Canada from Re.ViCa

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This page was last updated on 9 July 2010, the last edit before VISCED started.

Partners situated in Canada

None. However, Tony Bates of the International Advisory Committee is from Canada.

Canada in a nutshell

Canada is a large country occupying over half of the continent of North America, touching three oceans - Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic. Its population was estimated in the 2006 census as around 31.5 million but other estimates such as the CIA Factbook give up to and over 33 million currently. (Rapid immigration is one source of the discrepancy but not, it seems, the only one - the issue has generated some debate.)

Thus there would seem to be a strong argument that a Commonwealth country of this size would have many points of relevance, generally and in education, to many larger countries in the European Union. While true generally (e.g. for industrial policy) it is not at all true for education - the provinces are the relevant entities. See later for details.

Many if not most Canadian universities have competence in e-learning at least in pockets. Several major e-learning systems past and present have come from Canada, some from academia but most not - for example, in recent years WebCT and Desire2Learn, and many years ago the CoSy and FirstClass conferencing systems used at the Open University. We give the main ones below of relevance to an EU audience.

Canada is divided into 13 provinces and territories of which the most important and relevant in e-learning terms are the following:

The Canadian Virtual University (CVU) is a group of Canadian universities specializing in online and distance education and a list of these can be found on the site.

Document of relevance: sums up Canadian distance learning courses and programmes provided by Higher Education.

Canada education policy

In Canada, almost alone among countries in the world, education at all levels is so completely devolved to the provinces that there is not and cannot be a Minister of Education for Canada. (The wikipedia article on Education in Canada gives more details including of the residual federal responsibilities. See also CMEC.)

Canada's education system

(sourced from

With the earlier caveat about the devolved approach to education, here are the basic facts.

Education in Canada is generally divided into Elementary (Primary School, Public School), followed by Secondary (High School) and Post Secondary (University, College). Within the provinces under the ministry of education, there are district school boards administering the educational programmes.

Elementary and Secondary Education

Education is compulsory up to the age of 16 in every province in Canada, except for Ontario and New Brunswick, where the compulsory age is 18. In some provinces early leaving exemptions can be granted under certain circumstances at 14.

Canada generally has 180 to 190 school days in the year, officially starting from September (after Labour Day) to the end of June (usually the last Friday of the month, Wednesday in some Ontario schools).

Canada spends about 7% of its GDP on education. Since the adoption of section 23 of the Constitution Act, 1982, education in both English and French has been available in most places across Canada (if the population of children speaking the minority language justifies it), although French Second Language education/French Immersion is availble to Anglophone students across Canada.

Originally all the provinces had educational systems divided by religion, but most provinces have abolished these. Ontario, Alberta, and certain cities in Saskatchewan are exceptions to this, as they still maintain publicly funded Separate district school boards (usually Catholic but occasionally Protestant). In Quebec, the Catholic/Protestant divide was replaced with a French/English one in 1998. Québécois must attend a French School up until the end of high school unless one of their parents previously attended an English-language school somewhere in Canada (immigrants from other countries cannot use this exception). However this rule applies only to public schools, therefore immigrants to Quebec can send their children to English private schools.

Most Canadian education systems continue up to grade 12 (age 17 to 18). In Quebec, the typical high school term ends after Secondary V, the same as to grade 11 (age 16 to 17); following this, students who wish to pursue their studies to the university level have to attend CEGEP which is a unique educational institution, between high school and junior colleges. Cegeps are often referred to as "junior colleges".

Normally, for each type of publicly funded school (such as Public English or Public French), the province is divided into districts (or divisions). Normally, all publicly funded schools are under the authority of their local district school board. These school boards would follow a common curriculum set up by the province the board resides in. Only Alberta allows public charter schools, which are independent of any district board - instead, they each have their own board, which reports directly to the province.

Primary education and secondary education combined are sometimes referred to as K-12 (Kindergarten through Grade 12). It should be noted that this structure can vary from school to school, and from province to province. For instance, Prince Edward Island school systems is the only province that does not provide Kindergarten. In contrast, Ontario is the only province which provides two levels of Kindergarten (Junior and Senior).

In Canada, secondary schooling, known as high school, "école secondaire" or secondary school, differs depending on the province in which one resides. Additionally, grade structure may vary within a province and even within a school division. Education is compulsory up to the age of 16 in every province in Canada, except for Ontario and New Brunswick (where the compulsory ages are 18). Students may continue to attend high school until the ages of 19 to 21 (the cut-off age for high school varies between province). Those 19 and over may attend adult school. Also if high schoolers are expelled or suspended for a period of time over 2 months or so they could attend night school at the high school.

