Learning long distance
University students are discovering the flexibility and accessibility of distance-education courses
Illustration: Edward Schnurr
Janice Grove's road to receiving a bachelor of science degree was not an easy one. At the age of 39 - two long decades after graduating from high school - with a full-time job as an educational assistant and two kids at home, Ms. Grove attended her first university class. Taking a part-time course-load and choosing classes that took place during the evening or summer, Ms. Grove moved steadily forward. But four years in, she came across an obstacle that she couldn't move: two required courses taught only during the day and not in the summer. She took the issue up with the university.
"I told them I could not do daytime classes," she recalls. Finding no solution on campus, Ms. Grove turned to distance education. She completed the courses through the University of Waterloo and transferred the credits, a move that paved the way to her degree and then teacher's college. "I needed those base courses in order to take further essential classes," says Ms. Grove. "If distance ed wasn't available, my education would have come to a standstill."
Ms. Grove is among a growing number of students who, out of convenience or need, are eschewing lecture halls and labs in favour of flexible distance options. Distance education has been around for decades, with course materials sent through the mail and lessons often broadcast by radio or television. However, new technology, particularly the Internet, have spurred its recent growth.
Vicky Busch, executive director of the Canadian Virtual University, a consortium of 13 Canadian universities offering online and distance-ed courses, estimates that CVU registrations have increased by 10 percent each year since the consortium's launch in 2000, reaching some 150,000 course registrations in 2006.
Athabasca University, Canada's leading distance-ed and online university, has seen its enrolment double over the past six years to about 32,000 students. Quebec's Télé-université, or Téluq, part of Université du Québec à Montréal, has experienced a 35-percent jump in the same time period, to about 20,000 students. Most students at both institutions are part-time and may be taking only one or two courses. Téluq says its enrolment for 2006-07 was equivalent to 3,250 full-time students.
Raymond Duchesne, director of teaching and research at Téluq, says the very nature of today's economy and society demands flexible education options. "It's hard to keep the same job for your whole life. People have to change and train and improve their skills," he says. "Distance education used to be on the fringe, but now we're moving toward the centre."
Athabasca and Téluq were founded in the early 1970s, long before the current boom. Both were founded upon the principle of open learning and both strive to remain inclusive and accessible. Students seeking an Athabasca or Téluq degree are typically in their 30s or 40s, work full-time and may take many years to complete their program. The majority of the courses are "non-paced," meaning that students can sign up whenever they like and are given more time than a semester to complete them. At Athabasca, for example, students can take six months to a year to finish. (See a glossary of distance education terms at the end of this article.)
The downside of broad inclusion is low completion rates - somewhere between five and 15 percent for students taking their full degree through Athabasca, says Heather Kanuka, a professor at Athabasca and former holder of a Canada Research Chair in e-learning. "At most research universities, students come in with a bag of skills and they are screened," she observes. "In an open university, the entry barriers are removed."
At Téluq, the completion rate ranges from 15 to 20 percent for full-program students. "We tend to accept almost all students, and the rate of failure reflects that reality. And we have no qualms with that - it's all part of the democracy of higher education," says Dr. Duchesne.
Téluq conferred just over 200 undergraduate degrees last year and Athabasca just under 800. Terry Anderson, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Distance Education at Athabasca, notes that the relatively low number of degrees granted is due mainly to the high drop-out rate and the large number of students who transfer their credits out of Athabasca.
Many students use Athabasca and Téluq, as well as other open-learning programs, to earn credits that they can transfer to a degree program at a traditional bricks-and-mortar university. These students tend to be younger and fit a more traditional student profile, and they have a much higher completion rate - all these factors tend to be true as well for students enrolled in distance-ed courses offered by traditional universities.
Institutions that provide both on-campus and distance instruction are known as dual-mode schools. The distance courses in this case are usually "paced," which means students start and finish as a class and within a single semester, and they must abide by deadlines similar to a traditional class-based course.
Almost every university and college accepts Athabasca credits for transfer, says Dr. Anderson. But there can be limitations and special conditions, so it pays to investigate. "It would be incumbent upon anyone transferring credits to check with their home institution to see how many are permitted, and specifically whether Athabasca's are allowed," he says.
Often students enrolled in distance-ed courses aren't so distant - the option is increasingly popular among on-campus students. Denis Mayer, president of CVU and associate vice-president, student affairs, at Laurentian University, estimates that about 50 percent of Laurentian's distance-ed students are enrolled in a full-time, on-campus program at the university. They may take distance-ed courses so they can better juggle their studies and work schedules, or for less noble reasons such as to avoid morning classes or Friday classes.
Indeed, the availability of distance and online courses can serve as a recruitment aid for traditional universities. Joan Collinge, director of the Centre for Online and Distance Education at Simon Fraser University, where some 85 percent of those enrolled are on-campus SFU students, says that online courses are often a drawing card for students who don't want to attend all of their classes in person.
Whether at dual-mode or distance-only universities, new technology is making the world smaller for distance-ed students and reducing the social isolation that has long plagued this type of learning. Online course management systems such as Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT and others often serve as the nucleus of a course, facilitating registration and the creation of group projects and delivering course material and quizzes.
