Skip to main content
business education

Athabasca University student Chris Cameron, his wife Hannah Mckenzie and their dogs live on a 36-acre plot of land outside the tiny village of Innisfree, Alta. Mr. Cameron does his studies from an insulated garden shed connected to his house with an extension cord

When Chris Cameron was accepted into the University of Alberta to study computer science in the fall of 2014, it was a big deal. With just a high-school diploma to his name, he was eager to bolster his academic credentials, and the Edmonton university had been a family tradition for generations.

He lasted about three weeks.

“I really struggle to learn, I struggled all through high school,” says Mr. Cameron, who had also dropped out of the University of Lethbridge after a difficult three semesters more than a year earlier. “That’s why I didn’t do any postsecondary for so long after [high school]. And when I went back, all the difficulties came back to me. For how much stress and discomfort it was putting into my life, I couldn’t keep doing it.”

He had also, however, taken a handful of courses from online-only Athabasca University – and found the experience night-and-day different. “I liked doing it on my own terms, with fewer hard deadlines, so I could take my time when I needed it.”

So he ultimately switched to Athabasca’s computing and information systems program. Three years after starting, the now-34-year-old undergrad is more than half done with his program.

His learning style wasn’t the only reason the switch made sense, either. Being able to live anywhere allowed Mr. Cameron’s wife, Hannah Mckenzie, to accept a job as a conservation canine handler whose specially trained, live-in dog helps her root out invasive plant and animal species at the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. And besides, Mr. Cameron says, “We really just wanted to live in the middle of nowhere.”

Their new home fits that definition: a 36-acre plot of land outside the tiny village of Innisfree, population 193, 150 kilometres from Edmonton. Mr. Cameron now studies in an insulated garden shed connected to his house with an extension cord.

He is among the growing number of Canadian students who are not only taking advantage of the flexibility of online education but also using it to dramatically open up their living options. No home location is too remote for online students as long as they’ve got an internet connection.

“The typical bread and butter for universities has long been the Grade 12 graduates, but Canada’s demographics are changing,” says Tina Reed, director of recruitment and partnerships for Contact North, a provincially funded organization that works with universities and colleges in Ontario to deliver distance education to that province’s small and remote communities.

“For universities to remain viable, they need to build other student bases. Many of those will be non-traditional students, and many will not live within commuting distance of a traditional institution.”

Contact North has been serving those students for more than three decades. In its early years, lectures were delivered via conference calls, and course materials were delivered by mail. Today it’s mostly digital – “I’ve seen frog dissections done on the internet,” Ms. Reed says – but the basic model remains the same. Contact North partners with 116 “online learning centres” in the province’s hinterlands, including schools, libraries and public buildings, to get rent-free space where students can access the internet, have exams invigilated, and receive other support.

Athabasca has developed some similar partnerships, though it also aims to ensure students can access its course materials from any internet connection, no matter how rudimentary. “If you’re in Nunavut,” says Chris McLeod, Athabasca’s director of communications and community engagement, “your access to high-speed data is pretty severely restricted. ... We’re very careful about not loading in too much high-bandwidth [course material] when it doesn’t really add value.”

Last year, Contact North had 75,000 registrations, and Athabasca had 50,000 students, 12 per cent of whom are located in rural communities. Together, they make up a good chunk of the 350,000 Canadian students studying online, according to the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association’s (CDLRA) 2017 survey of 182 institutions nationwide.

That includes people such as Kristen Elizabeth Wells, who’s pursuing a postmasters nurse practitioner diploma from St. John’s-based Memorial University of Newfoundland, while living in the small town of Labrador City, 1,200 kilometres from campus. The 35-year-old nurse, with two sons aged 2 and 5, says she probably wouldn’t have gone back to school if it meant uprooting them and moving to St. John’s, or anywhere else.

“To relocate for a long period of time, at this point it doesn’t work with family, with my life,” she says.

Without the online opportunities, she would have had to forgo the professional benefits she expects to accrue from the program: more and better-paid opportunities and more flexibility in terms of where she can work.

Her continuation in Labrador City also means her community holds on to a productive and needed worker who’s gaining even more skills.

“To have people coming and going all the time isn’t the best way to develop good continuity of care in a small place,” Ms. Wells says. “The area benefits greatly from having nurse practitioners who are familiar with the area and can further develop their skills while staying here.”

For the most part, Ms. Wells’s program is what’s called a “synchronous," requiring students to study and progress in courses at the same pace as other students, completing tests and making the same deadlines. Mr. Cameron’s, on the other hand, is what’s known as “asynchronous,” allowing students to access material on their own time, progressing at their own pace, setting their own deadlines.

That’s the method Mr. Cameron finds so vital to his own success, though he says that it’s not without its challenges. He especially misses the sense of on-campus camaraderie he got a taste of in his limited time at traditional institutions.

“The student union does try really hard, but you don’t get to know many people,” says Mr. Cameron. “Everyone is doing their own thing, maybe they’ve got family and a full-time job, so it’s harder to get a community going when I’m alone in my shed.”

Likewise, he says, it can be hard to forge relationships with his professors. He says it can take days to get a response to questions, and they tend to be abrupt and unhelpful. Instead, he’s started posting academic queries on computer-science forums on Reddit, instead. “I’ll get an answer in 20 minutes,” he says.

Both Mr. Cameron and Ms. Wells say that without the regularity of a traditional class schedule, the tendency to procrastinate is strong. But, they both hasten to add, they wouldn’t be in school today without the option to study remotely.

“Last year I went to New York for four months,” Mr. Cameron says. “It was sort of a retreat for programmers, and I could just manage my classes from there. I could never do that while enrolled at a normal school. This opens up all kinds of possibilities, all kinds of choices, and I know I’m not going to miss anything.”