Ontario had a "Grade 13" known as Ontario Academic Credit (OAC) year, but this was abolished by the provincial government to cut costs. OAC was last offered for the 2002-2003 school year. As a result, the curriculum has been compacted, and the more difficult subjects, such as mathematics, are comparatively harder than before. However, the system is now approximately equivalent to what has been the case outside of Quebec and Ontario for many years. Secondary education in Quebec continues to Grade 11 (Secondary V), and is typically followed by CEGEP, a two or three year college program taken after high school. Pre-university CEGEP programs are two years in Quebec (university for Quebecers is three years), and vocational or professional programs are three years in duration.


Post-secondary education in Canada is also the responsibility of the individual provinces and territories. Those governments provide the majority of funding to their public post-secondary institutions, with the remainder of funding coming from tuition fees, the federal government, and research grants. Compared to other countries in the past, Canada has had the highest tertiary school enrollment as a percentage of their graduating population.

Nearly all post-secondary institutions in Canada have the authority to grant academic credentials (i.e., diplomas or degrees). Generally speaking, universities grant degrees (e.g., bachelor's, master's or doctorate degrees) while colleges, which typically offer vocationally-oriented programmes, grant diplomas and certificates. However, some colleges offer applied arts degrees that lead to or are equivalent to degrees from a university.

Post-secondary education in Quebec begins with CEGEP (collèges d'enseignement général et professionnel), following graduation from Grade 11 (or Secondary V). Students complete a two- or three-year general program leading to admission to a university, or a professional program leading directly into the labour force. In most cases, bachelor's degree programmes in Quebec are three years instead of the usual four; however, in many cases, students attending a university in Quebec that did not graduate from CEGEP must complete an additional year of coursework. When Ontario had five years of high school, a three-year bachelor's degree was common, but these degrees are being phased out in favour of the four-year degree.

The main variation between the provinces, with respect to universities, is the amount of funding they receive. Universities in Quebec receive the most funding and have the lowest tuitions. Universities in Atlantic Canada generally receive the least funding and some, like Acadia University, are almost wholly reliant on private funding.

The Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), is the military academy of the Canadian Forces and is a full degree-granting university. RMC is the only federal institution with degree granting powers.

Private schools

In Canada there is no obligation for parents to place their children in the public school system, and about 8% of students are in the private system. Nevertheless, there are more and more private schools in urban areas (high schools, especially). It is not unusual for the wealthy and prominent in Canada to send their children to public schools, especially in the lower grades. A far larger portion of private schools are religious based institutions. Private schools are also used to study outside the country. For example one in Italy has an Ontario curriculum.

Each province deals differently with private religious schools. In Ontario the Catholic system continues to be fully publicly funded, but other faiths receive no such funding. Ontario has several private Jewish, Muslim, and Christian schools, but all are funded through tuition fees. Since the Catholic schools system is entrenched in the constitution, the Supreme Court has ruled that this system is not unconstitutional. However, the United Nations has ruled that Ontario's system is unfair. In 2002 the government introduced a controversial proposal to partially fund all private schools, but this was criticized for undermining the public education system and the proposal was eliminated after the Liberals won the 2003 provincial election.

In other provinces privately operated religious schools are funded. In British Columbia the government pays 50% of the cost of religious schools provided that they meet rigorous provincial standards. The province has a number of Sikh, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim schools. Alberta also has a network of charter schools, which are fully funded public (not private) schools offering distinct approaches to education within the public school system (note that the province does not grant charters to religious schools). These charter schools have to follow the provincial curriculum and meet all standards, but are given considerable freedom in other areas. In all other provinces private religious schools receive some funding, but not as much as the public system.

Higher education

The higher education systems in Canada's ten provinces have different historical development, organization (e.g., structure, governance, and funding), and goals (e.g., participation, access, and mobility). This makes it impossible to summarise the overall system. The reader is referred to the wikipedia article

Universities in Canada

(sourced from

Canada has somewhat over 70 universities including the large multi-campus Université du Québec which includes Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) , the host of the Télé-université (Téluq) There is an elite group, the Group of 13, comprising the most prestigious and research-active universities, but e-learning competence is found across the span of universities in Canada.

A selection of those better known beyond Canada including for e-learning (research and/or implementation) would be something like the following:

Polytechnics in Canada

This term is seldom used in Canada (for example, École polytechnique de Montréal, which trains almost 5000 engineers. This term is also used to describe some colleges.

