Thanks to the far-reaching powers of the Internet, online learning has quickly become mainstream. It is now the preferred mode of education for students who — by virtue of their location, work schedules or family commitments — cannot attend regular college classes.
Indeed, online learning is all about flexibility. In the virtual classroom, students can pursue a single course, a certificate or a full college diploma from any computer, at any time.
“They’re not tied to a rigid schedule — it isn’t, for example, every Tuesday night from seven to 10,” says Barbara Dickson, director of distance learning at Centennial College. “They can put those hours in at two in the morning if they like, but they’ll still get the same outcomes.”
Needless to say, the concept of “e-learning” has caught on in a big way. Centennial College, for one, has seen its online enrolment figures increase by 49% year over year.
Dickson says that’s because online courses appeal to individuals at any stage of their career — not just post-secondary students, but anyone looking to upgrade their current skills, switch career paths or obtain specialized training.
“They cater to a wide audience,” she says.
Likewise, the number of online programs offered through Centennial has grown dramatically, thanks to its partnership with OntarioLearn, a consortium of 22 Ontario colleges that have partnered to deliver online courses. As a member of OntarioLearn, Centennial can develop its own online roster, but the college can also choose to offer any of the courses developed by a partner college.
“The variety and the scope of programs has really exploded over the last several years,” Dickson says.
A typical online course combines textbook material with assignments and scheduled tests. Usually, there is also some multimedia content, like audio, video or graphics, to make the lessons more engaging. But students are not totally isolated.
That’s because every course has an assigned instructor who is available to answer questions and monitor their progress. The same is true for pretty much every course offered through the OntarioLearn network — that is, students have ample opportunity to interact with their instructor and with each other.
“If they want to discuss something, they’ll set up a chat so all of the students can log in and they can correspond in real time,” Dickson explains.
At Seneca College, another OntarioLearn partner, online learning represents about 10-15% of the student population, or about 4,000 students every semester.
Susan Savoy, associate dean of distance education at Seneca, says the great thing about learning online is that students can spend as much time on the course material as they want.
“When you’re working online, you have time to practise the exercises over and over before you actually submit them,” she says. “Also, for shy students who might never say anything in a real classroom, online learning gives them the opportunity to think through what they want to say and speak out in a comfortable way.”
And, just like in a regular classroom, online courses have benchmarks in place to ensure students are keeping up with the course material.
“Some courses have midterm tests — they’re timed and they can only be opened at a specific point,” Savoy says. “But almost all of our courses have final exams that are usually written in a college test centre. So it’s all fairly regulated.”
At George Brown College, meanwhile, online learning is somewhat different.
“We specialize in self-paced delivery of distance education,” says Colin Simpson, dean of continuing education at George Brown. “Whereas most schools offer online courses in a synchronous format, which means the instructor leads the course, our biggest programs are self-paced, so the student decides when they’re going to learn, rather than us.”
According to Simpson, George Brown is the largest deliverer of distance education in the country, with 9,000 students enrolled from all over the world. He argues that the online learning experience can, in some cases, be better than what you get in a classroom.
“The subjects that lend themselves best to self-paced delivery are generally more technical in nature because they are very black and white in terms of what the answers are,” he says. “We deliver the technical courses — which are our most popular — with video, 2D and 3D animations and lots of colour photos and illustrations. So we provide a whole suite of multimedia products to enrich and enhance the online learning experience.”
All told, it’s a safe bet that online learning is here to stay. For a complete listing of online courses offered through the Ontario college system, visit www.OntarioLearn.com.