Welcome to WCET Frontiers!

Today, we are delighted to feature a guest post by an esteemed author who has been at the forefront of tracking online, hybrid, and technology-supported learning trends in Canada. Since 2019, Nicole Johnson, Executive Director of the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, has worked to provide valuable insights into the evolving landscape of higher education in Canada. In this post, Nicole delves into the key findings from the CDLRA’s recently published 2023 Pan-Canadian Report – thank you Nicole for sharing these results with us!

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


In 2019, nearly five years ago, I began working with the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) to track online, hybrid, and technology-supported learning trends at higher education institutions across Canada. A lot has happened since then, and the higher education landscape has shifted profoundly. Several noteworthy trends that have emerged in the Canadian higher education landscape are hybrid learning and flexibility, the use of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), and issues related to student readiness and faculty competencies for teaching in digital contexts.

Drawing upon the findings of the CDLRA’s recently published 2023 Pan-Canadian Report (Johnson, 2023), I’ll discuss each trend in more detail and share my concluding thoughts about the future.

Hybrid Learning and Flexibility

The 2023 Pan-Canadian Digital Learning Survey asked respondents (administrators, teaching and learning leaders, and other teaching and learning staff) whether they expected increased course or program offerings in different modalities over the next 24 months.

Graph: what is the likelihood of the following happening over the next 24 months:
More courses offered partially online - 80%, more courses offered fully online - 69%, more courses offered in person - 58%, more courses offered in multi-access format - 53%.

By far, respondents expect to see the greatest increase in courses and programs offered in a hybrid (partially online) format. Anticipated growth in hybrid courses also aligns with a common perception held by the majority of respondents: that all or most students desire the option of learning online some of the time.

The trend toward hybridity versus fully-online or fully in-person learning experiences is tied to a desire among students (and some faculty) for more flexibility. The 2023 Pan-Canadian survey asked respondents an open-ended question where they were asked to share their opinion about what drives student modality preferences. The responses varied and touched on topics like:

  • balancing other responsibilities with studies (e.g., work, caregiving),
  • transportation issues, and,
  • cost of living concerns,

highlighting that there are many individual-centric reasons underlying student demand for more flexibility in how they complete their studies.

Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI)

For many of us in the field of digital learning, the topic of Generative AI (GenAI) has dominated discussions about teaching and learning practices for the past year. In late 2022, when OpenAI launched ChatGPT, tensions surrounding the use of GenAI in higher education quickly emerged. The CDLRA published a special report titled Generative Artificial Intelligence in Canadian Post-Secondary Education with recommendations for incorporating GenAI into educational practices (Veletsianos, 2023) based on our survey findings.

Bar chart titled 'AI' depicting survey responses on various aspects of AI in education. The horizontal bars represent the percentage of respondents who 'Strongly agree,' 'Somewhat agree,' or are 'Neutral' on several statements about AI's role in education:

'AI use will become a normal part of education': 57% strongly agree, 35% somewhat agree, 5% neutral.
'Students will use AI as a study tool': 38% strongly agree, 48% somewhat agree, 9% neutral.
'Students will use AI to cheat': 31% strongly agree, 45% somewhat agree, 16% neutral.
'AI will make teaching more challenging': 27% strongly agree, 45% somewhat agree, 13% neutral.
'AI will make teaching more efficient': 16% strongly agree, 43% somewhat agree, 18% neutral.
'AI will make teaching more engaging': 11% strongly agree, 38% somewhat agree, 28% neutral.
'AI will make teaching more effective': 11% strongly agree, 37% somewhat agree, 27% neutral.

Overall, respondent opinions about the use of GenAI in education indicate a sense of duality: that GenAI has the potential to be both problematic and beneficial. The chart below, found in the CDLRA’s 2023 Pan-Canadian Report, shows that while many respondents believe that it will be used to cheat, they also agree that students will use GenAI as a study tool. At the same time, respondents indicated that they thought AI would make teaching both more challenging and more efficient.