Colleges in Canada

There are many colleges in Canada - for a partial list see

Most are not known outside Canada, whether or not for e-learning, but one that is known is Mount Royal College.


(sourced from

A CEGEP (French: Cégep) is a post-secondary education institution exclusive to the province of Quebec in Canada. CEGEP is a French acronym for Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel, meaning "College of General and Vocational Education". They are comparable to community colleges, but are required to enter university, which is why secondary school and undergrad degrees both are one less year in Quebec.

The purpose of CEGEPs is to make post-secondary education more accessible in Quebec, as well as to provide proper academic preparation for university. There are both public and private subsidized CEGEPs with the public CEGEPs having little or no tuition fee. The CEGEP system was started in 1967 by the Quebec provincial government and originally had 12 CEGEPs. Today there are 48 CEGEPs in Quebec, of which 5 are English language CEGEPs. There are also 50 private colleges, including 6 English language colleges. While CEGEP refers technically to only public colleges, in common usage the term is sometimes applied also to private colleges offering some of the same programmes.

They are not seen at this stage as relevant to Re.ViCa but we look forward to input on this issue.

Higher education reform

The Bologna Process

Interestingly the Rectors of Canadian universities are closely interested in the Bologna Process. A June 2008 statement from AUCC is given below.

Higher education, like most sectors, is transforming itself in step with the ever-advancing trends of the global knowledge economy. A high profile example of this is the reform agenda being implemented by Europe’s universities through the Bologna Process. While the Bologna Process is a uniquely European initiative, its influence and impact on higher education is being felt throughout the world.

Canadian universities continue to be recognized globally for the quality of higher education delivered. They are, however, not immune to developments of the magnitude of the Bologna Process. It is therefore appropriate at this time to respond to this emerging European initiative by at once seizing its related opportunities and facing its challenges.

The internationalization of Canada’s universities includes facilitating the two-way flow of students through international student recruitment and student exchange as well as bringing an international dimension to the curriculum. It is in these areas of student mobility and curricular reform where the Bologna Process will have its greatest impact on Canadian universities.

AUCC members therefore, through this statement, acknowledge the significance of the emerging European Higher Education Area and hereby commit to undertaking a course of action to address the implications of the Bologna Process for Canadian universities and plan a path forward for engaging with our European partners, both old and new, in a spirit that mirrors Europe’s own renewal in higher education.

AUCC, through its Standing Advisory Committee on International Relations and the Board of Directors, has been examining for some time how Canadian universities can best respond to the changes under way in Europe. It began by identifying the following three key implications of these changes for Canadian universities.

Competition in international student recruitment is the primary implication. The Bologna Process, among its other goals, is also a sophisticated exercise in marketing European higher education. As the Bologna countries seek to make Europe a more attractive study destination through its degree harmonization and support for increased academic mobility, they are likely to increase their international student market share at the expense of other leading host countries, including Canada.

Secondly, the impact of the increasing number of three-year undergraduate degrees from Bologna countries on Canadian credential evaluation policies and practices needs to be assessed. The coming influx of three year degrees presents obvious challenges for admission decisions in graduate studies at Canadian institutions and raises questions about the effect this will have on our graduate programs.

Finally, student mobility, through short-term exchanges and study abroad opportunities for Canadian students is an area in which AUCC believes it is imperative to act to take advantage of the emerging landscape of higher education in Europe. The prevalence of the transparency tools in the Bologna Process, such as the European Credit Transfer System and the Diploma Supplement, along with funding programs such as Erasmus Mundus, represent a potential for increased Canada-Europe student mobility and enhanced international curricula through joint degree programs.

As AUCC pursues further action in relation to the Bologna Process, all activities will be informed by the guiding principle of the autonomy of individual Canadian universities to respond to these issues according to their own particular needs and strategies. This exercise is also guided by the acknowledgement of the challenges in pursuing any collective approach aimed at aligning with the European model, given the diversity and complexity of Canadian higher education.

AUCC recognizes, however, that responding to the Bologna Process also represents a unique opportunity to examine ‘lessons learned’ and best practices in addressing Canada’s internal system of credit transfers and mobility among institutions across jurisdictions.

