Online and distance learning in continuing education have become a part of everyday life.
“It’s become mainstream,” says Kevin Nagel, the dean of the JR Shaw School of Business at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton. One of the big reasons is convenience.
“(That) has a lot to do with it,” says Chris Beckett, the co-ordinator of instructional television at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
“People are busier and busier,” he says, noting it can be tough to fit learning into one’s schedule while balancing a career, family and other responsibilities.
The convenience factor also means students can study from some unlikely spots. Beckett says one former student who was a member of the Armed Forces took an accounting exam in a submarine from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
“That was a highlight for a long time,” he says.
The lack of geographical boundaries allows schools to connect with potential students worldwide.
“To be competitive you have to give the learner a choice,” wrote Janet Welch from Red Deer College in an email. “Education used to be regionally based. It is not anymore. It is truly global.” Welch is the chairperson and curriculum designer of the school’s centre for teaching and learning.
But the growth in online and distance learning hasn’t come at the expense of traditional enrolment, says Mark Bullen, the associate dean of the learning and teaching centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby.
“It’s definitely complementary. Online courses don’t compete with the face-to-face courses.”
But it’s not for everybody, cautions Bullen. It requires individuals to be self-motivated and mature.
It may come as a surprise, but the interactions between students can be greater than they would experience in a classroom setting. “In a well-designed online course, students will often find that they get much more one-on-one support and interaction with their instructor than they do in a face-to-face class,” says Bullen.
This differs from classes in lecture halls where “it’s very difficult to actually have any kind of meaningful interaction with your instructor,” he says.
Whether online or in the classroom, one thing remains the same.
“You have to do the work,” says Beckett. “You have to read. You have to research. You have to do the writing. You have to take the exam. None of that has changed.”