Jennifer Feschuk already had one degree when she started at Royal Roads University in Victoria last year, but she still had some pre-school jitters before her classes began.
The first day involved the typical tour and meet-and-greet with classmates, and she was given time to look around and get her bearings. But unlike her first postsecondary experience, this wasn't taking place in person – it was all being done online.
Instead of scouring the halls of a building, Feschuk and her fellow students were exploring every nook and cranny of Moodle, an open-source program that would become the online hub for all her coursework.
Meeting new friends involved uploading a picture, filling out a profile and then chatting in online discussion forums. "You get to play around on the website and get to know it," she says. "It's an exciting start to the program."
While people have been taking online courses for several years, advances in technology have made distance learning much easier and, as Feschuk learned from Vancouver, a more social experience.
One aspect of online learning that Feschuk has enjoyed is the "classroom" discussion. Moodle lets students interact in online forums; you can even break up into teams and work on projects together, all through the site. Her group also does work over Skype when they need to actually see each other.
It's a much more social experience than she imagined it would be. "Everything is interactive," she says about Moodle. "It's like Facebook."
George Siemens, a technology expert and professor at Athabasca University, a distance education school in Athabasca, Alta., says that social interaction has been one of the biggest changes in the online space.
While his school also uses Moodle for classroom discussions, he has started using Twitter, Google Hangouts and Skype to keep conversations going. For instance, he created a course hashtag that students can use on Twitter to talk about the class.
Every Monday, Siemens hosts a 30-minute chat on Twitter using that hashtag. "[When] people append tweets with that, you get a surprisingly rich stream of resources," he says. People can easily share links to articles and videos, which was difficult to do prior to a social media world. "People used to have to use the mail," he says.
With more social tools, not to mention better bandwidth, people can learn – and share ideas – from anywhere. That has helped to popularize the massive open online course (MOOC), which got its start about six years ago.
As the moniker suggests, these are courses offered by universities that can be taken by anyone with an Internet connection. Some classes have more than 100,000 students enrolled.
Charmaine Williams, a professor at the University of Toronto, teaches the Social Context of Mental Health and Illness to 27,000 people from across the globe. At the moment, the courses are free and they're not for credit, though there are exams and papers to complete.
Those who finish the coursework – many don't, she says – get a certificate, which some people, especially in developing countries, use to land jobs.
MOOCs are offered through different websites, such as Coursera.org or Edx.org, and all of the work is done through these sites. Williams uploads several 10-minute videos once a week, which the students can then watch when they have time.
Discussion forums allow people to interact, while a quiz tool allows Williams to put together multiple-choice tests. The program will then grade those tests for her. There's also a place to post links and videos.
Williams was skeptical as to whether people can actually learn this way, especially when it came to a topic like mental health, but she's been pleasantly surprised.
"This is a discussion topic, so I had big concerns on how it would be possible to develop a strong community," she says. "But I, and other instructors who do this, all agree that it really is a generous community. People really help each other out."
Where technology will take the education sector is anyone's guess, but Siemens thinks we're heading to what he calls a "portfolio model of learning" where all of our experiences relate in some way.
Someone might take a course in an actual building, another course through a MOOC and maybe they'll coach a hockey team, too. All of those activities will make it onto a transcript.
"A transcript might say that someone is proficient in a certain topic area, but it won't matter whether that has been learned through their personal hobbies, workplace learning or at school," Siemens says.
It might sound too "big brother" for some people, but as in many other sectors, the education industry is trying to figure out how to use the copious amounts of data that people leave online.
"Everything we do has a digital trail," Siemens says. "Analyzing that trail will help us understand that someone knows something different from someone else."
Feschuk's online learning will soon be over once she finishes her thesis and hands it in to her professor over Moodle.
She has enjoyed the experience, though she admits by the time she started taking her fourth course, she wasn't as enamoured by the open-source education software as she was at the beginning.
Still, she thinks that as technology continues to improve, more and more people will choose online education. "The technology allows you do it anywhere," she says. "You don't need to be in a class at a specific time of the day. It gives you a lot of freedom."