Fifteen years following the publication of the first State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada report, there continues to be a great deal of consistency in types of K-12 distance and online learning programs that exist throughout the country (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Types of K-12 distance and online learning programming across Canada
Single provincial program
Primarily district-based programs
Combination of provincial and district-based programs
Use online learning programs from other provinces
Students from all thirteen provinces and territories continue to participate in K-12 distance and online learning opportunities. Most jurisdictions continue to have either primarily district-based programs or district-based programs and provincial programs. The exception to this trend is in Atlantic Canada and Northern Canada. In Atlantic Canada the dominant model is the use of a single province-wide program. Both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories continue to develop their own online learning programs, however, all three territories in Northern Canada still utilize distance and/or online learning programs from southern provinces (notably Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia). The one change that has occurred during the 2021-22 school year was the change of Alberta from a “combination of provincial and district-based programs” to “primarily district-based programs” as a result of the closure of the Alberta Distance Learning Centre (although the Centre francophone d’éducation à distance does still operate at a provincial level).
It is also important to note that the distinction between “primarily district-based programs” and “combination of provincial and district-based programs” is becoming quite blurred. For example, in Alberta while there isn’t a single English-language provincial program whose mission is focused on serving students province-wide, the changes to the funding mechanism in Alberta encourage all district-based distance learning programs to enroll students from outside of their own geographic region. While the province of Saskatchewan ceased operating their province-wide distance learning programs in 2009-10, but all distance learning programs operated by the school divisions have the ability to enroll students from anywhere in the province. Traditionally, the model of online learning in Ontario was similar (i.e., school board operated online learning programs that were permitted to enroll students from anywhere in the province). However, the “primarily district-based programs” label neglects the changing mission of the Independent Learning Centre. A similar issue will soon exist in British Columbia. Both District Online Learning Schools and Provincial Online Learning Schools are likely to be operated by school districts (i.e., “primarily district-based programs”), but those school district programs that are authorized as Provincial Online Learning Schools will be able to enroll students from anywhere in the province (i.e., would this make British Columbia a “combination of provincial and district-based programs” jurisdiction?). These are issues that the project team will need to consider in future reports.
In terms of the level of distance and online learning activity across Canada, the total K-12 population in Canada for 2021-22 was approximately 5.3 million students. Based on actual and estimated enrollment data, the number of students engaged in K-12 distance and online learning was 399,847 or 7.6% of the overall K-12 student population (see Table 5).
Table 5. Summary of K-12 distance and/or online learning activity by jurisdiction for 2020-21
|# of K-12 students||# enrolled in distance/online learning||Percent involvement|
Note: ~ symbol means that approximations were provided by one or more sources
In examining the data, jurisdictions can be grouped into three categories. First, the majority of provinces in Western Canada have K-12 distance and online learning participation levels that are much higher than the national average (i.e., Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia). Second, while historically Central Canada has consistently had participation levels near the national average, this year only Ontario fell into this category (although it is possible that Quebec might also be included in this category, as there were no student enrollment data provided by the Québec Ministère de l’éducation et de l’Enseignement for the 56 pilot projects that operated during the 2021-22 school year). Third, most jurisdictions in Atlantic Canada (i.e., Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador) and Northern Canada (i.e., Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) have a relatively low proportion of K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning.
While Manitoba is a notable exception to these categories, it is Quebec that remains a true outlier. If the approximately 50,000 adult students engaged in distance learning from programs supported by the Société de formation à distance des commissions scolaires du Québec were not included, the number of known distance learning students in Quebec would decrease to approximately 5,000 or approximately 0.5% (i.e., half of 1% ) of all K-12 students in the province. Given there is no recent data available from programs such as Centre de services scolaire de la Beauce-Etchemin or Écoles en réseau, as well as the fact that the Ministère de l’éducation et de l’Enseignement was unable to provide any student data from the 56 pilot projects administered by 39 educational establishments and organizations, represents a lack of reliable data collection. However, as the Government of Quebec argued in the 2021 Karounis c. Procureur Général du Québec case, there is a general belief that distance learning is inferior to in person or classroom-based learning.
