How Online Learning Moved onto the Front Pages of Canadian Newspapers

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From a thorough search of Canadian newspapers from January 2010 to August 2013, Contact North I Contact Nord identified 800 articles focused on online learning. Discarding duplicate stories, those focused on the elementary and secondary school systems or corporate training, and those with only incidental mentions, Contact North I Contact Nord has analyzed 300 articles in this overview of the major themes of the intensifying coverage of online learning by Canadian newspapers.

This extensive coverage of online learning parallels the rapid expansion of online learning in colleges and universities in Canada. 

Some of the coverage arises from the ongoing propositions and debate about future directions for post-secondary education and the potential of technology in this future, especially in the light of recent budget reductions affecting universities and colleges in some jurisdictions.

In other stories, it is developments in technology and course delivery methods that have sparked media interest, especially Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their implications for institutions and learners.

As the growth of online learning generated debate about its quality and the comparative quality of on-campus education, newspaper coverage encompassed both sides of the argument. The biggest story was MOOCs as they gathered hundreds of thousands of registrants, seeming to challenge the core of traditional education. Their implications, strengths and weaknesses were featured in a wide range of stories - reflective, critical, enthusiastic, national, and local. 

This confluence of issues in education, politics and economics, and technology has meant that online learning became increasingly part of the “news”.

How We Did the Analysis

To arrive at a manageable scope for the review, we decided to rely on the ProQuest database Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies, which features 15 “national and leading regional papers”. We have included the list of the newspapers in the Appendix.

This is in no way a comprehensive or inclusive look at media coverage on online learning in this period as it leaves out sources such as magazines, TV and radio coverage, and the multitude of online sources, and includes only English-language Canadian sources. And, of course, only a small selection of the coverage is presented in this analysis.

We focused on what people in Canada, looking at their daily newspapers, would be reading about online learning or, looked at another way, what these newspapers are choosing to present as news and analysis on this evolving area of post-secondary education.  The articles cited below are written by editorial writers and journalists, academics and educational administrators, students, and a wide variety of commentators.

What They Said - It’s the Greatest to the Worst Thing to Hit Education

We examined what Canadian newspapers were saying about online learning – finding stories and commentary that ranged from the enthusiastic, to the good, the bad, and the dismissive on a wide range of issues. The coverage was grouped under six headings:

  1. Considering changes in learning
  2. Debating online learning
  3. Focusing on colleges and universities
  4. Highlighting government strategies
  5. Showcasing new technologies
  6. Covering the “big story” - MOOCs

1.     Considering changes in learning

The changes in learning, and consequently teaching, received considerable attention; some comments stressed the centrality of technology in both generating the change and being part of the response:  

 “Preliminary indications are that emerging technologies can markedly improve many of the problems observed in education.”[1]

 A broader sense of the causes and responses is contained in:

“A perfect storm – extreme financial constraints, a technological revolution, groundbreaking pedagogical research, and increased expectations for students facing weak job prospects – is forcing universities to re-imagine their purpose. Universities are looking for technological solutions that allow them to deliver education to more students for less money. Higher education seems poised to undergo the type of technological disruption that upended creative sectors such as the music and publishing industries.”[2]

“Today we are on the brink of a period where technology, educators and institutions are working collectively to re-define academia.”[3]

New models for education and institutions are proposed in which interactive learning is the norm and resources for learning are widely and easily available:

“With billions of dollars invested in research that is freely available, course materials that can be freely adapted for any purpose and free online courses from some of the world’s leading institutions, the shape of education is set to change dramatically in the coming years.” However, the same writer adds a concern for this vision:  “The education future may be here but few Canadian universities have woken up to its implications.”[4]

“If universities want to prosper, they need to embrace a new model of pedagogy.”[5] Rather than a teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all model, the writer outlines a more an interactive education in which technology is used to free professors from transmitting information by supporting a new role of tailoring education to students’ individual styles to encourage discovery and collaboration outside the classroom.

“This shift to online courses is nothing less than seismic in the context of the impact it will have on how future generations are educated. ... While we have become a society quick to jump on a bandwagon – and this one looks right for cash-strapped and infrastructure-constrained institutions – it’s critical to acknowledge that the delivery model of the future will offer a blend of online and in-person options.”[6]

Much attention was paid to students and learning experiences which can be personalized and immediate:

“Technology is poised to change this [the way we educate] by revolutionizing the learning process”[7] through providing learning experiences tailored to individual students in terms of both their strengths and weaknesses.

