Skip to main content
online education
Open this photo in gallery:

Mount Royal University, in partnership with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is offering an online course called the Cannabis Education Program. The course is taught by horticulturalists, marketing specialists, and scientists working in the industry.Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Kayden Abel was four years old when he started playing soccer. Having just turned 25, the Edmonton resident has parlayed his technical skills into success as a freestyle pro and coach. He’s in demand for his specialized work, but, career-wise, he wanted to expand his options.

Mr. Abel knew he’d found what he was looking for when he discovered the Cannabis Education Program, which is offered exclusively online through the faculty of continuing education and extension at Mount Royal University in Calgary in partnership with the continuing and professional studies division of British Columbia’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU).

Taught by horticulturalists, marketing specialists, and scientists working in the industry, the program checked all the boxes: It’s a field Mr. Abel is passionate about, and the online delivery allows him to learn and study at all hours of the day around his other commitments.

“I’ve been using medicinal cannabis for about six years, when I’m super sore after training,” Mr. Abel says. “When I heard it was becoming legal, I was wondering how I could get my foot in the door. I was looking online and this course popped up. I signed up right away.

“My schedule is pretty busy, and I coach a lot in the evenings, so this allows me to study on weekends or at 12 at night,” he adds. “The profs are super responsive.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Kayden Abel of Edmonton is a soccer player and coach who's taking a course on the cannabis industry to change his career direction.Handout

For Mount Royal, the course is just one example of how educational institutions can leverage online programming to their competitive advantage. Whether it’s a new subject, a niche area, or a novel way of teaching a traditional topic, unique web-based programs are one way for colleges and universities across Canada to differentiate themselves. To that end, more and more institutions are becoming emboldened with their offerings.

Brad Mahon, interim dean of continuing education at Mount Royal, says that the Cannabis Education Program, which launched earlier this year and is at full capacity with a total of 90 students, came about in large part because of the downturn in the Alberta economy. In the past, much of the department’s programming focused on corporate training for the oil and gas industry. As that sector has waned, so has demand for such classes.

The role of continuing education is to evolve along with economic and societal shifts, Dr. Mahon says.

“We’re trying to reinvent ourselves,” Dr. Mahon says. “The economy is going to come back – these things are cyclic – but things are going to look different. We’re preparing for a new industry. That new industry needs a work force, and that’s where we come in.

“I’m a big sports fan, and what makes great teams great is the ability to reorganize and adjust and move ahead,” he says. “That’s what we want to do. Continuing education is mandated to be responsive, flexible and nimble. We need to recognize that more and more, students are consumers of education.”

More than ever before, those consumers have options when it comes to the type and breadth of education they want to pursue via online studies, learning on their own schedules, often in corners of the day between professional or family commitments, from the comfort of their own homes, usually at costs well below those of bricks-and-mortar universities.

Athabasca University, for example, offers the world’s only MBA in hockey management as well as chemistry courses that include labs (complete with mail-safe chemicals, beakers and pipettes).

Laurentian University has a bachelor of forensic identification, a degree exclusively available to Canadian police officers who investigate crime scenes and the only program of its kind in North America. It also offers a fully online French bachelor degree of science in nursing for registered nurses as well as a bachelor degree in social work.

The University of Alberta offers virtual courses such as Indigenous Canada, a “massive open online course” – meaning one aimed at unlimited participation and open access – geared to students outside of the faculty of native studies who are interested in aboriginal/non-aboriginal relationships. It also has Dino 101/Dinosaur Paleobiology, a 12-session overview of non-avian dinosaurs taught by professor and Canada Research Chair Philip John Currie. (With videos and readings, it’s taught in English but has French, Italian, German and Spanish subtitles.)

Then there’s a bachelor degree program in architecture at the RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University. The partnership of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and Athabasca University offers an alternative pathway to architectural licencing. When they’re not taking academic courses online, students work for licenced Canadian architects to log experience and take face-to-face design studios with the RAIC in major cities across Canada.

While the courses consist of videos, online quizzes, forums, interactive materials, and e-texts, the program’s virtual design studios are particularly innovative, explains Douglas MacLeod, chair of the RAIC Centre for Architecture. Using video and teleconferencing, students from across Canada (and sometimes around the world) meet with their instructors online on a weekly basis to share and discuss their designs. Students can share their screen and others can see and comment on the drawings or models that they’re developing.

The program has other features, such as an online gallery of student work, an Instagram account to share current news, free open educational resources in its publications section, and even a YouTube channel for one of its courses. It provides online access to tools such as MatchBox Energy software, which allows students to predict how their designs will behave in terms of energy consumption.

“Athabasca University provides an educational environment that is inclusive and accessible,” Dr. MacLeod says. “Many students cannot, for whatever reason, attend a traditional university full-time. By working and staying in their own communities, we help make education more affordable for students. Because of this, we feel that we are unlocking the architectural talent that is inherent in diverse communities across Canada and increasingly around the world. Traditional schools receive four or five applicants for every seat in their program. Our program is easily scalable to accommodate all those who want to, and are qualified to, study architecture.”

Athabasca University now operates one of the largest undergraduate programs in architectural education in Canada, with course registrations from more than 660 students in the past 12 months and having had students from 16 countries.

“What we are seeing is that many students from other faculties are taking architecture courses with us because of their general interest in the field,” Dr. MacLeod says. “This is good for both students and the profession. Courses at traditional schools of architecture are generally not open to non-program students. Ours are."

Heidi Erisman, executive director CVU-UVC, a consortium of nine universities that collaborate to promote online learning, says flexibility is the main driver of the success and popularity of online learning. So is the societal shift to online everything.

“When online learning really started taking off, it was mostly baby boomers,” Ms. Erisman says. “Now we are seeing a big uptake with younger people. Because their lives are increasingly online, it makes absolute sense that they would study online.

“It’s a business proposition for institutions as well,” she says. “Online pedagogy is really helpful for learners because it’s systematic. Online curriculum is very disciplined and is structured in such a way that people retain the learning.”

At Carleton University in Ottawa, digital archeologist Shawn Graham offers an online course called Crafting Digital History, which enables students to undertake comprehensive historical research using powerful digital tools. Last year, his students processed and analyzed the entire print run of the Shawville Equity, a newspaper in Quebec that has been publishing since the 1880s.

“The course is designed via progressive modules to replicate the stages of real digital research in history,” Dr. Graham says. “Digital historians put their work out there, they talk with each other in open venues, they ask for help, and they’re open about things that didn’t work. The course initiates students into this community of practice, this community of scholarship. ... A field that has online work as part of the core of its practice needs to be taught in that same environment, and it must engage with others working in that space.”

Carleton, meanwhile, also offers open-access introductory psychology classes online for free. Instead of a typical face-to-face class consisting of three-hour lectures over 12 weeks, professor Bruce H. Tsuji has converted courses for online learning into close to 70 video modules averaging 10 minutes each (“the ‘sweet spot’ of the human attention span,” he says). Students can progress as slowly or as quickly as they want.

“These short modules mean that students can squeeze them in while waiting for their coffee or riding the bus,” Dr. Tsuji says. “My video modules are close-captioned. This is great for those with some kinds of learning disabilities or those for whom English is not their first language. Video modules can also be replayed, sped up, or slowed down. Most students in face-to-face classes are too shy to say, ‘Can you please repeat that?’ to their professors.”

“Students find them more convenient than commuting to the university, finding a parking spot, and getting to a classroom at 8:30 on Monday morning or 3:30 on Friday afternoon,” he adds. “An unfortunate reality is that many university classrooms may be smelly, dirty, too hot or too cold, and crowded.”