The virtues and vices of distance learning

The virtues and vices of distance learning

While I have been extensively published in the higher education field, I’ve decided to launch a regular blog to keep clients and stakeholders up to date on trends and developments. I’ll be writing about current affairs, regulatory changes and the challenges and opportunities facing higher education institutions.

Although blogging is admittedly a broadcast medium, my goal is to use these posts as a catalyst for meaningful discussions among stakeholders in the higher education community. If you read something that resonates with you or makes your blood boil, reach out to me through email or on social media. If you have suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in an upcoming blog, I’d love to hear them.

In this first post, I am exploring the virtues and vices of distance learning, an education model foisted on schools, colleges and universities around the globe by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. 

I’ll be drawing on my expertise as a trusted advisor to post-secondary institutions and as a parent of three children, ages 13, 10 and 10 who have been educated in Ontario and California, both in-person and in remote learning environments.

Growth of distance learning

Long before COVID-19, few issues were as topical in the higher education space as the growth of distance learning. For those post-secondary institutions that learned how to deliver programs and proctor exams efficiently and effectively, distance learning was a boon.

Meanwhile, regulators understood the inevitable quality control problems that would come up with program delivery, program integrity, proctoring exams and monitoring unauthorized collaboration. These are just some of the challenges associated with distance learning and I have seen each of them at play in my law practice.

As far back as 2012, the Superintendent of private career colleges (PCCs) in Ontario invoked a Policy Directive specific to distance learning. Policy directives have the force of law under s.53(2) of the Private Career Colleges Act, 2005, and were designed to give the Superintendent the ability to nimbly protect students without the need to re-enact or amend legislation.

Policy directive #9  initially prescribed rules relating to institutional capacity and eligibility, and those rules have been under review from the onset of the pandemic — regarding Ontario’s reopening legislation, student protection, and the interests of school owners. For good reason, the province did not trust that all registered PCCs would meet prescribed and approved learning outcomes via distance learning. PCCs had to demonstrate they had sufficient resources to offer online programs where students receive a diploma or certificate.

Netting out the pros, cons

Based on my own review, here are some of the virtues expounded by student proponents of distance learning: 

  • freedom/flexibility
  • efficient use of time
  • students can be geographically “nomadic”
  • avoidance of campus or in-person “drama”
  • ability to replay content (with asynchronous learning)
  • safety (during the pandemic)

But aren’t these virtues — except for safety — grossly overshadowed by the benefits of in-person programs, including:

  • Age-specific socialization
  • Age-specific foundational development
  • Age-specific pedagogical collaboration and problem-solving skills
  • Development of lasting friendships and bonding
  • In-person feedback and the development of body language skills
  • Development and enhancement of social emotional learning/empathy?

My own start-up (which I co-founded in 2020 and which is segregated from my law practice activity) ran an imperfect poll five months ago asking students engaged in distance learning: Do you crave the return to full-time in-person learning? By a margin of three to one, and with quite a large sample of 646 respondents, students said they craved a return to in-person learning. My only surprise was that so many students (25 percent) did not want to return to in-person learning. I expected that number to be closer to 10 percent.

Test driving the commodification of education

Distance learning has its place, particularly where students have no other choice, such as during a global pandemic. Still, experts question whether the lack of live interaction with an instructor in real time will diminish students’ ability to achieve learning outcomes.

It’s important to acknowledge that distance learning lends itself much more favourably to some programs, than others. Business and accounting courses lend themselves well to online delivery, but it doesn’t make sense to exclusively use distance education to train medical doctors, massage therapists, or paramedics—among many others. 

As part of my law practice, I represent investor groups evaluating the profitability of private post-secondary institutions (my input is relegated to regulatory advice). In simple terms, the economics of a school are predicated on a break-even model whereby private institutions become profitable once a certain number of students have been enrolled, and more specifically when the number of students outweighs the cost of running the program. 

Investors need to ensure the institutions they’re targeting comply with the dynamically changing distance learning regulations and meeting prescribed learning outcomes without compromising program integrity.

That break-even analysis also applies to public institutions. Despite endowments, cross subsidies, and Ontario’s commitment to keep public institutions strong, the pandemic has changed everything. 

Public universities in Canada have experienced profound revenue erosion. International student enrollment, which attracts significantly higher tuition per student, is down dramatically, and one public university had to file for bankruptcy protection in 2020. Under such cost pressures, many institutions are trying to figure out how to best leverage the distance education model.

Education inequity among potential problems

While it may be significantly cheaper for efficient providers to run remote education programs, there are all sorts of challenges with distance learning. One of my main concerns is that we may be creating a two-tier learning environment where the “haves” enjoy a rich in-class experience while the “have nots” settle for a second-rate education. As online education becomes increasingly commoditized, there will be financial incentives for institutions to cut corners in program delivery.

Another issue with virtual learning is the lack of socialization, something we know is critical for students of all ages. There is growing evidence to suggest the transition to virtual learning took a serious mental health toll on adolescents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health-related emergency room visits for children ages 12-17 increased by 31 percent between mid-March and October 2020.  

There is also significant potential for cheating and academic fraud in a virtual environment, something institutions are keenly aware of given the potential for reputational damage. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal shows that a year of remote learning has spurred an eruption of cheating among students, from grade school to college.

In-person learning critical to Canada’s immigration goals

Canada must attract international students. If they are not living in Canada and physically attending our institutions, they are not buying food, paying rent or taking out mortgages with Canada’s banks. 

At the current pace, and unless we address the challenge of a dwindling tax base, one in four Canadians will be over the age of 65 by 2030, according to the Canadian government. Given declining birth rates and an aging labour force, we are in dire trouble without international students. 

Ontario is making great strides to attract in-person international students. As of December 2020, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) requires only an “Attestation” by an institution, that the institution has a COVID Readiness Plan.  Prior to this update, Readiness Plan submissions were reviewed and coordinated via a lengthy process between MCU and Ontario’s Ministry of Health. All registrant schools still need a plan, but they may attest to the fact that they have one that complies with the new requirement.  

The cost of education in isolation

While there are business-specific arguments in favour of distance learning, it’s important to consider the impact on students. I have seen my own children suffer enormously from the isolation of distance learning. They are not post-secondary students, but I have read countless parallel war stories from Ivy League students who crave the return of the campus experience. We cannot trivialize the void of social interaction that defines the brand of distance learning students were forced into over the past 16 months. 

Iconic business professor Vijay Govindarajan’s words resonate with me as a parent, and as an education lawyer. During a Harvard Business Education webinar on the impact of COVID19 on the education sector, he compared the brand of online education that the world’s higher education institutions delivered in 2020 to “lipstick on a pig.” I agree with the reference, though for the record — and as a committed vegan — I think pigs are beautiful, sentient animals! 

Beyond COVID-19

Last year in Canada, there were just under five million JK to grade 12 students and more than two million young adults who attended Canadian post-secondary institutions.

We know the pandemic has changed how students of all ages are being educated. That experience is raising a myriad of regulatory, pedagogical, and social issues that require a detailed analysis that’s well beyond the scope of this article. More research is required to ensure we are not sacrificing the quality of education in our pursuit of cost effectiveness.

Look forward to your comments, criticisms and feedback!