As it has been stated before, it is difficult to determine why particular jurisdictions end up in each of the categories. There are jurisdictions that have significant levels of legislative and/or regulatory requirements – like British Columbia and Nova Scotia – that are in categories that are at the opposite end of the spectrum (e.g., British Columbia in the high proportion of K-12 distance and/or online learning, while Nova Scotia is in the low proportion category). Similarly, there are jurisdictions that have no legislative and/or regulatory requirements – like Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador – that are also in opposite categories. There continue to be no real trends for why one jurisdiction has a higher or lower level of engagement in K-12 distance and online learning, and any effort to apply a rationale would be political, ideological, or self-serving.
The 2021-22 school year continues a trend in the growth of the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning (see Table 6 below).
Table 6. K-12 distance and/or online learning student enrollment in Canada
|Year||# of distance education students||% of students engaged in distance education|
* (Canadian Teachers Federation, 2000)
After years of relative stability in the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning (i.e., from 4.9% in 2011-12 to 6.0% in 2019-20), the 2020-21 school year represented the highest proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning (as well as one of the most significant increases). At the time, it was suggested that based on the responses from both the Ministries of Education and the individual programs themselves, these enrollment figures were likely artificially inflated due to the pandemic and parents’ concerns about the health of their students and families. This increase is likely given the marginal increase in the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning during the 2021-22 school year.
The artificial pandemic-induced increase was also evidenced by the fact that the number of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning during the 2021-22 school year decreased in most jurisdictions (see Table 7).
Table 7. Summary of K-12 distance and/or online learning activity over the past four years
|# students engaged in distance and/or online learning|
With the exception of Ontario (which was only able to report data from the 2019-20 school year for the public school programs), most jurisdictions saw a slight decrease in the number of K-12 students engaged in distance and/or online learning in 2021-22. However, in most cases the number of students during the 2021-22 school year was still higher than the number of students during the 2019-20 school year – representing a net gain of students from the most recent school year compared to before the pandemic began. One notable exception to this pattern was Manitoba. Additionally, one of the interesting trends in Table 7 above (and in Table 8 below for that matter) is that the jurisdictions who were in that low participation category have had a relatively consistent number of students engaged in K-12 distance and online learning. Jurisdictions in the average participation category and the high participation category have seen increases.
Further, as was noted in the 2021 State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada report, while Ontario has the highest number of students engaged in K-12 distance and online learning, it is slightly below the national average in terms of the proportion of K-12 students participating in distance and online learning. This trend is expected to change over the next three to four years, as the first class of students are held to the graduation requirement of two online courses. Once the requirement is fully implemented it is expected that Ontario will have on average over 300,000 secondary students enrolled in at least one online course at any given time (Barbour & LaBonte, 2019). This figure would also not include elementary students, students enrolled in private virtual schools, or the non-traditional students enrolled in the Independent Learning Centre. This is also assuming that the Government of Ontario is able to catch up on its reporting of distance and online learning enrollments in public school programs. Traditionally, during the Fall of one year, the Ministry of Education is only able to provide data for the second most recent school year (e.g., in the Fall of 2021, the Ministry was able to provide data for the 2019-20 school year). However, this year (i.e., Fall of 2022) the Ministry of Education is still only able to report on public school distance and online learning enrollment for the 2019-20 school year. This means that there is no government data available from public school boards offering distance and online learning since the two course graduation requirement came into effect.
As with previous years, many of the trends in the participation by jurisdiction data are even more noticeable when the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning is examined (see Table 8).
Table 8. Summary of K-12 distance and/or online learning activity over the past four years
|% students engaged in distance and/or online learning|
For example, there were slight decreases in the proportion of K-12 students enrolled in distance and online learning during the 2021-22 school year in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon. The proportions remained roughly the same in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and federally. The exceptions to this trend were in Quebec and Ontario. In Quebec the increase can be attributed to more recent data obtained from the Société de formation à distance des commissions scolaires du Québec. In the case of Ontario, the increase is attributed to more students engaged in both private online schools and the Independent Learning Centre. However, as noted in Table 7, in most cases the proportion of students during the 2021-22 school year was still higher than the proportion of students during the 2019-20 school year (with Manitoba being the exception) – representing a net gain of students from the most recent school year compared to before the pandemic began.
