Tricia Donovan, Nicole Johnson, Tony Bates, and Jeff Seaman

This brief outlines key findings from the 2019 National Survey of Online and Digital Learning , an annual survey of online and distance education in Canadian public post-secondary institutions. The National Report is available on our website in English and in French.

The annual survey was launched in 2017 and the third survey, the 2019 Canadian National Survey of Online and Digital Learning, was launched in April, 2019 and data collection concluded in August, 2019.

Background to the Survey

The National Survey project is an undertaking of a dedicated number of senior post-secondary educators from across Canada. We are driven to develop and provide insight into what is happening in online and digital learning in Canada’s post-secondary institutions in order to inform evidence-based decision making and practices.

The National Survey includes all types of publicly-funded post-secondary institutions within every province and territory. The inaugural survey was launched in 2017 and, over time, questions and areas of interest have been modified in response to suggestions from responding institutions and colleagues.

The development of the survey each year is an iterative process as we review the responses, suggestions, and advice that responding institutions share with us. A number of questions are intentionally repeated each year to inform trends and develop the ability to make year to year comparisons, and we deliberately test and include select new areas of interest and survey questions.

Responding Institutions

In 2019, a total of 234 publicly funded post-secondary institutions were invited to respond to the National Survey. A total of 164 institutions responded (universities, colleges and CEGEPs[1]) resulting in a 70% response rate. Together, the responding institutions represent 90% of all Canadian post-secondary students and 95% of all online enrolments, thus the results are likely to be highly reliable.

Primary results

The majority of post-secondary institutions in Canada offer online courses for credit, with just over three-quarters of all 234 Canadian post-secondary institutions known to be offering online (including non-responding institutions). The larger the institution, the more likely they are offering online courses, while the smaller the institutions were less likely. More than half of institutions with less than 2000 students offer online courses and a lower proportion of CEGEPs and private subsidized colleges in Quebec offer courses online. In 2018, we reported that the number of CEGEPS offering courses online was increasing, in 2019 we note a significant change with the CEGEPs reporting enrolments in online courses that were nearly double from 2017 and 2018.

Online Course Enrolments on the Rise

Nationally, an increase of 10% in online course enrolments was reported from 2017-2018, while overall enrolments grew by just 2%. Growth in online learning was highest in Ontario (14%) and lowest in the Atlantic region (4%). Nearly all institutions, 71%, forecast an increase in online enrolments in 2018-2019, which is higher than indicated by 63% of institutions expecting growth in enrolments.

In 2019, the results indicate the majority of institutions also offer blended or hybrid courses and three-quarters expect growth in these offerings over the next year. We also noted a tremendous amount of experimentation happening in the design of blended/hybrid learning, which is often difficult to track at an institutional level.

Strategic Importance

The majority (71%) of institutions reported that they see online learning as very to extremely important, yet only a minority of institutions have or are implementing an online program. A continued gap seems to exist between the purported importance that institutions give online learning and the actual operationalization of it in policies, plans and strategies. This manifests itself, in part, in the challenge that institutions have in providing data on their online enrolments as often the internal systems have not yet, or not fully yet, integrated reporting on this activity within the institution.

Location of Online Students

For the first time, the survey asked institutions to report on the location of their online students. Nearly two thirds of institutions do track this data. For those that do, the majority of online students are from the same province in which the institution is located. Nevertheless, a small number of institutions reported that more than 20% of their online students were out of province. However, more than half the institutions reported 5% or less of their online students were from out of province.

Program Level of Study

A number of universities in Canada reported on the program level of study in online courses. The proportion of undergraduate and graduate enrolments in online university courses is similar to the proportion of undergraduate and graduate enrolments in the overall student body. The proportion of graduate students enrolled in online courses is at 10%, very similar to the total proportion of graduate students enrolled at the institution (11%).

Data collection challenges

This being the third year of administering the survey, we have noted that many institutions are still struggling to provide reliable or comparable data on online and overall enrolments. In the open-ended comments it appears that the annual survey has resulted in a number of institutions making efforts to improve data collection in this area. In preparation for the 2020 National Survey, we will extend an outreach to institutions across Canada to learn how we can collectively work to improve data collection and reporting on online and digital learning initiatives, activities and enrolments.


The primary benefits of online expansion in Canada’s post-secondary institutions revolve around increasing access to learning opportunities, growing continued professional development efforts to attract students from outside their traditional market areas.


Institutions also identified their perception of barriers to expanding online and digital learning initiatives. For the third year, the top three barriers to expansion are centered around faculty. Nearly all, 79% of institutions, reported inadequate training for faculty as one of the main barriers to online learning (an increase from earlier years), the additional faculty time required for training, and the overall acceptance of online by faculty. The issue of faculty support and training for teaching online is significant and needs to be addressed in the development of strategic plans for expanding and improving online offerings.

Professional Development for Teaching Online

In 2019, institutions were asked to share information about their policy for professional development and training of faculty teaching online. Faculty are rarely required to take part in training or professional development for teaching online. The results showed that just more than half of the institutions provide voluntary professional development or orientation for teaching online.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

The use of Open Educational Resources continues to increase with just over half (53%) of all institutions reporting use of OER and 54% of responding institutions indicating they use open textbooks. Use of OER was particularly widespread in Ontario with 80% of universities and 78% of colleges reporting the use of OER. Furthermore, in both British Columbia and Ontario, roughly one-half of responding institutions   reported that they either had or were exploring a formal policy for OER or open pedagogy.

Alternative Credentials

In 2019, we also asked questions about alternative credentials, such as micro-credentials, stackable credits, badges, blockchain, and competencies (from competency-based learning); in essence, offerings beyond traditional degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Nationwide, of the institutions that responded to whether they offer alternative credentials, nearly one-half are experimenting with these offerings.

It is useful to note, though, that the definition of what constitutes an alternative credential remains a problem, partly because there is a good deal of experimentation going on, and potentially a gap in communication between faculty or departments who are experimenting with forms of alternative credentials and those who are responding to this survey on behalf of the institution.

As institutions continue to develop and implement alternative credentials, operational definitions are needed to support institutions in classifying and tracking such offerings.


The results of the 2019 National Survey show that Canada is doing well in online and digital learning, while still facing many challenges. As new technologies and practices related to online education emerge, institutions are employing a variety of strategies including integration of new technologies, OER, blended/hybrid learning, and alternative credentials.

The majority of institutions have an optimistic forecast for an increase in online enrolments in the 2019/20 years and most post-secondary institutions in Canada view online learning as very to extremely important to their institutions strategic/academic plan. An increasing acceptance of online learning is suggested by a decrease in the proportion of institutions reporting negative perceptions of online learning on a number of measures between 2017 and 2018.

The results of the National Survey are presented in a series of reports, including the 2019 National Report and a Regional Sub-Reports. These reports provide insight into several areas of interest in online and digital learning and may help to inform increased understanding and potential collaboration in developing practices to support online and digital learning developments.


The Canadian National Survey is made possible by the support of our sponsors to which we are most grateful for. Thank you to eCampusOntario, BCcampus, Campus Manitoba, Contact North, CiCAN, Pearson Canada, and D2L.

National Survey Team

The 2019 National Survey Team included Tony Bates, Brian Desbiens, Tricia Donovan, Vivian Forssman, Nicole Johnson, Eric Martel, Denis Mayer, Ross Paul, Russ Poulin, and Jeff Seaman.

[1] Collège d’enseignement général et professionnels (CEGEPs) are publicly funded education programs (pre‑university, collegiate technical colleges) that all Quebec students are required to attend prior to university.