Since 2011, the annual State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada study has received consistent participation from the various Ministries of Education (and federal authorities since 2013). In some cases the Ministries collected and published detailed information. However, there are other instances where the Ministries do not collect any data related to K-12 distance, online, and/or blended learning. The data collected from Ministry sources are compared with the information received from other key parties in various jurisdictions, as well as an analysis of available documents. In some instances the data from Ministries and parties sourced agree, while in other cases there is some inconsistency between the stated governance regime and experiences of others. The sponsorship of the Canadian eLearning Network (CANeLearn) that began in 2014 has significantly increased the network of stakeholders available to the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada team. This sponsorship has also helped to foster the collection of data from the individual program survey. The response rate for the 2020-21 school year was only 15%, which was one of the lowest that we have seen in recent years. However, over the past eleven years (i.e., since the individual program survey was first introduced for the 2010-11 school year), the project has received at least one response from over 40% of the programs in Canada (see Table 1). This figure has decreased this year due to the influx of new K-12 distance, online, and blended learning programs – likely due to the pandemic.

Table 1. Historic individual program survey responses

Total Number of Programs Number of Programs Responding Response Rate
NL 2 2 100%
NS 2 2 100%
PE 1 0
NB 2 2 100%
QC 5+ 5 100%
ON ~70 38 54%
MB ~38 9 24%
SK 27 14 52%
AB 36 22 61%
BC 69 50 72%
YT 2 2 100%
NT 1 1 100%
NU 0
Federal 5 5 100%
Total 360 152 42%

Conversely it is also important to note that this reality means that the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada project team have never received any data from over half of the known K-12 e-learning programs in Canada. While most jurisdictions are above the national average response rate, K-12 e-learning programs in Manitoba remain well below the national average in terms of participating in the annual study. While the State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada project team is confident in the information included in this report and on the project website, these limitations in the data collection must be recognized.

Nature of K-12 E-Learning Regulation

While many provinces and territories continue to have some reference to distance education in the Education Act or Schools Act, in most instances these references simply define distance education or give the Minister of Education in that province or territory the ability to create, approve or regulate K-12 distance education. Many of these references have also become antiquated given the present realities of K-12 distance and online learning. The only provinces where this is not the case are Nova Scotia (e.g., collective agreement signed between the Government of Nova Scotia [2020] and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union) and British Columbia (e.g., section 3.1 and section 75 (4.1) of the School Act, 2006, as well as section 8.1 of the Independent School Act, 2006). Table 2 provides a summary of regulations showing that the most dominant trend affecting the regulation of K-12 distance and online learning is that approximately a third of all jurisdictions use policy handbooks to regulate K-12 distance and online learning, sometimes in combination with a formal agreement or contract.

Table 2. Summary of the K-12 distance and online learning regulation by jurisdiction

Legislation Policy Handbook Agreements Memorandum of Understanding
NL
NS
PE
NB
QC
ON
MB
SK
AB
BC
YT
NT
NU
Federal

During the 2020-21 school year, British Columbia was the only jurisdiction to experience changes in their regulatory framework. Legislative changes to both the School Act and the Independent School Act have updated the terminology from distributed learning to online learning. Further, there were historically seven distributed learning policies (i.e., 6 public and 1 independent) that regulated distributed learning in the province, and all distributed learning schools had agreements with the Minister in order to operate. The legislative changes have also meant that school districts and independent school authorities will no longer need to enter into an Agreement with the Minister to offer online learning courses and programs to in-district’ students (but will still need an agreement to enrol out-of-district students or for cross-enrolment). The implementation of many of the other changes have been delayed until or have been planned for the 2021-22 school year or the 2022-23 school year. As such, there will be updates to detail in future reports.

Additionally, following announcements during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, the requirement that Ontario students had to take two online courses to graduate from secondary school came into effect during the 2020-21 school year. Late in 2021, the Ministry of Education announced that all secondary students in the province would receive credit for having taken one online course due to the remote and hybrid learning that occurred during the 2020-21 school year.

Level of K-12 Distance/Online Learning Activity

Fourteen 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, with even Prince Edward Island piloting a province-wide program during the latter part of the 2020-21 school year. 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 Alberta and British Columbia).

In terms of the level of distance and online learning activity across Canada, the total K-12 population in Canada for 2020-21 was approximately 5.3 million students. Based on actual and estimated enrolment data, the number of students engaged in K-12 distance and online learning was 387,385 or 7.3% of the overall K-12 student population (see Table 3).

