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Going Ahead with Distance Education

By JOANNE MACKAY-BENNETT - December 16 2012

Most of us have heard about distance education, but we may be less clear about how it works. A decision about whether to enroll in a university course that takes place via a computer often comes down to a series of plusses and minuses. For some, in-class teaching is irreplaceable; for others, the practical benefits of taking a course without having to be physically present in a classroom outweigh any loss of face-to-face interaction. But what if we stopped comparing? If we considered distance ed as a different kind of teaching tool, one with unique teaching and learning capabilities that were never intended to be in competition with those associated with classroom teaching?

The four Canadian universities that I mention here have done just that. Their policies make distance ed work for adult learners. Athabasca, Carleton, Laurentian and Nipissing are members of Canadian Virtual University, an association of 12 universities in Canada that offer online and distance education (www.cvu-uvc.ca). The keyword for these distance ed providers? Flexibility!

When I spoke to an information counselor at Athabasca University, I was amazed by the simplicity of the admission process. (The counselor’s grasp of policy certainly helped). The most important thing to know about AU is that it is one of two open universities in Canada (Thompson Rivers University is the other one). That means that there is no on-campus student population, no formal admission requirements, and no semester system. Students can register any time for a single course or more.

At Athabasca, distance ed works one of two ways – either as an online individualized course, or, for those who do not have access to a computer, as a ‘paper’ (delivered by mail) course of individualized study. It is also possible to sign up for one course (with permission) while you are registered at another university.

All you need to do is register on the 10th of the month previous to your start date, pay the course fee plus a one-time, non-refundable, registration fee of $115.00.That registration fee is good for life, by the way. In other words, if you enroll as an ‘unclassified visiting student’ this year, and take another course three years from now, your AU registration fee is still good.

Like most universities, Carleton University offers both classroom teaching and distance ed. Their distance ed component is handled through Carleton University Online (www2.carleton.ca/ cuol/). Administrative associate, Maria Brocklehurst ( a superb information resource), assured me that whether you are interested in taking a single course for personal interest, to qualify for admission, or to improve your professional qualifications, you can register as a special student. “Anyone who is interested in pursuing learning opportunities,” Ms. Brocklehurst emphasized, “is eligible to apply as a Special Student in degree-credit courses.” In that case, fees are paid on a per credit basis. Another plus to keep in mind is that many courses have no prerequisites.

At Carleton, distance ed courses are recorded during an on-campus lecture, including questions and discussion, and then posted online. By simulating the ‘live’ classroom experience, CUOL lessens the isolation that is part and parcel of distance education.

Laurentian University’s distance ed program, part of the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE), has grown from its initial offering of one course in 1972 to its present tally of over 360 courses offered in an online format (cce_L@laurentian.ca).

Laurentian is Canada’s largest provider of bilingual (French-English) education. Acceptance into a degree or certificate program is necessary before registering in a distance ed program but admission can be based on a combination of educational and practical experience. A mid-sized university, Laurentian takes the time to address more than formal policy requirements. Their interest in the ‘who’ not just the ‘what’ of distance ed (understanding yourself as a student, learning style, motivation, the importance of character, etc.), recognizes some of the emotional hurdles that distance learners may face.

Nipissing University has made great strides in striking a balance between online and classroom learning. Its Centre for Flexible Teaching and Learning (CFTL) stresses the compatibility between classroom and online learning rather than the differences. By making “engaged learning” its goal, Nipissing’s CFTL narrows the gap that often polarizes the distance ed debate.

Dr. Lorraine Carter, CFTL’s very welcoming Academic Director, spoke to me about Nipissing’s effort to make meaningful exchange—which, after all, lies at the heart of student-teacher relationships—integral to distance ed. She pointed out the important personal connection that a smaller university like Nipissing can provide. From the registration process to assignments, students are able to stay personally connected in a way that is often more difficult at a larger university

Two of Nipissing’s distance ed programs are unique in Canada: the Business Diploma -Bachelor of Commerce Program and the Registered Practical Nurse – Bachelor of Science (Nursing) Program. Both offer innovative opportunities for distance learners. Students with a three-year College business diploma, for instance, can stay at the college campus while enrolled in the Bachelor of Commerce degree. Similarly, the RPN-B.ScN Blended Program allows current RPN’s to study part-time towards their degree while working. Practicum-based courses are offered either within the health care agency where the student is employed or through Nipissing’s partner agencies.

These four members of Canadian Virtual University are committed to the practical benefits of distance ed. What’s more, all of the people who communicated with me were as open, flexible and accessible as the distance ed programs that they advocate. Let me encourage you to explore the numerous possibilities of distance education with these three words: Go for it!


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