Full disclosure, Abstract-Ed was originally an assignment for the University of Toronto post-grad course, Foundations of Digital Communications Strategy and Social Media, taught by Donna Papacosta.

 This, in fact, is an online course. That said, Abstract-Ed the blog will continue far beyond the reach of the course and forever be viewed as an ongoing learning experience.

Full Disclosure 2.0, this is my third online course at two separate institutions and it is likely I will complete my Masters in at least a blended learning format. While my learning style is flexible and I enjoy the benefits of both in-class and online learning, I thoroughly enjoy the control afforded via digital learning. Yet, online learning does come with its faults and I would only prescribe this learning method to students who demonstrate discipline, grit, independence and an open-mind.

Regardless if you are for or against online learning as an educator, administrator, student or potential employer, it is a mainstream learning method that is not going away. According to the last survey conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, ¼ of higher education students are taking courses online. In the US, this constitutes approximately 5.8 million students and the number of new students engaging in digital options is growing at about a 3.5% clip yearly. The trend is up, even in the face of a slightly declining enrolment stat for U.S. students pursuing higher education, and this should be promising for institutions that constantly face budget constraints and a “more-with-less” approach.

With total student debt in the US at $1.2 trillion, universities are facing tremendous pressure to lower tuition prices. Students often face mountains of debt by graduation, and bankruptcy is anticipated for some institutions over the next decade. Online learning provides universities with an economically viable solution to these problems, since they can expand their reach, with extremely scalable resources that don’t come with hefty price tags because they don’t require fixed assets (buildings, residence and onsite technology) to implement. On average, an online course costs $70,000 to develop and can be used multiple times per year. So why aren’t more schools listening to the market forces? Quite simply, only 29.1% of chief academic officers have confidence in the value and legitimacy in online learning.

empty lecture

A staggering 70.9% of administrators and academics believe the value of online education is not there and certainly not equal to the experience students have while in the classroom. Of course, students studying online have the ability to stay at home, which could be located all the way across the country from the home institution. But by doing so forgo all the benefits of being on campus, such as: professor office hours; networking with fellow students; joining clubs, intramurals or varsity athletics; homecoming and wild keggers. You know, the invaluable life lessons that were mentioned in the life101 blog I discussed in the last post. The benefits of online learning are also exacerbated with an increase of subscribers.

By expanding an institution’s reach through online offerings, they create other challenges for the students and the overall experience. It becomes increasingly difficult to customize the content to the individual needs and delivery tends to become more heterogeneous. However, the one-size fits all approach really is not much different than the traditional lecture style format often seen in first year classes. The evaluation process is cumbersome as well. How can evaluators ensure legitimacy, how can they proctor exams without incurring large additional costs, and how do you evaluate group work? In fact, how do you even conduct valuable group work when students are living in various cities and time zones? Many students and institutions find ways to mitigate these problems, but what are the students actually getting upon completion?

There are many legitimate options for online learning in Canada, both at the high school and university level, and I have listed several options at the end of this post. However, there are just as many detrimental offerings that pray upon the consumer’s lack of knowledge regarding accreditation. Subsequently, some courses are accredited, but taught out of a garage while using things like Rosetta Stone as the curriculum. How are these students getting the academics needed to grow and develop a necessary skill set? Also, it is important that you are aware of who will be granting the certificate, diploma or degree? For example, in the US, courses from various institutions are available via Coursera or Edx. You can take courses or full programs from Stanford, Duke, UC San Diego and so on. In some cases you actually receive recognition from the home institution, but buyer beware. It is important to know who is granting the certificate as often verification is by the online facilitator, not the home institution. You may want to find out how employers will view this credential.


All of the above criticism might warrant further attention, but the one thing the data tells us is that the online learning method is effective. Studies tend to show that students are retaining equal, and in most cases, more information through online delivery. One study showed that students taking Physics through MITx outperformed those who took the same Physics course at MIT. No matter how you take the course, Physics is as challenging of a course as you can find, furthermore to take it at MIT is truly impressive. Administrators must be asking can students taking a course online outperform those who complete courses in the class? This goes against 70.1% of their beliefs about pedagogy.

The reason why performance data is so strong is because the student is in control of the learning method!

One of the most popular online options is Khan Academy. They have identified that digital learning has the ability through analytics to determine strengths and learning gaps to improve the students overall knowledge. Students have the ability to go at their own pace, rewind lectures, go over specific topics to ensure a deeper understanding. Something incredible happens when you teach for mastery over teaching for test scores as Sal Khan says. A different perspective goes a long way and millions of people buy into this vision, in fact, 53,483,678 did when this post was written.

I hope it is starting to make sense that #youcanlearnanything as Khan Academy states. If not, check out the inventor of Khan Academy – Sal Khan’s Ted Talk.

Yes, digital courses come with a slew of problems and they are not the answer for everyone. The academic community has concerns with the learning value, despite what the data shows. This, I believe is largely a product of what Alison King said in 1993; teachers prefer to be a “sage on the stage to a guide on the side”. Teaching is becoming more comprehensive and learning outcomes are more focused on knowledge, information retention and skill development, something test scores can’t fully measure. The results show students are successfully learning online and their efforts should not be undervalued.

elearning Full disclosure 3.0, In my first math class in university, I got 51% and granted maturity had a lot to do with the results. However, I recently took a second year stats class online and scored 99.3% on the final exam, finishing with an 89%. Achieving that feat required a lot of discipline, grit and a tightly defined schedule of when I would carve out study time and it worked. That said, maybe it worked because my study time didn’t have to compete with a raging street keg party.

Athabasca University

 University of Guelph

Queens University


Virtual High School



Alberta Distance Learning Centre

British Columbia

BC Online


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