Table 3. 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
NL 63,510 1,029 1.6%
NS 125,124 3,319 2.7%
PE 20,131 ~175 0.8%
NB 98,906 4,754 4.8%
QC 1,003,322 ~39,400 3.9%
ON 2,056,055 ~122,000 5.9%
MB 186,372 ~8,173 4.4%
SK 184,472 22,510 12.2%
AB 733,599 97,527 13.3%
BC ~673,000 ~85,000 12.6%
YT 5,456 389 7.1%
NT 8,700 92 1.1%
NU 10,902 ~15 0.1%
Federal ~108,995 ~3,000 2.8%
Total 5,278,544 387,385 7.3%

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, much of the central portion of Canada have consistently had participation levels somewhat near the national average (i.e., Manitoba, Ontario, and New Brunswick). Third, most jurisdictions in Atlantic Canada (i.e., Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador) and Northern Canada (i.e., Northwest Territories and Nunavut) have a relatively low proportion of K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning.

The only exceptions or outliers to these categories are Quebec and the Yukon. In the case of the Yukon, its participation levels are much higher than the other Northern Canadian territories – even higher than those jurisdictions in central Canada region in fact. However, this higher proportion of participation in K-12 distance and/or online learning is likely more reflective of the small overall K-12 student population. For example, an increase of three students in each school in the territory engaging in K-12 distance and/or online learning would represent an overall increase of about 100 students or an increase of approximately 2% in their participation level. Essentially, due to the low number of K-12 students overall, even small changes in the number of students engaged can have significant proportional changes.

On the other hand, the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning in Quebec is proportionally much lower and more in line with the levels experienced in Atlantic Canada. A possible reason for the lack of participation levels in Quebec may be due to the data collection itself. As distance learning is primarily the responsibility of the school board, and not the Ministry of Education, the ability to collect data in the province has been limited. While there is reliable data from LEARN (which provides online and blended learning to the English-language Boards throughout the province), the only school board authority to ever respond to the individual program survey is the Centre de services scolaire de la Beauce-Etchemin (and that data is five years old). Additionally, as has been seen throughout the pandemic, the Ministry of Education in Quebec has shown a specific preference for classroom-based learning (some might even describe it as a bias against providing distance learning unless absolutely necessary and only when in person learning is not an option at all). The lack of reliable data collection, the fact that distance learning is provided at the school board level, and the government’s aversion to distance learning are all likely factors in the low proportion of K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning in Quebec.

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 2020-21 school year continues a trend in the growth of the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning (see Table 4 below). The 2020-21 school year also represents the highest proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning, although 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.

Table 4. K-12 distance and/or online learning student enrolment in Canada

Year # of distance education students % of students engaged in distance education
1999-2000* ~25,000 0.5%
2008-09 ~140,000 2.7%
2009-10 150,000-175,000 2.9%-3.4%
2010-11 207,096 4.2%
2011-12 245,252 4.9%
2012-13 284,963 5.2%
2013-14 290,185 5.4%
2014-15 311,648 6.0%
2015-16 293,401 5.7%
2016-17 277,603 5.4%
2017-18 263,686 5.1%
2018-19 299,320 5.9%
2019-20 310,582 6.0%
2020-21 387,385 7.3%

* (Canadian Teachers Federation, 2000)

One of the trends to note in Table 4 is the relative stability of the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning (with the exception of this most recent year). The reader should be reminded that project researchers believe this stability represents the variability in the accuracy of data collection (e.g., many of the 14 jurisdictions are still only able to provide estimates, approximations, or delayed data based on previous school years). As such, the minor fluctuations from 2011-12 to 2019-20 probably have as much to do with the data collected as it does with actual increases or decreases in participation.

While there has been a pandemic-induced increase in the proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning during the 2020-21 school year, it is also important to examine jurisdictional trends within the 387,385 students or 7.3% proportion of students engaged in K-12 distance and/or online learning nationally (see Table 5).

Table 5. Summary of K-12 distance and/or online learning activity over the past four years

# students engaged in distance and/or online learning
2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21
NL 1,233 1,140 1,092 1,029
NS ~2,700 2,381 2,241 3,319
PE 56 ~100 133 ~175
NB ~3,239 ~3,270 ~3,470 4,754
QC 30,366 ~40,000 ~35,000 ~39,400
ON ~82,000 ~89,000 ~98,000 ~122,000
MB ~6,398 ~11,875 ~13,749 ~8,173
SK 7,738 8,378 12,456 22,510
AB ~63,000 75,806 82,857 97,527
BC 65,556 ~65,000 ~59,000 ~85,000
YT 136 170 234 389
NT 93 130 131 92
NU ~40 ~70 19 ~15
Federal 1,131 ~2,000 ~2,200 ~3,000
Total 263,686 299,320 310,582 387,385

One of the interesting trends in Table 5 above (and in Table 6 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 (in many cases year over year increases).

