Eduvation Blog

Surprise!  PSE Learning Losses

Good morning, whether you’re celebrating rocky road, rotisserie chicken, or “leave the office early” day today!

Today I want to continue our look at pandemic “surprises” for CdnPSE. You may recall that we’ve already considered the way faculty defied our expectations by nimbly pivoting online, that students subverted forecasts from dozens of market research studies promising a rash of gap year deferrals, and the asymmetric impacts of the digital divide on student access and persistence.

To varying degrees in various jurisdictions, the world’s primary, secondary, and tertiary students have been subjected to a massive uncontrolled experiment which may have lasting repercussions on PSE students for a decade or more. (Speaking of rocky roads!)

Today, let’s start by looking at the learning losses experienced in PSE…

Learning Losses

Online learning is perhaps most comfortable, and effective, for high-achieving “book learners”: mature adults, graduate students, strong readers, introverts, and those who thrive on theoretical lectures rather than hands-on learning. (Heck, pretty much all the readers of this newsletter, I suspect.) For others, though, the 2020 pivot to digital learning posed a significant challenge, and the younger the student, the greater the academic setback…


Struggling Online

While PSE students and faculty alike voiced their disappointment and displeasure with emergency remote instruction as a substitute for the campus experience, data on learning outcomes in the pandemic are still developing. (More on student frustrations and preferences in a future instalment!) In one US survey, 85% of PSE students reported that the pandemic negatively affected their academic performance in the Fall 2020 semester, particularly due to remote learning, family responsibilities, health concerns, and loss of the campus experience. (Notably, the impact was perceived as greatest by second-year students, who had already experienced a normal year on campus.) Another study found that two-thirds of first-year college students struggled with online learning in 2020, and 76% believed it could have long-term academic consequences.

Lost Interactions

Many studies of online learning outcomes have suggested it is less effective than in-person learning for many traditional-aged PSE students. For most students, learning is a social, interactive activity, and current online technologies do not yet compare to traditional face-to-face environments (although some day they no doubt will). A major study of one million California community college students found a 14% performance gap: just 60% of students passed online courses, compared to 70% on campus. On an even larger scale, completion rates of MOOCs are disappointingly stuck in the single digits, and those who complete are typically teachers, faculty, or graduate students with above-average ability for self-directed learning. Even MOOC-booster Sebastian Thrun, then CEO of Udacity, was forced to admit years ago that “the basic MOOC is a great thing for the top 5% of the student body, but not a great thing for the bottom 95%.”

Potential Upsides

However, online courses designed deliberately, delivered expertly, and chosen freely by the right students can achieve outcomes equivalent to in-person courses – particularly for more mature, self-directed students who choose the online modality of their own volition. (Scores of studies have found “no significant difference” from F2F learning outcomes, as itemized in meta-analyses by Robert Bernard in 2004, Barbara Means in 2010, or Martin Kurzweil in 2015.) For the traditional online student – mature, independent learners, particularly graduate students, working professionals and teachers – online programs may provide precisely the “unbundled” PSE experience they need. Even for full-time undergraduates, online learning could support improved persistence and completion: additional availability of online course sections, at their home institution or another under a letter of permission, could help some PSE students reduce their time to graduation. (According to CUSC data in 2021, 20% of students graduating from Canadian universities indicated their program completion was delayed because a required course was not available.)

Pandemic Downsides

During the pandemic, however, the majority of traditional PSE students – who would never have pursued online learning by choice – were forced into remote instruction without notice. Many institutions have struggled for years to measure student persistence accurately, even without the complication of a pandemic; very little Canadian data is yet available to assess the impact of COVID19 on student persistence. Data from community colleges in California may represent the most at-risk students, but is certainly not promising: 39% of community college students reported in Spring 2021 that the pandemic had impacted their plans to transfer to university, due to concerns about either their own academic preparedness or the value of an online experience. (22% also specifically cited a preference for face-to-face learning.) Moreover, almost half of those who had dropped out blamed the pandemic.

Lost Earnings

Already, economists have tried to estimate the lifetime earnings impact of pandemic disruptions. In the near term, financial advisors expect Canadian youth to wrestle with consumer debt and student loan repayments after unemployment for “at least 5 years,” and “easily 10.” The total long-term GDP loss for Canadian student cohorts impacted by COVID19, in Spring 2020 alone, was estimated at $1.6 trillion – equivalent to the country’s annual GDP in 2019. In 2021, McKinsey estimated that pandemic impacts on schooling would reduce lifetime earnings of a generation of US students by $49,000-$61,000 each.

“People in their twenties are in industries that have just been crushed… they’ve probably paid a bigger price than almost any other demographic.”Scott Terrio, consumer insolvency manager, Hoyes Michalos & Associates

Almost certainly, the pivot online will have had a negative impact on participation and persistence by marginalized, less academically-inclined students, particularly in applied college courses. (Although the data are still coming in, and I’ve even heard anecdotally that some mature students have demonstrated improved persistence during emergency remote instruction!)

