What has COVID-19 taught us about the barriers to online education?

The quick pivot to online classrooms provided opportunities to determine what does and does not work. Canada needs more data on online learning.  

By George Valetsianos, Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology.

George Veletsianos is a full professor at Royal Roads University. He holds the Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology, and the Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Flexible Learning.

Online learning at the post-secondary level has expanded Canadians’ access to education. For instance, online offerings have reached people in remote Indigenous communities, and enabled people in both rural and urban areas to attend educational institutions without necessarily disrupting their professional and personal life. In contrast to other approaches to learning, online education is uniquely flexible to student needs.

During the pandemic, post-secondary institutions have had to pivot to online forms of teaching and learn to accommodate our need to remain physically distant. Many students, institutional leaders, faculty and policy-makers are now paying greater attention to how online learning works and how it could play a role in supporting our society during and after the pandemic.

While the federal government is involved in higher education in some ways – for example, via facilitating international students’ access to our post-secondary institutions through Immigration and Citizenship Canada and via supporting skill and knowledge development through Economic and Social Development Canada – the responsibility for higher education is predominantly a provincial and territorial affair.

There are many actions the federal, provincial and territorial policy-makers must take to better support online learning in our society.

First, policy-makers, faculty and administrators alike need to move beyond simplistic binary comparisons of in-person versus online education, and recognize that both can be good, bad, poor, empowering and so on. Online learning is part of a toolkit. Just like in-person learning, it works in some contexts, for some people, some of the time. To recognize that online or in-person learning is not a silver-bullet is to recognize that there is no one approach that is most preferable, effective, equitable or efficient to education.

When focusing on the online learning aspect of our education toolkit, Canadians need faster, cheaper and more reliable internet connectivity to enable greater access to educational opportunities via online learning. Expanding truly affordable high-speed broadband access for everyone, especially in Indigenous and remote communities, is imperative, and the federal government’s efforts through the CRTC’s Broadband Fund and Connectivity Strategy for example, though lagging behind European Union efforts, are necessary and important. More can be done in this area.

But connectivity is a building block, and policy-makers should not assume that affordable and high-speed connectivity will address the structural inequities surrounding people’s access to online education and the opportunities it may offer. Researchers point to many instances in which expanded access to technology failed to close education participation gaps.

For example, even though the 1990s saw rapid advances in connectivity and infrastructure in kindergarten to Grade 12 schools in the United States, computers remained underused and failed to deliver on their promises. More recently, freely available online courses called MOOCs were supposed to enable anyone, and especially underserved populations, to participate in college-level education. However, much research indicates that the people that seem to be most successful in these courses are those who are affluent, who have prior higher education experience and more time.

What else then can public policy-makers do when technology isn’t the panacea, and when socioeconomic, gender, racial, health and geographic disparities affect access to education more broadly, especially online education?

Federal and provincial governments can direct resources into gathering reliable data on online learning to guide evidence-based decision-making. There is little data on online learning at the provincial, territorial and Canadian level. For instance, Statistics Canada asked only one question in its 2018 National Graduates Survey relating to this topic: “How much of your program did you take through distance education?” While that question can be cross-tabulated with other data collected in the survey – such as age, gender or reasons for not completing a program – we need to know much more to guide online learning policy-making in Canada.

We need annual data specifically on online learning. We need to know who takes online courses, in what contexts, how participation and success vary by different factors (such as disability) and why. We need to understand the intersectional nature of barriers to online learning. We need the demographics to understand the types of barriers different students are facing.

Governments and institutions need to hear more from students about the supports they need for their online education efforts. Some of this work is currently conducted by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, an organization that was created in response to the lack of pan-Canadian data on digital learning more broadly, though that work gathers data from institutions rather than learners directly.

We also need to understand how Canadians engage in online learning programming beyond that which is offered through post-secondary institutions. Millions of Canadians spend hours online every day, and part of their activities include learning for personal fulfilment and professional growth. By gathering data on Canadians’ online learning efforts and outcomes that occur in non-college and non-university settings, we can gain a better understanding on a variety of issues that impact our country’s post-pandemic recovery.

What kinds of skills and knowledge are Canadians seeking and developing? Are those kinds of skills aligned with the kinds of skills and knowledge that are expected to be in demand? Where do they turn for learning, if not in educational institutions? Why do they turn to some providers and not to others, and what is the role of informal learning providers (such as online communities and online courses offered by individual entrepreneurs) in post-pandemic recovery? In what ways do employers support these efforts, and what more do learners feel that employers and governments can do to support them? Some of this work is conducted by the Future Skills Centre, but much more is necessary.

A persistent barrier to the full implementation of online learning, made stark during the pandemic, has been instructors’ lack of preparation to teach online. Faculty members rarely receive pedagogical training during their doctoral program, let alone preparation to teach online. One of Canada’s success stories during the initial lockdown and changeover to online teaching in March 2020 has been the rapid and co-operative way in which free professional development opportunities for faculty were made available via organizations and units that support digital learning. These include BCcampus, eCampusOntario, Contact North, and numerous institutionally-based centres for teaching and learning.

Many universities and colleges, including the organizations mentioned above, co-operated in offering professional development opportunities to help faculty learn how to teach in uncertain and unchartered environments. Provincial and federal policy-makers can take action in two areas here: First, in supporting institutions to develop current and future faculty expertise in online pedagogy; Second, in fostering and rewarding co-operative and collaborative efforts to this end.

I have experienced higher education from multiple perspectives: As a first-generation college student, an international student, a student relying on scholarships and work to complete my degrees, as a professor and as an immigrant faculty member. I’ve seen myself in my students, and my hope is that policy-making related to online learning supports them, and in turn supports our society in creating a future that is brighter for all of us.

This article is part of the Digital Connectivity in the COVID Era and Beyond special feature.

This article first appeared on Policy Options and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.