“Learners are taking control of their own learning experiences; they want information when they want it.”[8]

Based on research from Australia, one writer provides a fuller description of the Net Generation and their ways of learning: “Technology is allowing students to actively make choices about how to generate, obtain, manipulate, or display information, putting them in the driver seat of their education.”[9] In this new environment, students have been positioned as the discoverers and teachers have become the guides to academic excellence.

Online learning was seen as having a positive influence on enrolment and access through its capacity “to broaden the base of people with whom we engage”[10], to provide a “variety of ways to manage rising enrolment”[11], and to reach multiple learners as “people who have jobs, children, mortgages and all those kind of things now have an opportunity to continue their education.”[12]

Cooperation is seen as essential:

“With the evolution of e-learning comes the need to expand access and share curricula with other institutions internationally and across the globe.  This will present a major learning opportunity, and a more efficient deployment of resources.”[13]

Looking at the new models and student realities, a summation of the newspaper coverage might be: “It is not so much the curriculum that has to change, as the basic pedagogical model.”[14]  New learning models built around technology are seen as requiring new institutional approaches, although some writers express concern about the capacity of universities to respond.

2.     Debating online learning

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the media coverage of online learning has been the ongoing debate about online learning. The issues raised most often include quality and cost, student and faculty interaction, and access, with some articles addressing the whole idea of online learning with great enthusiasm or utter disdain. The tables present a few of the contrasting opinions.

In terms of context, one writer suggested that: “Education experts caution that there is no proof that any of these online colleges will succeed academically. The experiments come at a time of deep unease about the traditional higher education model.”[15]  Much of the commentary continues this consideration of both online and face-to-face learning.

Many of the articles did not focus on one particular aspect of online learning, but were more overarching in their commentary:

In Favour of Online Learning

Opposed to Online Learning

“The digital revolution will make higher education better, cheaper, more accessible, more engaging and far more customized than anything that exists today. It will also turn our current institutions upside down.”[1]

“Universities are going online, a destructive move that is nevertheless unstoppable because it cuts the teaching payroll. ...students may end with a degree on the cheap while never having met a smart person, a professor who talks with facility, who teaches like a dream.”[2]

“Online education. We romanticize class and lecture hall time. This has never been a forum for specialized attention to individual students. Much that is imparted there is rote instruction that lends itself ideally to online learning. Online lectures are embellished with graphics and hyperlinks. And the discussion boards, where, in the anonymity of cyberspace, students are more likely to engage in robust debates.”[3]

“You hear a lot of talk about how universities and teachers are expensive dinosaurs and how the future of teaching lies online. Don’t believe a word of it. The classroom experience – live – remains the heart of real education. ... By education I mean the formation of the whole person. ... Online education of this sort may sound good – false economies often do. One professor and zillion students – there’s a ratio to cheer the heart of a university administrator. ... My theory of education is ‘you have to be there’.”[4]

Among the varied opinions expressed on the links of online learning and quality were:

Online Learning Upholds Quality

Online Learning is Lower Quality

“When something is online, the culture assumes it’s not as good or not as rigorous, but the people that are teaching online double up. They make sure that it is every bit as rigorous as face to face, if not more.”[5]

“The study to probe the attitudes and preferences of student being taught with online resources found the more technology there was in a particular course, the lower the proportion of students who said they learned more.”[6]

“The online upgrading courses parallel in-class upgrading programs, and feature the same material as that taught in the equivalent classroom courses. ... The online courses have been very well received.”[7]

Though online courses are creating more educational opportunities, I fear they give an unfair advantage. The fact is that online courses are easier. ... The online system’s flaws are attracting students looking for a quick fix to boost their marks. They get second chances on tests and can take quizzes at home. This unfair system has to be fixed.”[8]

The quality of online learning was sometimes linked with a consideration of the potential cost savings associated with online.  The comment below contrasts the cost savings trap that online learning can fall into with the more-expensive but high-quality option:

“The authors reported cost savings are achieved in online programs by scaling back of factors considered necessary for quality learning.  An online program’s largest expenses are labour and technology. So reducing contact between the learner and the teacher or instructor, eliminating or reducing residential opportunities, and deploying low-technology (text only) solutions were characteristic of profitable, large-scale online programs. Less-profitable, and more costly, online programs provided higher levels of tutor-learner contact, access to better qualified teaching, routine residential opportunities and access to diverse and advanced technological tools.”[9]

Interaction between student and professor and among students is often seen as a distinct drawback of online learning; others see online as the ideal setting for collaboration and exchange:

Online Learning Fosters Interaction

Online Learning Lacks Interaction

“There are other advantages to online learning. One is the inversion of the roles of student and teacher. This occurs because of the difference between attendance and participation in in-person learning. You can be physically present in a classroom but contribute nothing to the ongoing discussion. In an online class, if you are not contributing to the ongoing discussion, it’s like you are not there. In a typical in-person class, most of the communication comes from the teacher. Because students have to participate, online classes reverse the trend, with student posts making up most of the class communications.”[10]

“Online degrees used to be the purview of second- or third-tier schools but now places like University of North Carolina are offering them. ... I’m not sure you get the same value of education online. There is so much that goes on from the personal interaction of students, such as competitions and things like that.”[11]

“Do online courses foster isolation? Apparently not. The most common complaint from our professors involved in online education is the amount of work involved in answering and managing the endless stream of emails, comments, debates, and questions from and among students.”[12]

While supporting online, this writer doubts its interactive potential: “Online learning offers a far superior formal teaching product. What it can’t deliver is teacher-student interaction. This is the competitive response that will make university life better for faculty and students.”[13]

Access is often mentioned as one of the strongest arguments for online learning, but this also raises objections:

Online Learning Expands Access

Online Learning Impedes Access

“Online learning offers unparalleled flexibility. ... People are realizing they don’t have to put their lives on hold to go back to school. They can continue working, can continue on with their lives and their commitments, and realize the quality of their experience. It could actually be better than it would be in a classroom.”[14]

“Nearly a third of all [US] colleges students report taking at least one course online, but Zimmerman said there had been little rigorous research on the efficacy of an all-online education. While such programs may offer some student services, he said, they cannot provide the support that most college campuses offer for people with learning disabilities, mental illnesses and other special needs.”[15]

“Online courses are more accessible to students who are working full-time, are raising children, or live in remote locations. Why do we need this accessibility? A 2012 study of the U.S. Department of Education found that 73 per cent of U.S. undergraduate students were not typical 18-to-22-year-old students studying full-time. In Quebec, 70 per cent of university students work while attending university. Forty per cent of post-secondary students in Canada do the same. A complex world remands multiple forms of accessibility to education.”[16]

“The result will be that university campuses become mostly populated by graduate students, researchers and a relatively few students enrolled in courses – such as chemistry labs and nursing – that require hands-on learning. The university experience is as much about extracurricular activities, from student clubs and organizations, to sports, to long nights debating and dreaming with friends.”[17]

A reader could get intellectual whiplash from ricocheting between the points of view expressed about online learning. Although the comments above are presented in equal numbers, overall, the majority were supportive or at least open to the potential.  Underlying much of the newspaper commentary concerning online learning is a debate about the efficacy and affordability of the campus- and face-to-face based models of education.

1.     Focusing on colleges and universities

On a local level, newspapers often covered developments at specific institutions, such as when Carleton University launched Carleton University Online, the University of Winnipeg explored the revenue potential from putting courses online, and the Saskatchewan Institute of Arts, Science and Technology introduced online upgrading programs for students studying to become trades people.

Athabasca University attracted quite a bit of press attention, particularly for its online MBA program, and US organizations such as the Western Governors University and the Khan Academy were offered as examples of successful online initiatives.

Except for coverage of their involvement in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as described below, the online activities of specific institutions were not major components of media coverage.

2.     Highlighting government strategies

Many of the points found in the coverage of the debate on online learning in post-secondary education re-surfaced in a slightly different content – that of online learning as a government strategy to respond to reduced funding allocations to institutions. This linkage was found in newspaper stories covering the implications of the cuts in funding to Alberta institutions. The government presented institutions with draft mandate letters calling on colleges and universities “to commit to more and shared online learning.”[18]

The Quebec government was criticized regarding its planning for the 2013 summit on higher education.  The issue was the avoidance at the summit of any consideration of “what is perhaps the No.1 issue confronting universities around the globe today – a technological revolution that the president of Stanford calls an impending tsunami. It is the dawn of a promising but also disruptive era of online instruction.”[19]

In Ontario, the 2012 government discussion paper on post-secondary education indicated ‘that online learning and other technological innovations must be part of the Ontario higher education system.”[20]

Many of the responses focused on the question of possible cost savings; most of them downplayed the potential of savings, albeit from different perspectives:

“Online learning offers great potential but decisions on using it should be based on how it improves the experience for students – not just how it can cut costs.”[21]

“The discussion paper talks about increasing productivity through innovation and hopes that technology can be used to control costs. In effect, this means more online courses. That’s not a bad thing, if it’s done right, but real productivity gains can only come from readjusting the balance between teaching and research.”[22]

“Online learning is also no replacement for on campus. Besides online courses aren’t always less expensive ... That it’s a cheaper way to provide education is an illusion if you think you are going to maintain the same quality.”[23]

“Online learning has its place but it is no substitute for learning in person and it can cost more because it can take more time for teachers to respond to each student.”[24]

The coverage indicates overall that online learning is not likely to be an effective response to reduced government funding – the question of its quality and contribution to education continues to generate debate.