Lost Experiences

Of course, academic measures of student performance do not capture all that PSE students have lost due to remote instruction during the pandemic. They have felt acutely the loss of peer interaction, social activities, and a wide range of extracurricular and experiential learning opportunities…

Social Integration

More than a year of universal online learning has underscored the importance of academic and social life outside scheduled classes and meetings. Although institutions have attempted to provide online replacements for extracurriculars and co-curriculars, ultimately existing software platforms can provide only a pale imitation of the richness of the campus experience for most students. Athabasca University is working on a new platform to integrate LMS and student services, but few institutions have been able to translate clubs, athletics, social activities, serendipitous interactions and social learning activities to a purely virtual environment. These innumerable lost experiences will not only reduce the confidence, interpersonal and teamwork skills of pandemic graduates, but will negatively impact PSE persistence too.

Experiential Learning

In the past decade, PSE students have been increasingly seeking a wide range of experiential learning opportunities, from co-ops, internships, and other work-integrated learning to community service, community-based research, and study terms abroad. A 2012 survey of graduating Canadian college and university students found that the majority saw internship, co-op, and work experience as the three most important “academic activities” that contributed to their personal growth and development. (In an economic sense the students aren’t wrong: the OECD observes that work experience contributes 50% more than education to a Canadian’s wages.) The loss of these experiential opportunities will impact the persistence, preparedness, and learning outcomes of pandemic graduates.

“What are their learning outcomes for students? What are they really trying to teach? And are there ways they can teach them to the same outcome but in a different way?”Anita Abraham, director of experiential learning, Toronto Metropolitan U

Work-Integrated Learning

Pre-pandemic, employer concerns about graduates’ career readiness, and student anxieties to gain workplace experience, led to an explosion of work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities at Canadian colleges and universities alike. (McKinsey famously reported in 2015 that only 34% of employers felt Canadian youth were being adequately prepared for the workforce, and 44% of the students themselves agreed.) Universities Canada claimed that more than 50% of undergraduate university students in Canada got experiential opportunities (although their definition included co-ops, work-study exchanges, laboratory research, and community service learning). Several institutions were aiming to achieve 100% experiential opportunities in their next strategic planning cycles. A New Brunswick task force on experiential education was developing a plan to ensure that all PSE students in NB received work-integrated learning opportunities, regardless of their program of study.

Employer Partnerships

Prior to COVID19, more intensive employer partnerships were beginning to appear, particularly between universities and technology companies. Carleton University worked with Shopify to develop a four-year workplace residency for 11 Computer Science undergrads, who work 4,500 hours, participate in classes 4,000 hours, and get paid $40,000 per year (plus tuition and a laptop). In 2018 Shopify announced it was establishing a Toronto branch of the program with the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University. Likewise Google launched a pilot program in 2017 with 26 visible minority students from Howard University, bringing them to the Googleplex campus for three months at a time, for integrated work experience and classes taught by Howard instructors as well as Google engineers. (In 2018, Google extended the program to 100 students from historically black colleges and universities across the US.)

Pandemic Disruption

Students consider work placements among their most powerful learning experiences, but the pandemic disrupted a third of them in 2020. StatsCan reported early in 2020 that the pandemic had caused delayed or cancelled work placements for about 35% of Canadian PSE students, particularly for those in their final year, in healthcare or service fields (which reached 58% and 62% respectively). CEWIL Canada reports that 2020-21 work placements in 46 programs dropped 15%, even as more students were seeking opportunities. In the US, about 22% of employers revoked internship offers in April 2020, and 41% delayed internship starts in May. The UN reports that the pandemic disrupted training for more than 80% of apprentices and traineesworldwide. For summer 2021, American employers planned to hire even fewer interns than in 2020 – and ultimately 32% held exclusively virtual internship programs, while 50% were hybrid. Although CESB support offset lost employment earnings from paid work placements for Canadian students, the loss of workplace experience will affect the learning outcomes and employment preparedness of pandemic graduates. A 2-year disruption in work placements may also be a setback for growth in employer involvement over the years ahead.

Campus Work

For years now, CdnPSEs have attempted to reserve a range of part-time campus jobs for students, particularly international students whose visas did not allow them to work off-campus. Typically, these included jobs in food service, security, campus retail, and even front-line seasonal work in student service offices, but some colleges went so far as to establish on-campus companies to employ students. Alberta’s Olds College partnered with Pomeroy Inn & Suites to build a conference centre on its campus, and although not a significant financial success (last I heard), it has provided employment for students in hospitality, culinary and brewery programs.Lakeland College has the world’s oldest and largest student-managed farm, giving students work experience and management responsibility over hundreds of head of livestock and thousands of acres of crops. Niagara College is the global leader in establishing campus “Learning Enterprises” that not only provide work experience for students in a broad range of programs, but even generate revenues for the college, sometimes exceeding $1 million annually (thanks in particular to profitable wine and beer sales). During the pandemic, uWaterloo and many others hired hundreds of summer students under the Student Work Placement Program to help prepare digital resources and adapt courses for online and hybrid delivery. (uWaterloo hired 300 co-op students in May 2020, and Western hired 250.)

