The Future of Canadian Distance Education

Canada has experienced increased changes in its distance educational model amidst 2019’s significant upheavals and 2020’s COVID-19.  On June 17, 2019, the Canadian Virtual University-Université Virtuelle Canadienne (CVU-UVC) officially disbanded.  Originally created to highlight and promote online education across Canada, the consortium allowed universities to work together to allow easier transfer of credits across institutions.  Member universities included Athabasca University, Royal Roads University, University of New Brunswick, Memorial University, Thomson Rivers University, Carleton University, University of Manitoba, Royal Military College, and TÉLUQ University.  The official statement on various member websites stated, “CVU-UVC can be proud of its history and for leading the way in Canada in promoting the benefits of and access to online learning.  Today, the e-learning world is different.  There is a plethora of choices available for students, with more and more institutions offering online and distance education.  The work of the CVU-UVC, in regards to its original purpose, has been accomplished.”

Despite this optimism, critics believe that Canada continues to fall further behind in worldwide distance educational options.  For example, 33% of US students are enrolled in online post-secondary online credits, compared to only 18% of Canadians.  However, it is worth noting that many of these US schools are private and at times, controversial.

Notwithstanding these figures, distance education is increasing yearly.  A recent national survey by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association has revealed that while three fourths of Canadian post-secondary institutions have integrated in-class with online learning, only one in five offers a significant number of blended courses.  Most online courses continue to be supplements for in-class programs.  However, increasing numbers of schools are now offering degrees, diplomas, and certificate fully online.

In a recent article of Maclean’s, Tony Bates, a distance education technology consultant and distinguished visiting professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University’s Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education states that online learning is a way to develop 21-century skills.  Bates also advocates for the creation of five digital learning universities, a suggestion that, thus far, the federal and provincial governments have ignored.

Like Bates, AU students are well versed in the benefits of online education.  A troubled economy, family obligations, a busy work schedule, a desire to upgrade skills, illness, and remote living conditions all contribute to students seeking alternative educational options.  Encouragingly, distance education has also steadily increased in popularity among the general Canadian public, albeit slowly.  In an October 2019 interview with Athabasca’s Town and Country Today, AU President Dr.  Neil Fassina stated that promoting a digital university is a challenge and questioned how to “…bring people along for that journey with us?” He believes that AU needs to tell their own story, with pride.  “We are Canada’s only open university; we are Canada’s only digital first university.  That’s something to be proud of.”

Along with continued public education and dissemination of information, technological advances are also slowly bringing changes.  While in the past, distance learning was often an isolating experience, in recent years, innovations and communication technologies now allow students to interact with others and instructors easily, through message boards and the ability to participate in lectures in real time.

Although AU is Canada’s sole online university, other universities offer various options as well.  When contacted for a statement, Tony Bates revealed, “few if any Canadian campus-based institutions offer whole degree programs fully at a distance or online, especially at an undergraduate level.  Athabasca still remains the best option for students who want to study fully at a distance.  Also, for many campus-based institutions, online learning is still not a core function.  Athabasca’s long experience in distance learning remains an advantage, as long as it continues to lead in the design of online learning programs.  But it does now have serious competition from campus institutions such as Laval University, which has almost as many online enrolments as Athabasca.  But the future certainly looks good for online and distance learning as a whole.”

Some other examples include St.  John’s Memorial University (MUN).  Created in 1969 as a distance education option for Newfoundland and Labrador’s rural students, MUN now offers programs to students worldwide.  Currently, 475 online courses are available in over 40 subject areas; 25 programs are available as online options, while 37 are fully online and mixed mode programsExamples of fully online Undergraduate Programs include Bachelor of Business Administration, Bachelor of Maritime Studies, and Bachelor of Technology.  Various graduate programs, such as Master of Education, Master of Nursing, and Master of Maritime Management, as well as certificates and diplomas, are available as well.  In 2018, 36% of MUN students took at least one online course.

In British Columbia, Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers University offers various fully online and in-class options, including Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Technology, among others.  Vancouver’s University of British Columbia’s (UBC) offers over 100 online courses in more than 30 subject areas.  Online enrollment is now 16,000 students, after a fourfold increase since 2000.  Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University offers a variety of Diplomas and Certificates fully online and in mixed mode.

In Ontario, 26,000 students enrolled in online courses at Kingston’s Queen’s University during the 2017-18 year, a 15% increase from the previous year.  Offering distance courses since 1889, Queen’s prides itself on being the longest-running distance education provider in Canada.  First introducing online options in 2011, Queen’s now offers a fully online Master’s in arts leadership program, with in-class options and practicum as well.  In addition, options as available at Laurentian University, which prides itself as Canada’s largest provider of bilingual distance programs in Canada.

Recently, the Canadian educational system has undergone significant changes.  The ease with which schools have increasingly shifted to online formats amidst the COVD-19 pandemic may signal changes for the future of education.  In predicting the next five years of distance education, Tony Bates revealed “The corona-virus has brought home to many institutions the value of online and distance learning for dealing with emergencies on campus.  While many institutions have been unprepared and have provided little help to faculty or students, many other campus-institutions have been moving steadily into online learning.  Annual surveys from the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) indicate that 85% of campus-based institutions in Canada now offer online courses as part of degree programs.  Also, many are moving towards blended learning, a combination of on-campus and online learning, breaking down the strict division between campus-based and distance learning, and this trend will increase rapidly as faculty start to embed digital learning into their courses.”