These systems are also used to host online discussions, perhaps the most important way for distance-ed students to interact. A professor will begin a discussion thread in an online forum and students are expected to respond in writing, in a thoughtful way. They are often evaluated on their responses, and reading the responses of others keeps students connected to the course material - and to their classmates.
"You have the ability to interact with people throughout Canada in different roles, different jobs, who can talk about different experiences," says Stephen Booth of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, who is upgrading his advanced diploma to a degree through distance-ed courses at Douglas College and Athabasca while working full-time as a psychiatric nurse.
In addition to course management systems, a vast array of other high-tech tools support learning: blogs, wikis, hard-copy multimedia items like DVDs and of course online scholarly journals and other library resources.
At the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Professor Clare Brett creates weekly "fireside chat" videos that her distance-ed students can download to their computers. "It's very free-form, talking about what went on in the discussion this week," she says. "It's the most popular thing that I have in the class, and it's because the students get a sense of who I am as a person and builds a sense of community."
Webcams and microphones, chat rooms, Skype, and cutting-edge software from companies (including Calgary-based Elluminate) allow for real-time conferencing, also known as synchronous learning. "We use Elluminate, and it allows you to go on a web 'safari' and show everyone a bunch of sites, or share an application like a drawing program. Or you can vote on things, or ask how many people are still awake," says Athabasca's Dr. Anderson. In some ways, he says, it's more interactive than what you would get in the average classroom.
But instructors are often reluctant to institute synchronous learning as a requirement in their courses - synchronous requires scheduling, and the more a course is scheduled, the less flexible it becomes. There are also accessibility issues - if students don't have a fast enough connection or the right equipment, they will be left out of the discussion.
Even with all of the technology available, the question remains whether learning at a distance matches the quality of an on-campus education. The answer is yes - and no. Athabasca's Dr. Kanuka says studies have shown that there is "probably no significant difference" between the two in terms of learning outcomes. But, she also points out that some aspects of the on-campus experience, such as social engagement and extracurricular activities, simply cannot be replicated at a distance.
Distance education can also pose challenges for the professors delivering it. Dr. Kanuka says that a professor working from home may find it hard to remain up-to-date on information, especially of the informal variety that is normally shared around the departmental water cooler.
The lack of immediate feedback from students can also complicate the learning process. "Even though we have audio and video conferencing, there's much lost within the communications technology: the rolling of the eyes, slumping in the chair, the writing of the notes. There was one time I did an audio conference and I said, 'Grand Prairie, what do you think about that?' and no one answered - they were all out having pizza. How's that for non-engagement?" she says, laughing.
Whether on-campus or at a distance, the quality of any given course often depends on who is teaching it. On one hand, notes Gilbert Paquette, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Tele-Learning Cognitive Engineering at Téluq, distance education will never give you the experience and benefits of sitting in a lecture delivered by a great, dynamic instructor.
That said, distance education also has unique advantages, Dr. Paquette notes. A great amount of resources is poured into the creation and composition of distance-ed courses, with content and design experts working in tandem with professors to achieve the best results. "I think that it's quite evident that the courses are better prepared - there's a lot more effort and course preparation in distance learning. So students get a lot more for their money," he says.
And distance education often provides a deeper learning experience, contends Dr. Brett at OISE. For example, research has shown that online discussions enhance student understanding. "You have to take time to compose a response, which means that you will do it better than if you simply blurt it out of your mouth," she says. "And you have it as something to go back to later, so you can revisit issues that had come up earlier in the course."
Online learners also tend to be very diligent. "They don't rush into class having hardly read the readings," says Dr. Brett. "They're online, they think about this, they write - and you can see it in the finished product."
Perhaps the greatest indicator of its effectiveness is the impact distance education has had on education as a whole. Téluq's Dr. Duchesne notes that methods and technology pioneered through distance education - providing material online, meeting less often and communicating more through new technology - have already begun to alter the instructional practices at traditional universities, and this will continue to be the case. "Distance education is leading the way," he says, "in the transformation of how people teach and how people learn at the university level in advanced economies."
A glossary of terms
Paced vs. non-paced: A course that is paced requires students to begin as a class, at a given time, has set deadlines for assignments and tests and runs for a defined time period, usually a semester. Non-paced courses allow more flexibility with more entry points (students can begin at almost any time) and generally allow an extended period for completion.
Synchronous: Synchronous learning utilizes tools such as text-based, audio and video conferencing to facilitate real-time discussions amongst students.
Online learning: The use of web-based tools to assist in the teaching and learning process. Traditional courses often take advantage of online tools to post material and to help students prepare for class discussion.
Open learning: Education that strives to remove barriers to access. An open university generally has more-flexible admission requirements and allows great flexibility for course completion. Courses are usually non-paced.
Distance education: Learning where there is no classroom and students are not physically on site. Distance education courses may be paced or non-paced, online or paper-based (or both), involve synchronous tools (or not), and may be offered by an open or campus-based university. Distance education courses may or may not be online, and most often take advantage of a mixture of media.