In the spirit of renewed engagement in higher education beyond our borders and given the circumstances related to the emerging Bologna Process, AUCC commits to:

  • Keeping a close watching brief on the progress of the Bologna Process with respect to implementation of reforms and political direction in Europe.
  • Closely monitoring the engagement of other non-Bologna countries such as the United States, Australia and China along with other actors within Canada, such as governmental partners and other higher education stakeholders.
  • Continuing to raise awareness among its membership of key issues related to the Bologna Process through a continued national dialogue within the association, research on good practices and the organization of various information sessions and workshops.
  • Pursuing a policy dialogue with European partners such as the European University Association, to identify ways of seizing the opportunities to enhance Canada-Europe cooperation, especially student mobility, and address any challenges for Canadian universities in the broader Bologna context.

Other activities

None known. This is not to say that all is perfect with Canada's universities. Even local commentators accept that things must change.

Administration and finance

Although the provinces have responsibility for universities including providing funds, the federal government retains a funding role - and a vital one. A position paper from AUCC describes the situation.

In Canada, as in most other well-established federal systems, including the United States, Australia, Switzerland and Germany, constitutional jurisdiction for education rests with the regional, provincial or state governments. However, in all of these federations, the central governments have come to play major roles in support of higher education. They have done so in large part because of the strategic importance of these institutions in educating people for the knowledge economy and in performing research. In Australia, for example, the federal government is now the primary source of funds, not only for university research but also for the operating budgets of the universities. In the United States, by contrast, the state governments remain the primary source of operating funding for public universities and fouryear colleges, but the federal government is the most important source of university research funding and effectively reduces some of the pressure on university operating budgets by paying for faculty time devoted to federally-funded research.

Despite the Constitution’s exclusive grant of powers to the provincial legislatures to “make Laws in relation to Education” and “in and for each Province”, the federal government in Canada has shown an interest in higher education since the early years of Confederation and especially, since the First World War. The overriding goal of federal investments in higher education, particularly since the Second World War, has been to maximize universities’ contributions to economic growth, competitiveness and social development in Canada as a whole. To this end, the investments have sought:

  • to support growth in institutional capacity to provide access to growing numbers of students;
  • to promote accessibility for students through student assistance measures;
  • to develop university research and graduate education and, especially in recent years, to build internationally competitive research capacity in the universities; and
  • to promote Canada’s interests internationally in relation to, and through, higher education.

With regard to the last of these objectives, the federal government has made a number of investments over the years, including the Canada Corps University Partnership Program and Human Resources and Social Development Canada’s International Academic Mobility Programs. In general, however, these have lacked overall policy coherence and sustained commitment.

On the student assistance, research and graduate education objectives, the federal government has made major investments over the period since the Second World War, and especially since 1997, in recognition of the strategic importance of university education and research in a knowledge economy. In particular, the large research investments since 1997 have had a very positive impact on the health of Canada’s university research environment. At the same time, international competitors have also been investing in university research and major challenges remain in this country. The first of the objectives, increasing universities’ institutional capacity to take on more students, was at the heart of federal investments in the period from 1945 to 1967, first through direct grants to universities and then through the cost-shared program.

With the creation of the EPF transfers from 1977 to 1995 and even more so, the creation of the unconditional and undifferentiated CHST transfers in 1995, the federal government has paid little overt attention to this objective. No portion of the CHST or the subsequent CST is designated specifically for postsecondary education.

Quality assurance

Canadian universities are notoriously reluctant to accept any level of direction from outside the institution, be it from provincial or federal goverment. This applies also to quality issues. Thus the regimes typical now in Europe and much of the rest of the British Commonwealth are not found - yet - in Canada. Some local commentators fear that the Bologna Process will be used by the Canadian government to impose uniformity on universities including a uniform quality process - see for example the May 2008 outpouring A load of Bologna by Alex Ussher.

However the AUCC seems to accept that some better coordination and peer review is necessary to reassure students and government. Their statement on the matter notes:

In Canada, education, including higher education, is a constitutional responsibility of the country's 10 provinces and 3 territories. The universities, which at this time are located only in the provinces, derive their authority from provincial legislation.
Each Canadian university is autonomous in academic matters including the determination of its own quality assurance policies and procedures. In addition, as the result of their longstanding commitment to a common framework of standards across provincial jurisdictions, Canadian universities have a shared understanding of the value of each other's academic credentials.
Robust institutional quality assurance policies and processes are the foundation of the Canadian higher education quality assurance regime. These policies may stand alone, and some may be based in legislation. They may operate in an environment which includes another level of quality assurance, for example the policies and processes that provide a second level of quality assurance in the higher education systems in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. For some programs, institutional policies may be supplemented by standards of professional accreditation.

