The digital classroom: Helping distance learning come alive

Online University Programs in Canada: New options for students

Improved technologies make web-based courses more attractive than ever

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    Student using laptop at home. (Hero Images/Getty Images)

    (Photo, Hero Images/Getty Images)

    Distance learning, in its early forms, was slow and isolating. Before the internet, students and professors exchanged written materials by mail. Lectures recorded on audio cassettes were the next major leap. In both cases, interaction between teacher and student was minimal, and collaboration between students was virtually non-existent.

    Today, distance learning via online courses—and increasingly, full-fledged degree and diploma programs—is a major priority for post-secondary institutions. As technology continues to break down barriers, some educators say that online courses have the potential to meet or even surpass the quality of an in-class experience.

    “Now you have a fully interactive online classroom equipped with multimedia materials, where students can interact with the instructor and one another through communications technologies,” says Aldo Caputo, acting director for the Centre for Extended Learning at the University of Waterloo. “It’s become a cohort-based experience rather than an insular one.”

    Over the past five years or so, the demand for fully online courses and programs has been on the rise, according to Caputo, and institutions are stepping up their efforts to meet the demand. Waterloo alone has added 60 undergraduate and 47 graduate courses since 2013. It’s also currently developing a fully online graduate diploma program in climate risk management, at the request of professionals in the environmental field who can’t commit to an on-campus program.

    Tony Bates, a distance education technology consultant and visiting professor in the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, says that boundaries between online and face-to-face education are coming down in Canadian universities. In the United States, fully online programs—particularly in business and IT—have grown considerably since 2012, though Bates says that growth has recently levelled out. Whether the same is true for Canada will become clearer in late October, when Bates publishes Canada’s first-ever large-scale survey on the state of online learning in the country.

    One thing is for sure: flexibility and accessibility are major selling points—especially for students in remote locations or with strict time constraints. Online courses are typically furnished with material available on demand. Message boards take the place of class discussions, although closer contact occurs via live chats organized by students in small groups. Live lectures and guest presentations are made possible by technology that allows students to tap into an audio or video feed and participate remotely, in real time. Even the use of simulations is growing—particularly in the physical sciences, where interactive 3D renderings take the place of static images to show the movement of a muscle or a chemical reaction, for instance. Thanks to increased spending on online education, professors are starting to design lectures specifically for online consumption, even recording them outside the classroom instead of simply posting videos taken from the back of a lecture hall.

    Increased demand for online learning created an opportunity for leaders in the field to design courses informed by research on how students learn best, explains Caputo. “One of the things that online learning has done is driven innovation and exploration into teaching and learning practices, because there is that reflection on that idea of ‘How do you best teach this material?’ And that leads to interesting results.”

    Cognitive psychology research, for instance, shows that forced recall at regular intervals helps students learn. So, with a grant from eCampusOntario to develop online courses, Avi Cohen, an economics professor at York University, created a series of lectures recorded on a green screen broken up into 10-minute chunks. At the end of each block, students must answer review questions correctly before moving on to the next section.

    As for examinations, the web also provides a platform for personalized feedback that would be difficult outside a small class—if a student gets a question wrong, interactive tests can provide targeted feedback based on their particular misunderstanding.

    The bulk of online programs available in their entirety today are college certificates in areas such as bookkeeping and human resources. However, bachelor’s degrees are becoming more available, as are graduate-level programs. Professional master’s degrees are a popular option too, since students interested in these programs often have careers with tight schedules. Bachelors of business administration, psychology and general science are in demand at the undergraduate level, according to search data from eCampusOntario.

    Though the majority of online courses are still taken as supplements to an on-site program, the development of fully online degrees and diplomas are a priority for many institutions.

    “Our instructors who are interested in teaching online are often experienced, award-winning instructors. They have an ongoing interest in student engagement and active learning, and often that leads them to explore innovative pedagogies in online environments,” says Laurie Harrison, director of online learning strategies at the University of Toronto. Harrison says that online education is becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

    “There’s always going to be space for the face-to-face, the student with the professor,” says William Gage, associate vice-president of teaching and learning at York. While online learning may never fully replace the traditional classroom, it’s certainly breaking down accessibility barriers to higher education.


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