3.     Showcasing new technologies

E-books were the subject of considerable coverage, as their market share grew[25], companies such as Apple[26], Symtext[27], and CourseSmart[28] introduced new products or enhancements, and legislation in California created a digital library of open source core textbooks for thousands of students[29].

The Canadian company Desire2Learn received media attention both for supplying its learning management system to increasing numbers of institutions[30] and its increased capitalization[31], combining educational and corporate interest.

Various other software got single story attention, as did incubators at universities to develop software applications, but the business side of technology and software for online learning did not catch much media attention.

4.     Covering the “big story” - MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can safely be categorized as “Big News”. The New York Times dubbed 2012 as the Year of the MOOC – and this was unmistakeable in Canadian newspapers as well.  The coverage ranged from the enthusiastic, to the simply informative, and finally to the more sceptical and questioning.

Among the examples of the more enthusiastic coverage, we find:

“MOOCs in their many forms represent the most significant change in the delivery of higher education and are intended for large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web. ... Instead of offering post-secondary education to a selected few, higher education is being made available to a broader knowledge-hungry audience.”[32]

“Of late, MOOCs have dominated the conversation around online learning. They drastically change distance learning, breaking down the barriers of geography and fees, while connecting students across the globe with each other and some of the world’s top teaching talents.”[33]

“The MOOC innovation is a breaking wave that all post-secondary institutions would be wise to size up, since many pundits say they’re about to do to universities and colleges what iTunes did to the music industry.”[34]

Several of the articles provided more of an informative approach to the phenomenon of MOOCs, stressing the free tuition, huge student numbers in some of the early offerings, the consortia set up to develop and deliver them, their design, and the issue of credit.[35] Articles also highlighted when Canadian universities joined one of the consortia, such as the University of Alberta agreement with Udacity[36] and McGill[37] and the University of Toronto[38] joining edX.  In the coverage of both McGill and University of Toronto, the universities emphasize using MOOCs to learn about how to improve on-campus education.

Many articles about MOOCs were more questioning, looking at both their benefits and the limitations for learning and institutions:

“MOOCs have a number of benefits as the logical extensions of online learning. They are open (free of bothersome tuition fees) and massive (thousands of students can be enrolled in one course). MOOCs allow people to sample university learning in a non-threatening environment. ... Unfortunately, MOOCs face a few challenges before they can truly transform education. ... the quality varies and many are just short video lectures with quizzes. ... In addition, the quality of the student work is difficult to verify on such a large scale.”  The certificates of participation are “a long way from granting university credit toward a degree.” MOOCS have “some distance to go before they replace the collaborative, team-based learning overseen by expert guidance that is the hallmark of our university.”[39]

The key question is whether MOOCs “could become seductive to administrators and policy makers primarily for their cost-cutting potential, and as a result degrading the existing undergraduate university experience for those currently fortunate enough to partake of it. ... In the end, it may not prove economical to adapt the MOOC model to more than a few specialized offerings that augment rather than replace what is now available on campus. But it seems more likely that the satisfaction of students will be key in deciding whether MOOCs end up as more than a passing fad.”[40]

“The problem with MOOCS is that there is no known business model that makes them profitable, especially since course completion rates usually fall below 10 per cent.”[41]

Some of the writers brought the discussion about MOOCs back to the debate about online learning and teaching in the traditional classroom:

“Of course, online education and its first incarnation, distance learning, have been around for a long time. MOOCs have leapt onto the front pages because of their scale – 10,000, 100,000, 200,000 students – and the name-brand schools involved. Students can study with M.I.T. professors. Wow. As exciting as that may sound, the shortcomings and challenges have also been well-known for years.

“The problem with the current debate is this: The quality of the education a student receives at Stanford or M.I.T. is not driven by the large lecture classes there. The real debate should be about how to create online educational experiences that are as rich as or richer than the traditional classroom.”[42]

“Armed with millions of dollars from venture capitalists and university coffers, and fuelled by universities eager to brand themselves as innovators, three American MOOC providers – Coursera, edX, and Udacity – have launched in the last nine months alone. Yet despite excitement over this apparent democratization of high learning, skeptics are multiplying. They argue that the medium hasn’t fixed the message. Many MOOCs simply take traditional classes that were small, close, and expensive, and amplify them to be huge, open and free. The learning may be multiplied but so are the classroom’s limitations.”[43]

Much like in the debate above on online learning, newspapers readers can find wide-ranging opinions of MOOCs, matched with a clear message on the scope of their registrations and the prestige of their providers. The questions of quality, completion rates, real contribution to education, and a successful business model continue to be the subject of media coverage, but the crest of the wave of coverage on MOOCs in newspapers has passed.

