Reports & Data
State of E-Learning
Several years before, Smith was halfway through a bachelor’s degree in music but had to drop out for financial reasons. She still could not afford to return to university full-time, so she researched Athabasca University (AU), a mostly-virtual post-secondary institution offering 150 undergraduate and graduate courses online. Smith enrolled part-time and now takes three courses per semester.
AU is profiled in the Canadian Council on Learning’s report, State of E-Learning in Canada. The report examines the current state of e-learning throughout Canadian society and internationally.
AU was established in 1970 in Edmonton as a traditional, public, campus-based institution. The university’s mandate soon evolved into exploring new ways of delivering post-secondary education (PSE) to individuals barred from higher education by lack of financial resources, failure to complete secondary school and/or remote residence. AU pioneered the use of computers to offer online courses, and became an open and primarily distance university.
By 1984, AU outgrew its Edmonton facilities and moved to Athabasca, a small town 145 km north. Satellite campuses were also established in St. Albert, Edmonton and Calgary, where classes are offered on-site, along with mentoring and support services. The online programs, however, constitute 80% of student activity.
Today, AU is a fully accredited, internationally recognized institution enrolling 37,000 students across Canada and in 84 countries worldwide.
As an open institution, anyone over age 16 may enrol at AU; registration requires a computer and an internet connection. Courses are individualized to enable students to learn at their own pace, and class materials and assignments are supported with online counseling, technological assistance and library services. The university employs a comprehensive array of distance-learning formats including online multimedia activities, dedicated software, and audio/video conferencing.
According to Jim Macleod, Director of Alumni Relations for Athabasca, “Few of our students would be able to attempt university studies without a virtual school like Athabasca.” In fact, flexibility defines distance e-learning’s core strengths; for example, it allows Smith and her cyber-classmates to continue their studies anytime regardless of work schedules, family or religious obligations, holidays, weather or transportation issues.
Like 80% of Athabasca students, Smith works to support herself while taking classes. Her recent post-secondary credits helped her secure a teller’s position at a local bank. She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in December 2009. Smith is planning to complete a master’s there and hopes eventually to be admitted into a doctoral program at the University of Alberta—and perhaps one day, to run a small museum.
Almost three-quarters (74%) of graduates of AU’s distance e-learning program are the first in their families to earn a university degree. And although AU students live around the world, more than half and their families travel to Athabasca to participate in the convocation ceremonies, which are broadcast live on the university’s website to cyber-include the entire graduating class.
“To see the sense of accomplishment in our students’ eyes, and the pride their parents and children display at convocation, it is clear that there is a vital role for open, distance education,” said Macleod.
State of E-Learning in Canada profiles several other PSE e-learning programs, including:
In 2001, Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) and Industry Canada created an advisory committee that produced The E-learning E-volution in Colleges and Universities: A Pan-Canadian Challenge. This report articulated an action plan with overarching national objectives, including the significant expansion of e-learning in PSE institutions to meet the learning needs of Canadians—especially those underserved by traditional on-site institutions. Recommended initiatives included positioning learners at the centre of their own education, which e-learning facilitates.
Although there has been an increase in PSE e-learning across Canada over the last several years, overall the nation’s response to the ambitious 2001 framework has been muted. Other countries, such as Australia and the U.S., have embarked on far more aggressive national e-learning strategies. For example, 20% of American higher-education students have taken at least one e-learning course (similar information is not available regarding Canada).
To assess the impact of e-learning on PSE instruction, curriculum development and enrolment, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducted a survey in 2005 of e-learning practices in 19 post-secondary institutions in 13 member countries. Survey results indicated that Canadian higher education was slow to incorporate significant online components into programs.
As State of E-Learning in Canada states, Canada and its PSE community would be well advised to revisit the 2001 action plan in order to enable learners to take full advantage of e-learning opportunities.