Interestingly, 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. Since the 2017-18 school year there has been an annual growth of 13.5%, 3.8%, and 24.7% respectively – for an average annual growth of 14%. If the participation in K-12 distance and online learning continued to grow at that rate by the 2023-24 school year (or when the Ontario graduation requirement is fully implemented) there would be approximately 395,000 K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning in the rest of Canada – compared to over 300,000 students engaged in distance and online learning in Ontario alone. Essentially, within the next three to four years there is a potential for Ontario to go from accounting for less than a third to almost one half of all students enrolled in K-12 distance and online learning.

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 6).

Table 6. Summary of K-12 distance and/or online learning activity over the past four years

% students engaged in distance and/or online learning
2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21
NL 1.9% 1.8% 1.7% 1.6%
NS 2.3% 2.0% 1.8% 2.7%
PE 0.3% 0.5% 0.7% 0.8%
NB 3.4% 3.3% 3.5% 4.8%
QC 3.0% 4.0% 3.5% 3.9%
ON 4.1% 4.4% 4.8% 5.9%
MB 3.1% 5.7% 6.6% 4.4%
SK 4.2% 4.5% 6.7% 12.2%
AB 8.8% 10.6% 11.2% 13.3%
BC 10.3% 10.2% 10.8% 12.6%
YT 2.4% 3.1% 4.2% 7.1%
NT 1.1% 1.4% 1.5% 1.1%
NU 0.4% 0.6% 0.2% 0.1%
Federal 1.1% 1.9% 2.0% 2.8%
Total 5.1% 5.9% 6.0% 7.3%

For example, the raw enrolment data indicates that the level of participation in British Columbia had rebounded from a plateau to a slight decrease, before seeing a significant increase in numbers for 2020-21. However, the proportional data suggests that while the plateau existed, there was no real decrease in the overall proportion of activity. Similarly, there was an increase during the 2020-21 school year – but proportionally it wasn’t that significant with an increase of only 1.8%. Alberta posted an increase of 2.1%, the Yukon increased 2.9%, and Saskatchewan increased by 5.5%. Even though British Columbia had the third highest number of K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning, their pandemic-induced jump during the 2020-21 school years was more consistent with Nova Scotia and Ontario at 1.1% or New Brunswick at 1.3% (all jurisdictions from the average proportional or below average proportional categories).

In fact, over the course of these four school years in Table 4 there was an increase of 2.2% in the national average of students participating in K-12 distance and online learning. In British Columbia there was only a 2.3% increase, while in jurisdictions like Alberta there was an increase of 4.5% or Saskatchewan that had an increase of 8%. This trend might suggest that because British Columbia has historically been so far ahead of the rest of the country in the proportion of K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning there is less room for growth in this mode of educational delivery. Further, with an increase of 8% from the 2017-18 school year to the 2020-21 school year, Saskatchewan was leading the country in terms of the growth in the proportion of K-12 students engaged in distance and online learning.

Level of K-12 Blended Learning Activity

As we have discussed in previous reports, data on the level of blended learning has been collected in one form or another since the 2014-15 school year. However, the vast majority of jurisdictions do not formally track participation in blended learning programs and the data that is collected is quite unreliable.  Previous editions of this report have indicated that jurisdictions such as New Brunswick and Ontario are able to provide data based on the number of student accounts in the provincially licensed learning management system, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those students are actually using those accounts or are using those accounts for the purposes of blended learning. That data also excludes those students and teachers that may be engaged in blended learning activities, courses, and programs that do not make use of the provincial learning management system.  Additionally, blended learning activity has been estimated from data collected in the individual program surveys, but this instrument is only circulated directly to e-learning programs (i.e., mainly programs that were primarily engaged in distance and/or online learning). So if Villanova Junior High in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland and Labrador or Forest Glade Public School in Windsor, Ontario or Okanagan Mission Secondary in Kelowna, British Columbia was engaged in blended learning there is a strong possibility that they would not have been aware of this survey to even consider completing it.  As such, previous estimations of blended learning activity only just began to scratch the surface of the true level of blended learning occurring in most jurisdictions.

While there is no presentation of the overall K-12 e-learning activity data for 2020-21 or comparison of that data to previous years, the data that has been collected is still presented in the full jurisdictional profiles (as the data can be situated appropriately in those profiles). It is also worth mentioning that the blended learning landscape in each individual jurisdiction has at times been useful in understanding that jurisdictions’ response to the emergency remote teaching, and later remote learning, that occurred since March 2020.

State of the Nation: K-12 e-Learning in Canada – 2021 National Overview

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