Distance Education in Canada

August 19, 2004

The Evolution of Distance Ed in Canada

Canada is one of the world’s earliest forefathers of distance education, beginning with print and postal service-based correspondence study back in the 1800s. It then grew into a sophisticated open learning approach in the 1970s through the establishment of Athabasca University in Alberta, the British Columbia Open University, and Teleuniversite du Quebec, all of which were on the heels of the Open University in the United Kingdom.

As noted in a report written for the World Bank titled “The Evolution of Distance Education in Canada,” authored by Athabasca University’s Director of Strategic Development Elizabeth Mitchell, “open learning’s goal was to provide students who had traditionally encountered barriers to participation in the existing educational system with an opportunity to further their studies. The goals of open learning were increased learner access, choice, flexibility and convenience. Distance education was the delivery method of choice for these institutions.”

Online Alternatives Growing

From this open learning movement (Athabasca University, tagged as “Canada’s Open University,” is the largest provider of distance education in the country with more than 32,000 students), distance education has branched off into new vistas throughout Canada. Canada’s Research Chair in Distance Education and Athabasca University Professor Terry Anderson explains that Canada is unique in that it has a successful open university movement, with a strong focus on open-admissions, self-paced, independent study programs, as well as many online teaching and learning alternatives that are alive and well at traditional colleges and universities throughout the country.

Today, the growth and adoption of new educational technologies, supported by rapidly evolving software and more Internet access, has brought Web-based distance learning into the mainstream of Canada’s higher education system.

“We have this tradition of more independent study and more correspondence, and we have added technology to this; we have added more audio/visual, more online,” says Mitchell. “It used to be that the open learning operations did the bulk of distance education. Now you can find almost every community college and most universities in Canada involved with some sort of distance education. So you get a wide variety (of distance education programs and online teaching and learning methods).”

Many Undergraduate Programs

When compared to the U.S., Canada has a good deal more distance education programs at the undergraduate level. “I would say that with the exception of Royal Roads (a public university in British Columbia that is dedicated to exclusively offering applied and professional programs, primarily at the graduate level), Canadian universities have far more registrations at the undergraduate level,” says Don Kasta, director of distance and continuing education at the University of Waterloo (UW) in Ontario. The reason for this difference in distance learner populations is anyone’s best guess, as there has not been any comparative studies to support this notion.

UW is one of the leading providers of online courses and programs in the Province of Ontario – along with the University of Guelph – with more than 7,500 students enrolled in a rich mix of online courses and programs, including a Department of French Studies that offers an interesting selection of online certificates in French language, civilization and culture. “Distance education is one of the top five items that gets mentioned in the university’s major planning, “says Kasta. “It has been part of our culture since 1967.”

On-Campus Students Moving Online

Similar to higher education institutions in the U.S., Canadian institutions are seeing a growing trend of on-campus students going online for at least a portion of their education. Thirty-five percent of 18,000 distance education course enrollments at UW are from students who are pursuing their degrees on campus.

University of Manitoba

At the University of Manitoba (UM), where 3,500 students are enrolled in 25,000 distance education credit hours, more than 60 percent are a subset of the on-campus population. “It used to be that our distance education students were over the age of 35 and studied part-time, worked full-time, and lived at a distance away from campus, but that is no longer the case,” as traditional on-campus students increasingly enroll in distance education courses, says Lori Wallace, UM’s associate dean of degree programs and director of distance education.

Five Modes of Delivery

Five distance education delivery modes are employed at UM: independent study (print-based course materials often supplemented by audio-visual content as well as asynchronous discussion with students in class sections of varied sizes); group-based study (print-based course materials supplemented by audio-visual content and discussion via synchronous teleconferencing); fully online; flexible study (print-based or online course materials supplemented by on-campus tutorial sessions); and Campus Manitoba (a distance education partnership of post-secondary universities and colleges). “Independent study is by far our largest program by a factor of ten,” adds Wallace.

The University of British Columbia

The notion of student independence and easy access to higher education opportunities, in general, is very strong in Canada. However, it’s not so evident at the larger metropolitan universities, such as the University of Toronto (UT), the University of British Columbia (UBC), and McGill University, who have stringent admissions requirements and don’t offer a large selection of full degrees at a distance.

UBC does have a Distance Education and Technology (DE&T) division that enrolls more than 5,000 students, but UBC offers only one full-degree program online (a master’s degree in educational technology), and the vast majority of UBC’s distance education course enrollments are from UBC on-campus students who have made it through the institution’s admissions process.

“We don’t have an extensive set of full programs online, partly because the university is traditional and conservative. There is still a strong sense that people should come to campus,” says Mark Bullen, UBC’s director of DE&T. Nonetheless, UBC is a recognized leader in the field with a strong background in distance education research and development. For instance, Tony Bates, who has an international reputation for providing significant research and innovation in distance education, was the former director of DE&T. Additionally, WebCT was created by UBC Professor Murray Goldberg.

Bullen adds that UBC is showing a growing interest in providing distance education programs in professional areas. “There are a number of full online programs in development. We have a masters in migration studies that is under development. We have a low residency master’s in creative writing that is almost fully online, and we are working on a program in health technology assessment. We are seeing that the professional areas are growing strong in their use of online technologies and for the delivery of full degree programs or certificates.”

British Columbia Open University

To offset the competitive admission access, as well as the lack of distance education degree offerings at some of the large metropolitan universities, smaller higher education institutions throughout Canada are offering more options, wider access, and basically another door for Canada’s highly dispersed population to earn their degrees through distance education modalities.

