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Stephen Grundy breaks into laughter as he recalls the early years of his 25-year experience in online learning in Canada.

“We were seen as outcast mavericks that were potentially going to ruin the whole [academic] system if we were allowed to proceed,” says the vice-president (academic) and provost at Royal Roads University.

“[Critics also said] that online learning could not even come close to the quality of the face-to-face structure.”

How times have changed.

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Today, traditional universities are knocking on the doors of Steve Grundy and his online-centric counterparts asking for advice.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Online and distance education have been the bread and butter for decades for some Canadian postsecondary institutions, including Athabasca University in Alberta and Victoria-based Royal Roads University. But the country’s traditional halls of higher learning, known more for their on-campus offerings, are increasing their online programs as well to ensure they don’t lose or inconvenience students who want the flexibility of taking classes and programs online.

Now, Canada’s traditional universities are knocking on the doors of Dr. Grundy and his online-centric counterparts to see what they can do to adopt more e-learning into their academic models. “We’ve certainly been open with people who want to explore the way we do it and there’s certainly increasing interest, for sure, from everybody,” he says.

“I think if you scour across Canada in general, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find a strategic plan at a university that didn’t have online learning as a strategic pillar in their five-year plan."

The business case for online learning

It’s a simple matter of meeting market demand. Universities are seeing the advantages of expanding their reach toward a traditionally underserved group of prospective students – the 30- to 55-year-old demographic that wants or needs the flexibility of online learning.

“I think it’s really this market that has caused universities to pay attention to online learning because they are less likely to want to come and sit in a university classroom,” says Dr. Grundy, whose school has a campus but also offers courses that are completely online and a mix of online and in-person. “This is the group that for 25 years we have known has absolutely responded to online learning.”

Now the rest of the country is catching up.

Experts agree that Canada has been a slow adopter of online postsecondary education, especially compared with the United States. But now 82 per cent of Canadian postsecondary schools offer for-credit online courses, according to the 2018 National Survey of Online and Digital Learning, which included input from 187 institutions across the country. More than half (51 per cent) of those surveyed expect increased student registration for their online courses by next year with 46 per cent reporting an increase over last year.

“It’s remarkable,” says Tricia Donovan, the survey’s project lead with more than 20 years in the online education field. “In the traditional universities we’re seeing increasing experimentation, so whether they’re trying video-based lectures or whether they’re trying webinars or other things ... all those models are being employed in ways that reduce the amount of time faculty are required to be in front of students.”

An estimated 9 to 10 per cent of all for-credit offerings are online, she says.

Small university, big opportunity – or vice-versa?

The size of the university and how that affects its ability to adapt to online learning is up for debate. Smaller universities can potentially adapt faster because they are intrinsically more nimble than their bigger counterparts, while larger universities have the human capital and financial resources to develop more elaborate online offerings.

Clare Brett, chair of the department of curriculum, teaching and learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, credits the adaptability of smaller universities for their adoption of online learning.

“If you have a smaller university or group, you can spread the word of this more quickly," she says. “It’s like changing directions in a big boat or a small boat; it’s easier if the boat is smaller.”

“The older, more traditional, universities here in Ontario took a long time to be okay with online learning and it was often seen as a second-rate alternative,” she adds.

At the same time, Ms. Donovan with the National Survey of Online and Digital Learning argues it’s actually easier to implement online learning in the medium- to larger-sized institutions.

“What we found is that the smaller the institutions, the less likely they were to have online learning,” she explains. “We have some institutions with less than 1,000 people in them and they indicated [in the survey] that they were just starting to offer online courses. It really is about access to resources and instructional design teams.”

Online learning is cost neutral

The question of cost is a tricky one because at first glance it may look like online learning is more economical for Canadian universities, as these courses don’t require the overhead of classroom space. But the consensus among the experts is that successful online learning requires resources and funding, making it revenue neutral for the most part.

It’s true, you can do basic online learning and it can be cost-effective, “but then you haven’t put the systematic resources in play to create high-quality online learning,” Dr. Grundy says. “Serious investment is needed. So if you’re doing it well, it’s going to cost you.”