Virtual WIL

During pandemic pivots to remote work and study, Canada’s universities have explored a number of options for virtual community-based research and work-integrated learning, from web development and digital archive projects to virtual microprojects on platforms like Riipen. Riipen, founded in 2014, offers employer “challenge” projects to students, who can complete them for credit or earn Riipen points for their work experiences. Pre-pandemic, at least 150 PSE institutions were piloting Riipen experiments. (See my 2018 Ten with Ken interview with uWaterloo’s Cathy Newell Kelly on the subject.) The pandemic significantly boosted adoption of Riipen, as one of the few platforms allowing students to gain work experience during protracted periods of remote work. Other platforms designed to match students with volunteer opportunities also grew in popularity, such as VolunteerMatch or AllForGood. In August 2021, CICan launched “Virtu-WIL,” a national initiative to develop and deliver 120 virtual simulations to 4,000 healthcare students in nursing, medical laboratory and paramedical programs, as an alternative to in-person clinical placements. Digital simulations, in 2D or VR, give students opportunities to investigate, make decisions, and receive feedback, alone or in interprofessional groups. Students received a stipend for successfully completing the program between Sept 2021 and Mar 2022.

“We’re not willing to replace in-person learning because, even if we can ultimately get to virtual reality… there’s a difference between tapping a screen or pressing a button and actually using your hands to set up an experiment.”Andrew McWilliams, chair of chemistry and biology, Toronto Metropolitan U

Study Abroad

Even before the pandemic disrupted global mobility, CdnPSE students were reluctant to study abroad: although the majority of institutions offered international exchange opportunities, just 11% of undergrads (and even fewer college students) ever undertook exchange study. Sadly, Ottawa’s International Education Strategy, and a $95M Global Skills Opportunity program, were launched in 2019 – just in time for the pandemic. (In 2020 and 2021, it focused on innovation funding to institutions, to test new tools and approaches and prepare for the launch of the full program post-pandemic.) Unsurprisingly, pandemic border restrictions, quarantine requirements and visa processing delays set back study abroad efforts abruptly, at least temporarily. Canadian students and their families were discouraged from study abroad by financial anxiety, health and safety concerns, federal travel advisories, border closures and quarantine restrictions, and institutional bans on international travel. Many institutions worldwide have redoubled efforts at “virtual exchange” and “internationalization at home” using online technologies, and such approaches are expected to continue with renewed energy post-pandemic. (But internationalization is a huge topic for another day!)


“The last year and a half have underscored that, to make meaning of what’s happening, young people need to connect the dots between events on one side of the planet and local implications.”Mohamed Abdel-Kader, senior advisor, Aspen Institute


If PSE students lost ground, academically and socially, during the pandemic, the impacts were even more severe among younger children in K-12 and pre-school. Next time, we’ll take a look at the learning losses experienced by these future PSE students, who will be arriving on our campuses between now and 2035, reshaped by their COVID19 experiences…




Speaking of the impacts of isolation on CdnPSE students, this remarkable spot came out last month in Quebec…

Comedian Recruiter

Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles took a really unconventional approach in this 4-min vid that aims to explain the history of CEGEPs, and its own 4 campuses, to high schoolers in Quebec. Youthful comedian Thomas Dufour plays several absurd comic caricatures in what looks like his apartment, with rapid-fire delivery frequently bordering on the absurd. Even if your French is limited, you’ll notice his toothless, black-eyed grad photo, confetti cannons, and the raucous sales pitch for parties, fish, study abroad, and poutine. (As “Johnny Knoxville,” he even speaks English – to highlight the fact that it’s even possible to take programs en Anglais.) He extols the virtues of CEGEP to allow students to explore new horizons, and admits he has changed his own program 6 times. If it weren’t for the fact that the vid ends with official title cards, I would have assumed this was a really professionally produced, rogue student vlog rather than an institutional commercial produced by agency Unik Média. (They appear to have produced videos for several other CEGEPs, too.) Hope you find it eye-opening, if not inspiring!  YouTube



As always, thanks for reading. 

As I said above, the data are still coming in about pandemic impacts on CdnPSE students, so if you’ve seen evidence to refute or reinforce any of the observations above, please do drop me a line!

Next time, I’ll summarize some impacts on K-12 students. Meanwhile, stay safe and be well!


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