afford the time or money to move to another country. It will appeal to older and possibly even younger students overseas than on-campus programs. But universities need a strategy that focuses on an international online market and makes sure that the content, technology and teaching approach is appropriate for learners in very different cultural and economic circumstances than on campus students, whether domestic or international. To do this, though, universities will need to develop a strong business plan – but it will be worth it.

References

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass

Jean-Louis, M. (2015) An Overview of Online Learning in Canada Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

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