To Sum It Up…

Reading through the 300+ articles, the impression is that online learning has become an essential part of post-secondary education, although not without reservations. The coverage of online learning tended to include a majority of positive attitudes, stressing access, flexibility and the possibility of education beyond the classroom–based lecture. The matter of cost savings is far from resolved. MOOCs generated a great flurry of excitement, but the questions about their effectiveness pedagogically and financially, gained more prominence as the public interest appeal of their newness and huge registrations diminished.

Not surprisingly, the aspects of online learning that garnered the most extensive media coverage were those with controversy, big names, and some element of challenge to the status quo.

Many educators, as well as journalists, contributed to the coverage, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the newsworthiness of education to discuss issues of access, quality, technology integration, evolving roles of faculty and students, funding, and the future.  Moving these issues, central to the future of education, more prominently into public view has been a benefit of the debate about online learning and its consequences for students and institutions.


List of newspapers consulted through the Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies database:

  • Calgary Herald
  • Edmonton Journal
  • Gazette (Montreal)
  • The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
  • Leader Post (Regina)
  • National Post
  • Ottawa Citizen
  • The Province (Vancouver)
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon)
  • Telegraph Journal (St. John)
  • Times-Colonist (Victoria)
  • Toronto Star
  • Vancouver Sun
  • Windsor Star
  • Winnipeg Free Press

Contact North | Contact Nord would like to thank the Toronto Public Library for making this database freely available.

[1] Toronto Globe and Mail 04 Feb 2012: F9

[2] Toronto Star 04 Mar 2013: A 13

[3] Toronto Star 23 Sep 2012: IN3

[4] Toronto Globe and Mail 18 Aug 2012: F9

[5] Vancouver Sun 02 Nov 2012: A12

[6] National Post 08 Sep 2011: A1

[7] Regina Leader Post 03 Dec 2011: G14

[8] Vancouver Province 07 Jun 2011: A19

[9] Edmonton Journal 26 Apr 2013: A 25

[10] Toronto Globe and Mail 09 Oct 2012: A17

[11] Toronto Globe and Mail 05 Nov 2012: E5

[12] Montreal Gazette 02 Apr 2013: A15

[13] Toronto Globe and Mail 04 Oct 2012: B2

[14] Toronto Star 06 Sep 2012: M6

[15] Saint John Telegraph-Journal 16 Apr 2012: B2

[16] Montreal Gazette 02 Apr 2013: A15

[17] Vancouver Sun 11 Sep 2012: J9

[18] Edmonton Journal 26 Mar 2013: A1

[19] Montreal Gazette 02 Feb 2013: A2

[20] Ottawa Citizen 07 July 2012: B1

[21] Toronto Star 24 Feb 2012: A22

[22] Ottawa Citizen 13 July 2012: A 10

[23] Toronto Star 23 Feb 2012: A1

[24] Toronto Star 04 Oct 2012: A10

[25] Toronto Star 25 Aug 2012: L1

[26] Montreal Gazette 20 Jan 2012: B6

[27] Toronto Star 24 May 2010: L1

[28] Montreal Gazette 13 Apr 2013: L1

[29] Toronto Globe and Mail 10 Oct 2012: A6

[30] National Post 26 Oct 2013: SR16

[31] Toronto Star 05 Sep 2012: B3

[32] Victoria Times-Colonist 09 Aug 2013: A13

[33] Toronto Globe and Mail 08 Oct 2012: A6

[34] Edmonton Journal 12 Feb 2013: A16

[35] St John Telegraph Journal 16 Apr 2012: B2 and 03 May 2012:B4

[36] Edmonton Journal 31 Oct 2012: A4

[37] Montreal Gazette 22 Feb 2013: A7

[38] Toronto Globe and Mail 21 Feb 2013: A8

[39] Victoria Times-Colonist 30 Jan 2013: A11

[40] Edmonton Journal 02 Aug 2013: A16

[41] Edmonton Journal 16 Feb 2013: A22

[42] Winnipeg Free Press 11 Mar 2013: A 7

[43] Toronto Globe and Mail 08 Oct 2012: A6