A separate note lists the provincial quality regimes. There is also a set of principles.

All rather vague from a European point of view.

Canada's HEIs in the information society

Towards the information society

(We await discussion on how to handle this section.)

Information society strategy

In this subsection we discuss the Canadian NREN (CANARIE) and the potential Major E-Learning Initiatives.


CANARIE Inc., based in Ottawa, is the advanced network organization for Canada. It facilitates the development and use of its network as well as the advanced products, applications and services that run on it. The CANARIE Network is the National Research and Education Network (NREN) for Canada - serving universities, colleges, schools, government labs, research institutes, hospitals and other organizations in a wide variety of fields in both the public and private sectors.

However, CANARIE has a wider brief, in some ways similar to agencies such as SURF and JISC. It furthers this by promoting and participating in strategic collaborations among key sectors, and by partnering with peer networks and organizations around the world, CANARIE Inc. stimulates and supports research, innovation and growth, bringing economic, social, and cultural benefits to Canadians.

The national organization was created in 1993 by the private sector and academia under the leadership of the Government of Canada.

CANARIE Inc. is supported by membership fees, with major funding of its programmes and activities provided by the Government of Canada through Industry Canada.

In the past, CANARIE has funded many e-learning developments.

Its web site is at (English) and (French).

Existing case study

There is a comprehensive but somewhat out of date case study of CANARIE at - it was first written in 2001 but updated in summer 2004 (by Paul Bacsich and Sara Frank Bristow).

The Editor's Introduction to that notes:

Between 1993 and March 2004, CANARIE – a small, non-profit organisation – received government funding of C$360 million (£161 million) for over 225 projects focussed on e-learning, e-content, e-business and e-health. Many would credit CANARIE for assuring Canada’s reputation as a world-leading broadband adopter and innovator (and, more relevant to e-university developments, with helping the country to become a lead developer of learning object repository infrastructure). CANARIE has also helped connect over 2,000 schools, colleges and universities to its advanced CA*NET 4 network, and has created thousands of jobs nationwide.
When this CANARIE Report was written, CANARIE was an organisation “in full swing”, with government funding assured for over two more years. Nearly all of its projects saw completion by March 2004, however, and many of those discussed below finished long before that. During a presentation in June 2004, CANARIE president and CEO Andrew Bjerring noted that CANARIE’s original mandate had been to “visit the future and report back” – now that the future has arrived, it seems, it is the role of CANARIE itself that requires clarification.
At the time of writing [2004], CANARIE maintains some modest funding for completing the roll-out of CA*net 4 as scheduled, but all other project funding is on hold. Several of Canada’s federal departments are said to be collaborating on what might become a national strategic vision to help frame the future of organisations like CANARIE, and perhaps lead to the creation of an agency not unlike the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) e-Learning Strategy Unit in the UK. Until the emergence of this new strategic plan, hoped to be in the autumn of 2004, however, there will be no further funding for the CANARIE projects described below. Thus it remains to be seen whether CANARIE will succeed at reinventing itself in today’s context.

This depressing conclusion seems still to be the case. A search of the CANARIE web site for "e-learning" reveals no hits later than 2003.

Major E-Learning Initiatives

See Major e-learning initiatives in Canada.


Canadian companies who have developed e-learning systems

  • WebCT was developed at the University of British Columbia by Murray Goldberg as an "unofficial" e-learning system, finally being bought by a company which became WebCTm, in turn acquired by Blackboard.
  • Desire2Learn is another Canadian-based learning management system, but this did not come out of academic circles.
  • The FirstClass system was developed in the late 1980s by [SoftArc] for use in the Ontario School Board - the product was then sold on to various companies and gradually failed to keep up with developments.
  • Even earlier, the CoSy system was developed at the University of Guelph and used by the Open University for some years in the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

(Readers are refered to the relevant wikipedia articles - of wildly varying quality and length, but at least giving some of the history. For a hopefully more measured historical view see the Wikipedia History of Virtual Learning Environments.)

Eminent Canadian experts in e-learning

Such lists are always invidious but the following three have a focus close to our mission - on post-secondary deployment - as well as research, and would be known to many UK experts in e-learning:

There are of course many active researchers in e-learning also and several Francophones of whom Gilbert Paquette is the doyen. Unlike many countries, Canada has or at least had an active tradition of research into e-learning in the FE and Skills area.

And in the schools e-learning area Professor Marlene Scardamalia and Emeritus Professor Carl Bereiter are leaders.

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