There was a time – six years or so ago now – when people were talking about the death of universities and the rise of MOOCs. (A collection of my previous posts on MOOCs can be found here). Among the many, many things this debate obscured was the fact that education delivered online was almost as old as the internet itself. Online education was mature, not some newfangled idea (in the Silicon Valley version of history, everything not invented in Silicon Valley either doesn’t exist or is in need of reinvention).
Despite online education being quite mainstream, there is actually very little data published about it. This paucity of data allowed MOOCsters to push their false narrative about the death of universities. For instance, although Statistics Canada’s Post-Secondary Student Information System theoretically carries data on course delivery modes, I’ve never seen anyone use that data to look at online enrolments.
Part of the problem is that our systems are geared to measuring “full” students. Because nationally we measure enrolments by majors, all those science courses taken by English majors (and vice-versa) never really show up in our data. It’s the same thing with course modes. Nationally, it is difficult to say how many people take “blended” courses or online courses because one rarely takes an entire degree that way. And one may be enrolled at one university for in-person courses while taking another courses online at another. What one can do, though, is count course registrations. These don’t line up neatly to “students” (someone enrolled in two different classes will count twice), but as long as you don’t get too hung up on the actual numbers and look at broad trends, you can get some useful data.
And that’s exactly what a group of universities and colleges across Canada have done in a survey recently published by a consortium of online learning providers. It’s not a full census of Canadian institutions, but it’s reasonably close. There are 56 out of 72 universities, representing 82% of the student population responses, and 84 out of 131 colleges (69% of students). Regrettably, the survey has weaker coverage in Quebec. Nevertheless, here are some quick highlights:
- 90% of universities, 80% of colleges and 50% of CEGEPS (usefully, colleges and CEGEPS are reported separately throughout the report) offer distance education.
- 98% of those institutions offering distance ed offer online courses. Other major delivery methods include video/audio conferencing (45%), print-based (22%) and broadcast (11%).
- Of the institutions offering online courses, 85% did so for credit (most of the ones which did not were CEGEPs)
- The number of institutions offering courses for credit has increased over the past five years by 13%
- The fastest growth is occurring in the college (non-CEGEP) sector, where course enrolments are up 60% in the past five years.
The rise on the university side is slightly less pronounced: 50% over five years instead of 60%, but still quite impressive.
Now it’s hard to know exactly how to translate these course figures into full-time student numbers. The simplest – probably too simple – way would be simply to divide each of these figures by 10, which is nominally a full-time course load (in fact, not all full-time students study at 100% so a better number would probably be 8 or 9, but 10 is round so let’s stick with that for now). What this would mean is that there are equivalent-to 9568 college students online (roughly 2.3% of the total outside Quebec) and equivalent-to 10,480 university students online. (just under 1% of the total). You can increase those numbers up a bit if you prefer a 9-1 or 8-1 conversion to FTE, and you should also round them up a bit to account for the missing institutions in the sample. But at most that gets us to around 2.75% of the college population and around 1.3% of the university population.
So, three take-aways here: first, online delivery is growing quickly in Canada. Second, while it may be growing quickly, it’s doing so from a relatively small base, and the overall numbers remain quite small in the grand scheme of things. And third, online delivery appears to be a much bigger deal at community colleges than universities, which is not something you would ever think from reading the mainstream press.
With many thanks to Tony Bates for alerting me to this data.