“Our society cannot afford a two-tiered system in which the affluent have access to superior education … Academic excellence, educational equity, and fairness demand a strong foundation of knowledge for all learners.”

— E. D. Hirsch, American educator and academic literary critic

For Quebec residents, one year of academic activity—including tuition, ancillary fees, books, and supplies—might cost anywhere between five and eight thousand dollars. For Canadian citizens from other provinces, the estimated cost is anywhere between eleven and thirteen thousand dollars. And for international students, the price of tuition can range from twenty-three to fifty-six thousand dollars. And this, of course, is all before cost of living (McGill). The cost of living in Montreal (excluding housing/rent) is approximately eleven hundred a month. Add the average thousand-dollar-a-month rent costs to the equation, and most students are looking at a total annual cost for education of approximately twenty-five (Quebec residents) to eighty (International students) thousand dollars. Of course, these numbers are global averages, and many variables can affect the figures. For example, local students might live at home during their studies, thus negating rent costs.

Higher education is a luxury that’s not available to everyone, or, at least, it is a luxury that is more available to some than others. And although financial limitation is certainly an inhibitor, it is not the only one. Think, for example, of the cultural acclimation an international student might experience if they were to relocate to, say, Montreal for their post-secondary studies. The demands are no longer merely economic but socio-cultural, too. Many factors outside the learning environment influence the circumstances of learning. Some of these factors, be they economic, social, or cultural, can, too, influence the learner’s experience. It is not sensible to think of higher education as a practice confined to the classroom: the ecosystem of a student’s learning experience includes multiple elements that are not academic in nature.

Levelling the Playing Field

Democratization can be defined as “the action of making something accessible to everyone” (Oxford Languages). Online learning can serve as a relatively democratic, accessible, and alternative pedagogical instrument that gives students the ability/choice to receive their education without necessarily having to indebt or uproot themselves. Though there is nothing wrong with the traditional, in-person models of higher education, the quantity of Canadian students pursuing or aspiring to pursue post-secondary education has increased consistently over the years (Statista). Moreover, in the 2008-2009 to 2018-2019 decade, the number of international students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions has more than tripled, accounting for 16% of the total 2018-2019 enrolments. (Stats Can) Our pedagogical infrastructure must be adapted accordingly to accommodate a more diverse cast of learners. Plainly put, we ought to remember that education is – or at least should be – a right, not a privilege. Online learning is not an all-encompassing solution, but it might alleviate certain difficulties or obstacles that prevent certain groups of students from attending universities. It can, so to speak, level the playing field. It can be used to democratize higher education.

graph of number of students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions

       Number of students attending Canadian post-secondary institutions

Mental Health in Higher Education

In 2016, one in four post-secondary students reported having been diagnosed by a professional for one or more mental health conditions – anxiety and depression being the most frequent (NCHA). The findings also demonstrated that in the two weeks preceding the survey, almost thirty percent of students polled experienced feelings of loneliness, and more than fifty percent felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do. It is important to recognize that university, in and of itself, can represent a formative, developmental moment in a young adult’s life. Having to balance one’s academics, finances, and personal wellness can certainly be overwhelming. Online learning could provide those students who need it with a relieving alternative. Students with mental health conditions may be dependent on routines and support systems that they’ve established over time. For some, being removed from these routines and systems might provoke varying levels of distress and thus interfere with the learning experience. But if such a student could learn remotely, without removing themselves from what they know, their learning experience could be made much more tolerable and manageable, allowing them to dedicate more attention to their academics.

Many things can encumber one’s learning ability or affect one’s mental health. It is important to consider the possible stressors (relocation, finances, mental health, etc.) associated with the demands of traditional, in-person learning and begin to think of and look for strategies that can mitigate and accommodate the different circumstances of different learners.

Online learning might be a good place to start looking. But online learning does not come without its unique challenges. The majority of educational professionals were trained and are accustomed to in-person course delivery. To transition to the online environment does require a certain period of adaptation: what was learned must sometimes be relearned. One might even think of it as the difference between driving on the right side of the road in North America as opposed to the left side in the UK. It’s still driving, but it can be off-putting at first! Students, too, must develop certain learning abilities. They must exhibit discipline and autonomy as learning is often achieved independently. And online learning must be deployed strategically and with fundamentally sound pedagogical models. There must also be considerations for things that can never fully be replicated online, such as face-to-face interaction. Peer relationships are an integral part of academia, and so they must find a way to be represented within the online environment. Modern digital technology has provided us with tools that enable us to interact from virtually anywhere at virtually any time. If we can use these tools in a balanced and calculated way, they might indeed help further the democratization of education.

Josh Quirion

Josh Quirion

Learning Experience Designer @KnowledgeOne |
Writer & Editor-in-Chief at yolkliterary.ca 

Josh Quirion is a former journalist and CEGEP instructor. He holds a B.Ed. from Bishop’s University and an M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Concordia University. Quirion published his first book, Towners & Other Stories (Shoreline Press), in 2020.