What advice would you give a potential student considering an online education program?

Online education provides a wide range of options for students to get the education they need, to pursue their goals and dreams.

It is a very different way of learning to what most people have experienced in other formal education settings, and requires independence and good time-management to be successful. It may be a good idea to try out a free online course or two, such as a MOOC in a topic you are interested in, just to get a sense of how it might feel to be an online learner.

Online education provides a world of options for students who may not otherwise be able to get access to the learning they need or want, simply because they can’t attend full time classes on-campus. Don’t dismiss online education as lower quality, easier, or of lesser value than on-campus study, because those are all myths. At the same time, check out the kinds of supports available to online students from the institution before you decide where to go.

What would you say is the greatest advantage of distance learning programs?

Online learning gives you choices and allows you to take control of your own learning pathway. Most online programs give learners the flexibility they need to be able to study wherever they are in the world, and whatever their personal circumstances.

Online learning gives you the opportunity to learn in the way that suits your lifestyle and learning preferences, so for example if you work shifts or have children and can only study late at night, the 24hr access to your courses allows you to study when you have time. Some courses might have flexible deadlines or assessment so that you can fit them around your life.

Everyone should have access to post-secondary learning, and online courses are one way to make that available, regardless of geography or personal circumstances.

How have innovations in technology improved the online learning experience?

When people think of online learning, they often think of the old distance education model where there was really very little interaction with other students or the instructor. That is no longer the case with well-designed online courses. Technology has moved to the point where we can easily have live online discussions and lectures, with students joining in from wherever they are in the world on any internet enabled device, and going back to the recorded session when they need to for review or deeper learning.

"The trick is to set goals for yourself and choose a path that gives you the advantage you need to achieve your goals."

Online learning platforms have become much more sophisticated, accessible to mobile learners, and socially oriented with rich communication options. The focus is now on the whole experience of learning, rather than just content delivery or static notes. Advances in educational technologies have completely changed what is possible in online education as the focus moves from students as passive consumers of knowledge, to actively engaged learners who contribute to the learning of others in a community.

We are also able to look beyond the traditional educational technologies to common and familiar online tools, such as YouTube, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Linkedin, and many more to create learning spaces that exist where the students are comfortable.

In today’s challenging job market, why should someone consider continuing their education?

Employers today expect that the people they hire will be effective lifelong learners. They want people who can independently update or upgrade their qualifications and knowledge to meet the needs of the job. For those trying to find a job, demonstrating to a potential employer that you have continued your learning can give you an advantage over other candidates. 

We also know that most people these days will go through several jobs in their lifetime, which means both that they will likely need some retraining or extension of their learning, and also that they have the opportunity to explore different directions in their careers that they may not have been able to imagine when they first entered the workforce.

Online learning particularly can teach skills that are important in the modern workforce, such as digital literacy, computing skills, information literacy, independent learning. It also teaches professional online communication skills, which are increasingly important as more and more businesses have distributed teams of employees who do not meet in a single location.

What is your advice to someone who’s exploring the possibility of going back to school to continue their education?

There are lots of options out there to fit your needs and interests. Take your time and shop around to find the program or the course that suits you, and don’t be afraid to try out a course or two before committing to a program. It can feel overwhelming and daunting to consider going back to school, particularly after you have been away for some time.

Remember that you have a lot of life experience that you can bring to your education and share with others. The trick is to set goals for yourself and choose a path that gives you the advantage you need to achieve your goals. Also, don’t be afraid to take some risks to achieve your goals – investing in education almost always pays off professionally, personally, or financially (or all three!).

What are some of the biggest challenges in growing the continuing education sector?

Misconceptions and perceptions of both the education industry, and potential learners are challenges all institutions face. Online learning in Canada is not yet as ‘mainstream’ as it is in some other parts of the world, so there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about how courses are taught and what one can expect if they enrol in an online program.

In general, we can do a lot more to support students at a distance, like providing extended hours technical support, online mentoring, easy access to all of the institution’s systems and services that on campus students take for granted, and access to digital resources from libraries.

There is also a perception that online learning is somehow different from on campus courses, and so should be treated as different. We need to get to a place where all students are valued and treated equally, where the curriculum is the same no matter what mode they choose to study in, and where institutions actively seek to provide the flexibility that modern students need and demand to be able to continue to learn, and maintain their lives beyond the walls of the institution.

Providing quality online education costs money and requires investment in people, infrastructure and services, and few institutions have those resources readily available. It takes time to grow successful programs and see return on investment.

Where do you think that the continuing and online education industry is headed in 2015?

I think we will see the development of more and more specialized certificate or sub-degree programs where people will be able to quickly obtain the knowledge that they need when they need it. Online education in Ontario is undergoing somewhat of a revolution with the development of the new Ontario Online Learning Consortium and associated support from the Ontario Government to develop online courses and flexible approaches to learning.

We will see increasing cooperative efforts between institutions, such as shared programs or courses, a greater focus on student mobility, credit transfer and pathways through post-secondary education. We are also seeing greater demand for personalized and adaptive learning - systems that respond intelligently to the learner. We will also see more alternative methods of recognizing learning, such as digital badges or ePortfolios, as a way of better demonstrating and evaluating what a learner knows and can do.