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In my opinion

Online enrolments after COVID-19: some predictions for Canada

The growth in both fully online and blended/hybrid learning is bound to accelerate – and both institutions and instructors had better prepare.

BY TONY BATES | MAY 11 2020

There is probably nothing more foolish than trying to predict the future, but here I go. I have tried to put some numbers on how the uptake of fully online learning and blended/hybrid learning is likely to change post-COVID-19. These predictions are informed by the results of the last three annual surveys of online learning at postsecondary institutions by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA).

Where we are today

Before the pandemic struck, approximately 10 percent of all course enrolments in Canadian credit programs at the university and college level were in fully online courses, and online enrolments overall had been increasing by about 10 percent per annum, although there were significant variations between provinces (CDLRA, 2017, 2018, 2019). So, even without COVID-19 we could have expected growth to continue at a slow but steady rate over the next few years.

More difficult to track is the extent of hybrid learning, defined as some reduction of face-to-face teaching to incorporate more online or digital learning. In 2017, 78 percent of institutions reported that less than 10 percent of courses were in a blended/hybrid mode. In 2018, on the other hand, 76 percent of the 151 institutions answering this question reported that they offer some courses using a blended/hybrid delivery methodology, 40 percent reported an increase from the previous year, and nearly half (49 percent) expected further increases in blended/hybrid learning the following year. Although the estimates are vague, we see a tendency for blended/hybrid learning to increase from year to year.

The impact of COVID-19

As well all know, in mid-March due to the global pandemic, campuses were suddenly closed and everyone was scrambling to finish the term through “emergency remote teaching.” Many commentators have argued that this is not the same as online learning – although online learning, in the sense of teaching through the internet, is certainly a major component.

What we can be sure of is that many instructors who have never been involved in online learning before had a crash course in moving to emergency remote teaching. Some will have found it to be a disaster, others will have taken to it like a duck to water, but in most cases some things will have worked and some things won’t have. Nevertheless, a much greater proportion of instructors will now have been exposed to online learning in one form or another, and that in itself is likely an important barrier that has been crossed for many faculty members.

Let’s cut to the chase. Here are my predictions in the graph below:


You can see fully online learning growing at around 10 percent a year until 2020, then I predict a bit of an accelerated increase over the next couple of years because of COVID-19, then it reverts back to slower growth from 2025. It is likely to continue to grow gently beyond 2030, mainly because of lifelong learning and immigration, where people in the workforce and with young families increasingly need further skills and qualifications in an increasingly automated world. In the meantime, campus-based enrolments are likely to decrease because of fewer students coming through from high school, due to demographics. For some institutions, then, fully online learning will become important for maintaining enrolment numbers.

However, it is in blended/hybrid learning where we are going to see the big increase. As instructors have become more familiar with online and digital learning through emergency remote learning, they will begin to integrate it more and more into their regular teaching. They will, without external intervention, learn gradually by trial and error what is best done in class and what is best done online. In particular, the move towards more skills development will drive instructors to use digital tools such as serious games and virtual reality, and computerized testing.

Furthermore, we know from the CDLRA surveys that more than half of all Canadian institutions are implementing or have developed a strategic e-learning plan, and this will also provide further support and encouragement for faculty to move into some form of blended learning.

As a result, I see a big jump in 2021 and 2022, slowing down a little later but still growing quickly until a plateau of around 70 to 75 percent of all course enrolments are in blended/hybrid classes. The rest, for a variety of reasons, will remain mainly as on-campus teaching.

Policy implications

The timing of these changes may differ somewhat from my predictions, but I have more confidence about the general shape of the lines in the graph. In other words, we may get to 75 percent of all courses in a blended/hybrid mode more quickly or more slowly than predicted, but the endpoint is still likely to be in that range. This rapid growth, particularly in blended/hybrid learning, will have serious policy implications:

  1. Everyone needs a plan. Institutions will need both to respond to changes externally and to promote changes internally. This will mean developing plans and strategies to support hybrid and online learning, especially to ensure high-quality courses, but also to encourage innovation and new course designs and teaching methods.
  2. An increase in instructional support staff. There will be an increased demand for instructional designers, media producers (web, video, graphics designers) and software developers (for educational apps, blog and wiki support) to help faculty and instructors to move more effectively into digital learning.

    I predict that this will result in an increase of around 10 to 15 percent in such positions over the next five years. But, if you look particularly at the hybrid learning curve, there is no way this can be scaled up in proportion to the likely demand, because these positions come out of the teaching budget. Unless there is a huge influx of money from outside the institution (unlikely over the next five years), then these positions will come at the expense of faculty positions, and that will put a cap on the instructional support numbers for sure.

  1. More and better instructor development and training. I have argued for many years that the current model of faculty development and training is broken. No more than 10 percent of faculty per annum receive any form of faculty development. However, a move to 70 or 80 percent hybrid learning, and 30 percent online, means that almost all postsecondary instructors will need to know how to teach well digitally. The implications then are obvious but significant:
    • there should be an annual training plan for every instructor, whether tenured or contract;
    • we need to build more qualifications in teaching for a digital age, in the form of short courses for micro-credentials that can build into certificates and master’s degrees, and relate such qualifications to tenure and promotion;
    • we need to build more on-demand resources for instructors, in the form of “how to” videos and websites;
    • heavy use of open educational resources both for on-demand resources and online courses in digital teaching and learning, to avoid duplication and to rapidly increase resources.
  1. Better communication with government. The biggest danger is that some governments will see the emergency remote-learning response to COVID-19 as a justification for using online learning to cut costs. It needs to be emphasized that while online and hybrid learning will become essential in developing the knowledge and skills that students will need in a digital age, this still requires the use of highly knowledgeable and skilled instructors. Teaching high-level skills such as critical thinking and good communication is still going to be relatively labour-intensive.

Secondly, institutions are facing a huge human resource issue: a radical retraining of its main workforce. This is going to be difficult if not impossible without some external intervention and support from government. Whether such support is likely will depend on how the federal government in particular sees the need for heavy investment in critical skills to get the country out of a deep recession. Will investment in the training of postsecondary instructors be high on such an agenda?

Nevertheless, the stakes are high. A well-trained instructor workforce will be essential to develop the skills and knowledge for an effective digital-age economy. At the same time, such training will better prepare institutions for emergency responses in the future.

Tony Bates is a research associate at Contact North and a senior advisor to the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. This article was adapted from two blog posts originally published at tonybates.ca.

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