Enrolment rates for online studies in Canada increased 10 to 15 per cent a year over the past five years, according to a recent study led by Canadian e-learning consultant Tony Bates, who is also distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Dr. Bates, president and chief executive officer of Tony Bates Associates Ltd., founded in 2003, led a team of researchers tasked with surveying almost 100 Canadian institutions about their online and distance courses. Released in October, the report is called Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges.
"What I found interesting is how it's affecting on-campus teaching now, as a lot of professors are getting used to teaching online or at a distance," says Dr. Bates. "They're finding they can use the technology within their own classroom teaching."
But Dr. Bates thinks the significant growth in online studies in the future will be from a blended model – a combination of face-to-face and online learning – which comes with its own set of challenges.
Online learning has been a "quality controlled model," according to Dr. Bates. "But we don't really have any standard practices for doing this [blended model]," he adds.
He suggests the creation of online support modules for faculty. A place where, for instance, they can find out how to not only create an education video, but also find research-based guidance on what works in the online world (such as: Don't make the video 20 minutes long).
According to the report, the main challenges to expanding online learning in Canada's colleges and universities came down to resistance from faculty, lack of government supports, and a lack of resources (mainly tech support staff).
"It becomes a pedagogical issue: What is the best way to teach?" says Dr. Bates. "I think we need to look at how we prepare faculty to teach in a digital age, and I think that's a big challenge for these institutions."
The report also found that online courses are available in almost all subject areas and that two-thirds of Canada's universities and colleges see online learning as very, or extremely, important to their future endeavours.
The shift to online studies didn't happen overnight, though. In fact, it has been developing for more than 15 years, making Canada a mature market when it comes to online education.
Innovative teaching is just one aspect that can account for the continued draw toward online learning. According to the report, increased flexibility and access was the main reason students are choosing to do online courses, which, in turn, has increased enrolment.
"The fully online market has been growing rapidly, partly because of the need for lifelong learning, particularly those that have gone to university, graduated, are out in the work force, but they still need to go on learning – online works well for this audience."