At the British Columbia Open University (BCOU), for instance, students who cannot gain acceptance into UBC, or Simon Fraser University (SFU), or the University of Victoria (UVic), can take distance education courses from these very same three institutions through BCOU. Because of BCOU’s open acceptance process and its cooperative arrangements with these institutions, students are able to apply such credit earned to a BCOU degree.

While BCOU, which has more than 16,000 students, offers more than 200 distance education courses of its own, it also provides registration services for several hundred distance education courses offered by UBC, SFU, and UVic. “These three universities agreed to help people in rural areas by allowing a back-door way for students who are not enrolled in their programs to go around their admission requirements and register for their distance education courses (through BCOU),” says Louis Giguère, BCOU’s provost & vice president of education.

In addition, BCOU is a unique institution that provides a variety of additional programs and services that help to remove barriers for students to earn their undergraduate degrees. These programs and services are driven by transfer-credit policies with other institutions throughout BC (as well as with institutions in other Canadian provinces), along with policies that confer credit by assessment of students’ non-formal, prior learning through examinations and/or the submission of portfolios.

Canadian Consortiums

BCOU is also a founding member, with Athabasca University, of the Canadian Virtual University (CVU), which is a consortium of 10 Canadian institutions spread out across the country that have agreed to be part of a portal Web site that provides access to information about more than 250 distance education programs.

Executive Director of CVU Vicky Busch explains that since CVU started in early 2000, consortium partners have seen increases in their registrations, “especially the smaller institutions that never had national promotions.” The CVU site gets about 200,000 hits each month. Participating institutions each pay $5,000 annually to maintain the business operation, and Athabasca University pays Busch’s salary and houses her office.

Working Collaboratively Instead of Competitively

“We are looking at how we can develop new programs that are in great demand and are not yet available to Canadians,” says Busch. “We’d like to do this collaboratively rather than competitively. We really don’t want to see people duplicating resources. One of the programs we are asked about most often is a bachelor’s of education degree. There are lots of graduate-level professional development opportunities for educators but there is not a bachelor of education degree offered at a distance.”

In addition to CVU, a growing number of provincial consortia of distance education providers exist throughout Canada, including eCampus Alberta, Campus Saskatchewan, Campus Manitoba, OntarioLearn, the Open Learning Network of Newfoundland and Labrador, and more These consortia are essentially Web portals and marketing arms for the institutions they serve. Many of these initiatives “have extensive provincial mandates to enable learners to more easily access the resources of the education system as a whole,” writes Mitchell. “They facilitate collaboration among all institutions and work to break down barriers to student movement within the provincial education system between all levels of instruction and types of institutions.”

eCampus Alberta & OntarioLearn

One new consortium is eCampus Alberta, which was piloted in the fall of 2003. eCampus Alberta is a consortium of 16 publicly funded colleges and technical institutes in Alberta. According to its Executive Director Trish Donovan, eCampus Alberta was formed to respond to a perceived market demand and to find a way for these 16 institutions to work collectively.

eCampus Alberta is still in an infrastructure building phase. It was modeled after OntarioLearn, which is the oldest consortium in Canada, created 10 years ago, comprised of 22 partner institutions, and currently responsible for enrolling some 25,000 students.

Unlike OntarioLearn, which had a grass-roots start, with no funding support from the provincial government, eCampus Alberta was awarded $900,000 in start-up funds from Alberta Learning, which is the education arm of the provincial government. Additionally, each institution threw in $20,000.

eCampus Alberta currently hosts more than 150 distance education courses that are primarily offered in an online asynchronous mode of delivery. It promotes these courses through its Web site and an expanding marketing services department, provides a registration service, and provides 24/7 technical support to all students who register through its system.

Much of this is accomplished through a third-party vendor, Embanet Corporation, which provides Web site development services, the robust servers that house the online courses and registration infrastructure, along with providing a sophisticated array of 24/7 technical support services. Embanet is also the vendor of choice for OntarioLearn.

eCampus Alberta has a mandate to become financially viable on its own accord, so it has created a financial model in which revenues are shared. Called a “Lead and Partner” model, students find courses via the eCampus Alberta Web site and fill out a standard registration form that is forwarded to the institution offering the course. Based on their geographic location, students are assigned a partner institution that is responsible for providing all of the typical ancillary student support services that they are entitled to as enrollees. The partner institution is essentially the institution in the consortium that happens to be located closest to the student’s official residence. The Lead institution is the one actually providing the course. Partner institutions receive 25 percent of tuition revenue, along with the full-load equivalent status that entitles them to government funds. The remaining tuition revenue is split 65 percent to the Lead institution and 10 percent to eCampus Alberta.

OntarioLearn has a different financial model in which a pro-rated cost for faculty, plus $22, is taken out of tuition dollars from the registering college (i.e., a course registration born at college A) and allocated to the host college (institution B that actually provides the course).

Both OnatarioLearn and eCampus Alberta were constructed to allow partnering institutions to save on course development costs by pooling their resources and agreeing not to duplicate distance education courses within their provinces. While OntarioLearn has been at this long enough to achieve significant enrollment growth, eCampus Alberta looks to be following on its heels with between 1,200 and 1,500 enrollments slated for the upcoming Fall semester.

The Big Picture

Finally, Canadians are rightfully proud of their distance education heritage. They have a strong commitment to providing distance education and lifelong e-learning on a global scale. Overall, Canada has a high-tech, sophisticated, internationally respected academic community that is doing very important work in the field of distance education.

For this issue of Educational Pathways, I tried to capture as much information about Canada’s distance education landscape as possible within a relatively short period of time. I admit that I am woefully lacking, because to really capture the essence of Canada’s distance education landscape requires a great deal more effort than what I wrote and published here.