The Hub Beyond the “classroom to virtual” journey: New poll finds Canadians have high-tech expectations for the future of higher education

Beyond the “classroom to virtual” journey: New poll finds Canadians have high-tech expectations for the future of higher education

Micro-degrees, individualized studies, and artificial-intelligence-programmed robots teaching alongside professors—these are not scenes from a sci-fi movie, but rather what a majority of Canadians predict for the universities of the future.

And Canadians expect these changes to happen within our lifetimes.

These findings come from a new study, The Future of Learning, commissioned by Athabasca University (AU), one of the world’s foremost and fastest-growing online post-secondary institutions, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The poll was conducted on the Angus Reid Forum panel, and it paints an intriguing picture at a time when many traditional institutions, parents, and students are grappling with the potential of a virtual fall semester due to COVID-19.

Interestingly, 69 per cent of Canadians say they would find more value in taking courses that were specifically designed for the virtual environment, as opposed to campus courses that have transitioned online due to the pandemic. AU has been creating and delivering such purpose-built online courses, designed to engage students virtually, for decades.

“It has been fascinating to get a peek into Canadians’ future expectations of higher education – the ‘cutting edge’ vision of our next chapter is almost unimaginably different from our reality today, and that is exciting for us,” said Dr. Neil Fassina, President of Athabasca University. “When our university was founded 50 years ago, distance education was considered cutting-edge; since then, we’ve become the first university in Canada to offer all of our programs virtually, from undergraduate degrees, to Masters, and PhD programs.”

As for the future, 54 per cent of poll respondents feel that just as “bite-sized” content has risen in popularity on social media, micro-degrees will also emerge, enabling people to hold eight or nine such degrees one day. Close to six in 10 (57 per cent) also believe robots with artificial intelligence (AI) will one day teach students alongside professors. And more than half of all Canadians (56 per cent) say university degrees will become much more individualized in the next 50 years.

Fassina is particularly interested in one key point of contention uncovered in this study, namely: the extent to which technology and AI will impact human connection. Canadians appear divided about the future of this issue.

“At AU, we believe that technology, AI, and social and emotional connections need not operate at opposite ends of a polarity,” he said. “Instead, AU takes a learner-centric approach, one that focuses on how technology can best serve our human needs and support our learning throughout work and life.”

“AU takes a learner-centric approach, one that focuses on how technology can best serve our human needs and support our learning throughout work and life.”

– Dr. Neil Fassina, President of Athabasca University

Six in 10 (62 per cent) Canadians feel that with technology increasingly dominating our daily lives, universities will need to re-emphasize social and emotional intelligence. In addition, when it comes to learning styles, the vast majority of Canadians (77 per cent) say they learn best from connecting with others personally—be it online or in-person. At the same time, Millennials and Gen Xers (63 and 61 per cent) are substantially more likely than Baby Boomers (49 per cent) to say they learn best from watching videos. In fact, when Canadians were asked what their primary form of “learning from home” has been during COVID-19 restrictions, the most popular answer was watching videos online (e.g. TED Talks) at 27 per cent.

“I do believe we have a greater responsibility in higher education where if people want to study, no matter where they are in life or geographically, they should have that opportunity,” Fassina said. “Making learning more accessible and flexible is the road we have chosen to pursue over the next 50 years.”

AU is an open university, meaning many of the barriers to accessing traditional higher learning have been removed. To this end, some of the unique features of AU compared to traditional institutions, include:

  • AU classes start at the beginning of every month, without obligations to adhere to pre-determined schedules, and fees are paid course-by-course, rather than by semester or year. Sixty-four per cent of Canadians said they’d love to go back to university but felt they couldn’t balance it with a family at home and full-time work. These are the types of barriers AU is committed to removing.
  • AU learners come from diverse ages, backgrounds, and locations, and they can collaborate digitally, at their own pace, from wherever they are. Fifty-three per cent of Canadians say virtual connections among students can actually help remove assumptions or first-impressions labelling that can sometimes occur more easily in person.
  • Each AU learner has access to a tutor for support with coursework, who can help guide them on the learning path that best suits their learning styles.

AU continues to innovate to support learners no matter where they are on a higher-learning journey. At the university, half (49 per cent) of all learners balance family and learning, with at least one dependent at home. Moreover, 67 per cent of its undergraduate learners and 73 per cent of graduate learners are the first in their family to earn a degree. Fifty-one per cent of undergraduate learners and 64 per cent of graduate learners also work full-time.

About the “Future of Learning” Study

These are the findings of a study commissioned by Athabasca University from June 8-9, 2020 with a nationally representative sample of adult Canadians who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. The sample was balanced by age, gender and region. The survey was conducted in English and French. For comparison purposes only, this sample plan would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.52 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

About Athabasca University (AU)

Athabasca University (AU) is one of the world’s foremost and fastest-growing online and open education institutions, serving over 43,000 students across 87 countries. AU is the second-largest university in Alberta.

AU offers online Bachelors, Masters, and PhD programs alongside online courses for both personal learning and professional development. It is uniquely founded on the principles of flexibility and openness, giving students control over their studies so they can obtain a higher education whenever and whenever it is right for them. For more information, please visit:

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  • July 7, 2020