The state of digital learning in higher education in British Columbia

4 min read

Each year the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA) conducts a pan-Canadian survey of post-secondary institutions on the state of digital learning in Canada. The CDLRA is affiliated with the US-based Bay View Analytics group and, as such, tracks similar trends in distance, open & online education but with a Canadian focus.

The organization I work for, BCcampus, is one of the funders of the research and receives a regional breakdown of the data specific to British Columbia. Last week Dr. Nicole Johnson, the Executive Director of the CDLRA presented the BC findings for the Spring 2022 survey to us.

There is a lot to dig into in this slide deck, not the least of which is the survey work the CDLRA/Bay View group is doing around surfacing a common consensus of key digital learning terms & modalities and their definitions, which Tony Bates recently wrote about.

One slide I lingered over was the responses to the question “What teaching & learning challenges are most pressing?”

Chart listing the top teaching & learning challenges at BC institutions. Faculty fatigue and burnout (88%), Effective assessment practices (66%), Effective instructional practices (59%), Faculty digital literacy (53%), student fatigue (47%), student digital literacy (38%), student acess to technology (34%), student engagement with faculty (22%), student engagement with fellow students (22%) Other (13%) Faculty access to technology (<5%)

I am not surprised to see issues such as faculty and student burnout (88% & 47% respectively) ranked so highly given the uncertain environment we have found ourselves in these past 2 years. Everyone is exhausted & stretched.

Effective assessment (66%) & instructional (59%) practices are also front and centre as major challenges. One can presume that this was because of the continued reliance on online & hybrid learning brought on by the long tail of the pandemic. Assessment practices, in particular, have been under the microscope throughout the pandemic given the prevalence of concerns over virtual proctoring and we are beginning to see more of an interest in alternative assessment practices.

Digital literacies for both students (38%) and faculty (53%) also scored high on the list of challenges, again likely a result of the pandemic pivot, which highlighted the lack of pre-pandemic digital readiness at many institutions. Indeed, if there is one area that seems to be receiving renewed attention in British Columbia it is digital literacies, which form a large part of the BC government’s draft digital learning strategy that has been in development for the past 18 months. The upcoming ETUG workshop on November 4th is focused on digital literacies and BCcampus has begun work on a provincial-wide digital literacies project that we will be talking about more in the coming weeks & months. All seem like very timely projects given the findings of the CDLRA survey.

Future trends indicate that the BC system is going to see an increase in the number of online or partially online courses & programs offered within B.C. institutions in the coming 2 years. In order for that to happen we will need a large investment in developing digital literacies – and specifically education-related digital literacies – for both instructors and students.

Future trend pie charts showing likelihood of course being offered in a fully online format in the next 24 months as 52% More likely, 32% about the same, 13% less likely and 3% don't know. The second pie chart shows responses to the likelihood over the next 24 months of courses being partially offered online. 71% more likely, 13% about the same, 13% less likely and 3% don't know.

And it is clear when we look at the student preference numbers that learners are overwhelmingly looking for greater choice and flexibility in how they access their education and want to see more use of digital educational resources & technology in their courses.

2 pie charts showing student preferences for greater choice & flexibility in courses and increased use of technology in courses. For greater flexibility, 89% of students want greater flexibility. 7% are neutral, 2% disagree they want more and 2% don't know. For more digital technology, 73% of students want more, 18% are neutral, 6% disagree with wanting more and 3% don't know.

To meet the demands of students, institutions will need to offer more flexible learning options, which means more online, hybrid and hyflex offerings.

But none of this can be achieved without providing the necessary digital skills training & supports both instructors & students need to thrive in flexible learning environments, which requires continued investment in faculty development. And if both faculty and students are feeling overworked and burnt out, we cannot expect this digital upskilling to happen off the side of the desk or as work over and above their day-to-day commitments. There also needs to be a real focus on reducing workloads and commitments for both students and instructors and slowing down the day-to-day grind to make room for the coming shift in the way institutions deliver education.

Johnson, N. (2022). Spotlight on BC: CDLRA Spring survey findings [PowerPoint Slides]. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association.

One Comment

Bwebwentekaai Bob Kabuati October 2, 2022

Greetings from KAHS, Kauma Adventist High School, Abemama, Kiribati. Digital Learning is something KAHS is trying to find its way toward reaching the Digital Learning pathway. Any possibility of KAHS joiningin?

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