It is difficult to see any glimmers of hope in this tragic situation, but perhaps these changes will mean increased options for future generations for students.  In particular, students with disabilities and chronic illnesses, those who are  immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, are seeing something they have dreamed of finally coming to fruition.  It feels bittersweet and almost ironic that it took a pandemic to put this in perspective.  Justifiable anger also exists, as some in the ill and disabled communities feel that their pleas for accommodations have been ignored for so long, only to see the ease of which online education can be implemented.

Most students with disabilities and illnesses know the struggle of attending traditional post-secondary institutions.  Although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, along with provincial statues, require post-secondary institutions to be accessible to students with disabilities, no specific standards exist, and policies vary by institution.  Often, this can cause confusion, especially in cases of invisible illnesses and disabilities, which include autoimmune diseases, Autism spectrum disorder, as well as dyslexia, anxiety, depression, and ADHD.  For example, in Ontario, it was only in 2016 that the Ontario Human Rights Commission revealed a precedent-setting ruling for York University graduate student Navi Dhanota.  Although students must provide medical documentation of their condition, they no longer have to disclose their specific diagnosis to obtain accommodations.  Despite this, recent reports state that as many as 11% of students have put their educational dreams aside because of disability.

Online education for these students can help avoid the difficulties of commuting to school, freedom from fixed class schedules, and avoiding large classroom settings with pressures such as aural or visual overstimulation.  When questioned about the fact that traditional schools are transitioning to online formats with ease, while students with illnesses and disabilities have been asking for these accommodations for some time, AU students had varied responses.  Amanda, a current AU student who has attended a traditional school in the past with a reduced course load, states, “I like Athabasca for the ability to take 1 class at a time from home.  Somewhat for my brain injury but mostly because I have three kids under five.”  However, online education without accommodations is also problematic.  Amanda, states, “The hard part for me is exams.  No matter where I take them I struggle writing tests.  I have not found support at Athabasca or another university.”

Trina G., another AU student, states, “In my opinion all colleges and universities should have online options for as many programs as possible.  I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, severe depression, activating Crohn’s Disease.  It is very important for me to stay clam with a sense of security.  Off and on I’ve been looking for a program that allows me to stay home to take my courses.  Due to my health my life is moment to moment at times.”  She continues, “It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do, and Athabasca has always been on my mind as an option.  I’ve worked in retail for 20 years, but … with the lack of nutrient absorption, retail is getting difficult for my joints.  I finally decided on a Bachelor of Management with a major in human resources.  This will allow me to do less up and down doing merchandising, which will be physically easier for me.”

Stephanie, an AU student offers similar sentiments, “I think it’s great that traditional universities are switching to online education.  I also believe that it should be offered as an option more often.  If I didn’t have the choice to complete my bachelor’s degree online, I wouldn’t be able to study at all.  Apart from the workload that comes with being a full-time student, being chronically ill comes with its own set of challenges and the symptoms can be unpredictable.  The flexibility that AU offers allows me to complete coursework on my good days and rest on the not so good days.  Thanks to AU’s online learning, I have the opportunity to further my education and improve my career outlook.”

Trisha, an AU student believes that “it’s horrible that just because there’s an illness they open up online [education.] They had the resources to go online all along.” She thinks “it is tragic that everything is happening out of control but having an illness is out of control and people want to still succeed.” Others, such as AU student Tina states, “I’m sure it’s been an option for a long time but it’s not a traditional way of learning and there are many things we miss out on through distance learning,” while AU student Angela N. believes, “I think it is a great step forward for education.  We have been asking for it for years and it is amazing how quickly some of the universities are putting into play.”

Students at other Alberta universities are repeating these sentiments as well.  Natalia, who attends the University of Alberta, has “been very lucky but I have personally always had my accommodations met with ease which has includes absences, late work, special seating, exam times, etc.  I’ve been taking online classes the past two years to fill up my senior credits, and so the switch isn’t affecting me right now…”  She continues, “I think that it depends on the degree, obviously.  I had a drama degree and couldn’t just miss or Skype into class.  So, any degree that requires hands on activities, including labs, then Skyping in isn’t an option.”  Despite this, she believes “that being able to Skype in on regular lectures though should be an easily met accommodation, and really should be accessible for anyone in the class if they’re ill or have to go away or whatever.  I think it’s pretty ridiculous that streaming lectures haven’t been mandatory if at minimum you have disabled and ill students in your class.”  She continues, “I think that trying to offer entire degrees online is already where we are headed anyways as e-learning is becoming huge.  But as of right now it would be difficult for the U of A to offer the same class both in person and online for a majority or the entirely of a degree.  But definitely ensuring lectures are streamlined and course content is online then that’s a good compromise.”

It is uncertain what will happen to these online courses when traditional schooling eventually re-opens, but perhaps this signals a new beginning, as the world transforms at a rapid pace, and the educational system is not immune to these changes.  For distance education, and AU in particular, the future looks bright.

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