What is interesting – and what the above data does not reveal – is the significant increase in some jurisdictions with respect to the amount of choice that students and their families have in terms of distance learning providers.
Table 9. Number of K-12 distance learning programs per jurisdiction over the past five years
As Table 9 illustrates, if you exclude the provinces with one or two province-wide programs, there was a stable growth in the number of K-12 distance learning programs in most jurisdictions prior to the pandemic. For example, both Saskatchewan and Alberta saw a small increase in the number of distance learning programs from 2017-18 and 2019-20, while there appeared to be some rationalization of programs in Ontario and British Columbia. However, the trend in some jurisdictions from the 2019-20 school year to the 2021-22 school year has been quite different.
The increase in distance learning providers is understandable in some jurisdictions. For example, following the passage of Bill 144 in 2017, Quebec went from one pilot approved project by one educational establishment or organization in 2019-20 to two pilot approved projects by one or two educational establishments and/or organizations in 2020-21 to 56 distance learning pilot projects by more than 39 educational establishments and organizations in 2021-22. Additionally, it is unknown how many of these are actual distance learning programs or the extent to which the pilot project is truly focused on the provision of distance learning. So the number of programs could be much smaller. The province of Ontario is another example where the growth of distance learning programs may be explained by regulatory changes. The announcements that students would be required to take four courses in order to graduate from high school in March 2019 (i.e., during the 2018-19 school year), which was reduced to two courses in November 2019 (i.e., during the 2019-20 school year). This requirement came into effect for students who began grade 9 in September 2020 (i.e., during the 2020-21 school year), and the actual implementation Policy/Program Memorandum 167 was eventually released in February 2022 (i.e., during the 2021-22 school year). These regulatory changes likely had as much of an impact on the increase in K-12 distance learning programs as the pandemic. It is also worth noting that there are 60 English-speaking and 12 French-speaking school boards in the province. Traditionally, programs offered by these school boards – as well as the Independent Learning Centre – represented the bulk of the approximately 70-80 distance learning programs in Ontario. The roughly 250% increase in the number of programs likely represents a significant increase in the number of privately operated K-12 distance learning programs.
The provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta are the jurisdictions where the pandemic appears to have played a significant role in increasing the number of K-12 distance learning providers that are available. The number of programs in Alberta increased by approximately 30% over the past two years, but the number of K-12 students engaged in distance learning has only increased by between 15% and 20%. This is of course an approximation, as Alberta Education did not provide updated data on distance learning enrollments for the 2021-22 school year. Additionally, the increase in the number of K-12 distance learning programs could also be a result of the closure of the Alberta Distance Learning Centre at the end of the 2020-21 school year or the changes in the funding formula in recent years that appear to encourage school districts to enroll students from outside of their own district (as opposed to students from within their own district). In the case of Saskatchewan, the number of distance learning programs have increased by approximately 33% from the 2020-21 school year to the 2021-22 school year, and 125% from the 2019-20 21 school year to the 2021-22 school year. As has been reported in the annual State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada reports for those years, including this current report, ‘there have been no regulatory changes in the province of Saskatchewan.’ As noted above there was an increase of approximately 80% in the number of students enrolled in distance learning from the 2019-20 21 school year to the 2020-21 school year. However, there was only an increase of three in the number of school divisions offering distance learning programs, which suggests that school divisions created multiple programs to address the differing needs of their students. With the exception of Saskatchewan, it appears that the pandemic may not have had the lasting impact on K-12 distance and online learning that many had predicted, and that the changes being seen in the number of students engaged and the number of providers of K-12 distance and online learning may have more to do with legislative and regulatory changes in recent years.