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Renewing Canada’s IES - Thematic papers: Digitalization of international education

Published on March 1, 2023


Digitalization, defined as the process of converting systems, processes and things into digital form, typically with the use of computers and/or the internet is an important topic for discussion in the creation of Canada’s new International Education Strategy. Digitalization is a broad theme that can include online learning opportunities as well as the implementation of a range of digital service delivery options to improve the student experience. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the transition to online delivery of educational programs from K-12 all the way to the post-secondary levels at universities and colleges.

As we renew the IES we will be looking to our partners, provinces, territories, associations, and leading institutions to discuss the ways in which Canada can tap into digitalization to improve international education.  

Current trends in online learning

The COVID-19 pandemic created a major shift in the delivery of education to all students, including international students. Implemented measures during the pandemic facilitated the completion of up to 100% of programs online from outside Canada without impacting eligibility of international students for the Post-Graduate Work Permit Program (PGWPP) - a potential pathway to permanent residence. The Canadian Internet Use Survey indicates that the percentage of college students between the ages of 15-24 who had taken formal online training rose from 25.7% in 2018 to 54.6% in 2020. University level respondents indicating participating in formal online training for the same age category went from 35.9% to 53.7% over the same time period. These numbers indicate an acceleration of an already growing interest and engagement with formal online learning.Footnote 1

Global spending on digital education grew from 2.5% of global education expenditures pre-COVID with predictions of investment growth to 4.3% in 2025.Footnote 2

Digital spending remains a small fraction of education budgets however venture capital and private investment has seen a 14-fold increase since 2010. Investment activity is currently concentrated in China and the United States, attracting 52% and 33%, respectively of digital education investment. 

Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) is a growing faculty-driven intervention for Internationalization at Home (IaH) activities, giving students opportunities for global learning and engagement. The interest in expanding internationalization of curriculum through online learning and international partnerships offers the opportunity for more Canadian students to learn from and with others around the world. It also provides access and opportunities beyond traditional study mobility and exchange programs to engage globally.

Many Canadian education institutions export services such as curriculum licensing and technical and professional training, often with the help of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS). Online learning provides new markets for Canada’s education exports to grow, as well as making the international education field more inclusive. Those who would like to study with Canadian institutions, but due to financial constraints, family obligations, or other factors, cannot travel to Canada, is a segment that could be targeted by online options.

Australia has implemented as part of their international education strategy, a pathway to permanent residence for students studying with Australian institutions abroad in fields experiencing skills shortages. This could potentially be adopted in Canada to address labour needs being examined in Global Affairs Canada’s Labour Market Study.

The impact of new and emerging technologies is an important factor in the ongoing evolution of learning design and delivery, particularly for higher education institutions. Advanced technologies, including AI, will feature in future online and face-to-face delivery. Investment in technology, skills training and new curriculum design are identified as key requirements in new online learning delivery.Footnote 3

Micro-credentials and short course delivery have the potential to impact future online learning delivery models. Traditional credential formats are being reconsidered with the expansion of micro-credentials delivery. There is an increasing interest in the need to unbundle learning competencies content and the credential attached to it. The role and engagement of government varies across jurisdictions and public and private sector higher education providers are often working in various consortia models. The space is dynamic and Canadian institutions are actively participating but it is not clear what impact it will have on out-of-country education delivery.Footnote 4

Since 2020, there have been significant investments and improvements in online program delivery around the world. Institutions have maintained or expanded their online and hybrid offerings even as in-person instruction resumed and an increasing proportion of agents are now recruiting for online programs.Footnote 5

Current trends in the digitalization of services 

Digitalization initiatives are underway within the Government of Canada, including within IRCC.

The Government of Canada currently ranks 28th on the UN e-government rankings. Budget 2021 outlines an ambitious next phase for Canada’s digital transformation, with over $2.5 billion in proposed investments including in immigration. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is in the process of reviewing their programs to increase efficiencies through the use of technology include AI and streamlining the application process through the use of online portals.

Digital adoption and transformation remains the greatest challenge across regions and institutions globally. The proportion of higher education leaders citing digital transformation as one of their biggest issues has seen a sharp increase of 19% in 2023 compared with a year earlier. In 2022, 50% of leaders identified digital transformation as a key issue increasing to 69% in 2023. Long-term higher education transition to digital, from systems, policies and infrastructure, learning and teaching design, and delivery continue to gain importance.Footnote 6

Digitalization will continue to play a greater role in online international student recruitment and marketing. International student recruitment has also been impacted by the adoption of a range of digital strategies with increasing use of social channels, messaging apps, and artificial intelligence.Footnote 7

Opportunities and challenges

There is a lack of aggregate data on online learning and digitalization trends of higher education within Canada which makes data-informed decision making challenging. This is not an issue exclusive to Canada, but other countries, including the US and UK have some data collection mechanisms that Canada currently lacks. For example, the US Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) includes enrolment data, completion rates and institutional characteristics for distance education offerings and makes this aggregated data publicly available.Footnote 8 The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency produces an Aggregate Offshore Record that includes distance education delivery of students outside of the UK.Footnote 9

As of September 1, 2023, time spent studying online outside of Canada will be deducted from student’s post-graduation work permit. This will create a disincentive for students to study online.

Maintaining quality assurance in online program offerings to preserve Canada’s brand of quality education requires consideration.

Access will continue to be an issue as online learning expands. Access in terms of ensuring stable connectivity and access to technology for learners as well as international student access to Canadian learning resources. There is increasing concern of censorship of internet resources by providers and countries, particularly of foreign websites. Approximately 25% of current study permit holders in Canada come from countries with aggressive online censorship practices according to a study by Comparitech, who identify this as a potential future threat.Footnote 10

Increasing international student demand places increased pressure on the capacity of program availability, student service support, and affordable student housing. Online learning opportunities may facilitate more access for international students to Canadian education beyond capacity limitations within institutions and communities.

And finally, previously, it was decided that exclusively online institutions were not eligible to use the EduCanada brand and therefore the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) did not promote these institutions proactively. However, this excludes exclusively online institutions from the benefits of brand eligibility, which institutions offering both online and in-person program enjoy. With the recent trends towards online education, this is an issue that may need to be reexamined.


  • Post-pandemic, are institutions pulling away from online learning programs, keeping existing offerings or modes of delivery or increasing their offerings?
  • Do you see value in expanding education to students studying online for the beginning of their programs from their countries of origin before traveling to Canada to complete their programs here?
  • Similar to Australia, should Canada explore ways to offer work permits programs, that possibly lead to pathways to permanent residency, for students exclusively enrolled in online programs, in areas of labour market gaps?
  • What benefits or drawbacks do you see in offering online programming to international students?
  • Should exclusively online institutions be eligible to use the EduCanada brand?
  • Are there any digital services you think the Government of Canada could implement to better serve international students?
  • Recognizing that accessibility to digital technologies is unequal across the world, and in some cases within university communities, how do we avoid creating new inclusivity issues in international education resulting from this digital and social divide?

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