Catherine Robar was living in a one-room shack in South Africa when she enrolled in an online education program offered by Toronto's Ryerson University.
The Halifax native had originally travelled to the African republic in 2008 to volunteer in a community where food is scarce. The plan had been to stay three months.
But after falling in love with a local man who shared her belief that all people should have unfettered access to life's necessities, Ms. Robar decided to stay on indefinitely.
Her goal was to implement projects addressing poverty reduction, food security, job creation, education and access to improved water and irrigation. But she didn't know how.
Enter Ryerson's the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, which offered a certificate program in food security. Ms. Robar signed up, enrolling through a broadband Internet connection while living thousands of miles away.
"Being overseas meant that I was not able to take part in classroom-based studies, so instead I utilized Ryerson's online education platform which is administered by the Chang School. This enabled me to study a Graduate Certificate in Food Security while applying my education first hand to a food-insecure South African community," Ms. Robar says through an interview conducted by e-mail.
With the knowledge gleaned from the program, Ms. Robar, with her African husband Gcinisizwe Noyakaza, launched the registered Canadian charity, The Themba Development Project, which today benefits thousands in three communities in South Africa and Lesotho.
Her work then gained the attention of a Rome-based university, Roma Tre, which offers a master's degree in Human Development and Food Security, which granted her a full scholarship to attend its program in Italy, at the global headquarters of the food assistance branch of the United Nations.
"Not only did I gain a better understanding of food security principles, I also drastically improved programs which we were developing through The Themba Development Project. Today, our projects are more sustainable and effective," says Ms. Robar, a recipient of the Ryerson University Gold Medal Award for outstanding academic achievement and service to community.
Save for the extraordinary accolades and international attention that have come her way, Ms. Robar is not unlike other adult students who similarly have turned to online education for continuing studies after finishing their formal education. This is generally for the flexibility and convenience offered by distance learning.
In fact, more and more students are turning to online education because it fits with their lifestyles, observes Marie Bountrogianni, dean of the Chang School.
"The one area where we have grown exponentially at the Chang School is in the area of online learning," she says. "Just last year we went up by 12 per cent."
The first digital education system was launched at Ryerson 15 years ago. Currently, the Chang School has 70,000 registered continuing education students and 450 online courses, including more than 300 degree-credit courses. Subjects range from fashion and graphic design to computer and information technologies. Courses cost about $650 each.
Certificate programs, such as the one Ms. Robar took in Food Security, require six to eight courses to complete.
Cyber Security is one of the newer certificate programs and is hugely popular because in most cases it leads directly to a job.
"It's a new skill that's in high demand," Ms. Bountrogianni says.
Lyndon Dubeau is one of the Chang School's new computer security and digital forensics students. He already works in the information security field and is using the online certificate program to enhance his skill set, taking full advantage of the videos, discussion boards and online research tools added to the program to make it compelling.
"These courses help me maintain my professional certifications and they're also a good way to demonstrate to current and future employers my commitment to lifelong learning," Mr. Dubeau says.
But he also likes how online learning works for him, allowing him to study according to his own hours.
"Online delivery allows for me to fit my course time into the day without compromising the other aspects of my life like family, work and personal time," Mr. Dubeau says.
Students also turn to colleges for continuing education that is available online.
Brittany Porter is enrolled in the Social Media Marketing Certificate program offered by George Brown College in Toronto. Ms. Porter works full-time in a 9-to-5 job and has a busy lifestyle. She likes online learning because she can customize it to her needs.
"I knew that I would only be able to commit to online courses, rather than attend weekly classes," she says. "George Brown offers a variety of courses for the certificate, and I was able to choose electives that I felt would cater to me."
Her fellow student at George Brown College – although she has never met her – is Amanda Euringer, a single mother of two living in the Kootenay region of British Columbia.
Like Ms. Porter, Ms. Euringer enrolled in online learning because she could personalize it and make it work for her.
"It's a great way to upgrade specific skills on your own time," says Ms. Euringer, a student of Paid Search and Web Analytics.
A former journalist, Ms. Euringer turned to online learning to make herself more marketable after her industry started contracting with the advancement of digital communication five years ago.
She enrolled on a course-to-course basis without committing to a certificate program.
"I'm a working professional, and taking individual courses allows me to upgrade skills as I need them," she says.
"The industry is changing so fast, this allows me to keep up with those changes without wasting time for money on courses that I don't need, have already learned elsewhere, or aren't relevant."
Ms. Euringer enrolled in SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, as a way of taking her career to the next level.
"Without it," she says, "I was just another barely employed writer."
She is already reaping the benefits of her online education courses.
"I am booked up into the new year with SEO and content writing contracts," Ms. Euringer says.
"Many of my clients are moving more of their sales online, so my skill set is in demand."