Readiness to Learn and Readiness to Teach

... although many students are digitally savvy when it comes to communicating with friends and family using a smartphone, this does not necessarily mean that they have learned how to engage with learning technologies or have been taught how to communicate in a professional manner in online spaces. Additional wraparound support may be needed to help students develop education-specific digital skills.

When presenting the 2023 survey findings, I have been asked on several occasions what I have found most surprising about this year’s results. My answer has been that the Canadian higher education system is experiencing a “readiness conundrum” of sorts. This readiness conundrum encompasses both the readiness of students and the readiness of faculty to teach technology-supported learning experiences.

The survey findings showed that just over half of respondents were concerned that students are entering higher education unprepared in terms of academic readiness and general life skills. At the same time, although many students are digitally savvy when it comes to communicating with friends and family using a smartphone, this does not necessarily mean that they have learned how to engage with learning technologies or have been taught how to communicate in a professional manner in online spaces. Additional wraparound support may be needed to help students develop education-specific digital skills.

There are also concerns about faculty competencies for teaching with technology and in online environments. The survey asked respondents whether they thought that faculty had the skills and know-how to teach in different modalities. The greater the technology requirements of a modality, the less confident respondents were in the competencies of faculty at their institution.

It might seem that the obvious answer should be additional training for faculty; however, the survey findings also show that faculty fatigue and burnout top the list as the most pressing teaching and learning challenges at Canadian institutions. A solution that adds to faculty workload is not likely to be viable, much less well-received, and potentially unfeasible (depending on the collective agreements between institutions and faculty unions).

Bar chart titled 'Faculty at my institution have the skills and know-how to effectively teach' showing survey responses about faculty skills for different teaching methods. The horizontal bars represent the percentage of respondents indicating 'All or most faculty' or 'Some faculty' for each teaching method:

'Fully in-person (minimal tech)': 92% all or most faculty, 4% some faculty.
'Fully in-person (substantial tech)': 52% all or most faculty, 39% some faculty.
'Partially online': 42% all or most faculty, 46% some faculty.
'Fully online': 33% all or most faculty, 53% some faculty.
'Multi-access': 12% all or most faculty, 39% some faculty.

I do not think there are any easy answers for solving our readiness conundrum; however, finding strategies and interventions to better support students and faculty is critical. The current challenges must be overcome to ensure that online, hybrid, and technology-supported learning experiences are taught well and delivered to students who are prepared for the academic and technological demands of their courses. There is certainly a need for further research in this area.

Concluding Thoughts

In closing, the term that best describes the myriad of changes in Canadian higher education is “digital transformation.” EDUCAUSE defines digital transformation as “a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value proposition” (para 1). The CDLRA’s 2023 research findings indicate that technology use, especially technology pertaining to hybrid learning and GenAI, is becoming increasingly embedded in higher education. As with any type of transformation, tensions, and challenges will be part of the process as we settle more deeply into our digital age. In my role as a researcher and leader in understanding macro-level trends, my hope is that there is continued collaboration amongst colleagues in the digital learning space (across institutions and across countries) to help one another find the best solutions for overcoming our present challenges and those that are still to come.


Nicole Johnson

Executive Director, Canadian Digital Learning Research Association

References

EDUCAUSE. (n.d.). Dx: Digital transformation of higher education. https://www.educause.edu/focus-areas-and-initiatives/digital-transformation

Johnson, N. (2023). An increasing demand for technology use in teaching and learning: 2023 pan-Canadian report on digital learning trends in Canadian post-secondary education. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. https://www.cdlra-acrfl.ca/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/2023-Pan-Canadian-Report-EN.pdf

Veletsianos, G. (2023). Generative artificial intelligence in Canadian post-secondary education: AI policies, possibilities, realities, and futures: 2023 special topics report. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. https://www.cdlra-acrfl.ca/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/2023-AI-Report_special-report.pdf

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