Allison Pillwein, a 23-year-old Niagara College student, is a fan of online learning. Currently in her first year of a social service worker program, Ms. Pillwein likes that many of her lecture courses are online hybrids – meaning that part of the delivery is online and part is face-to-face in class – such as the abnormal psychology course she elected to take this fall.
"Hybrid learning gives us the advantage of having technology available to learn in the way that we've grown used to," says Ms. Pillwein, who is also a Brock University graduate. "In the abnormal psychology course, the online component is mainly tests and quizzes that you can do in your own time. I've found that suits my learning style more, as opposed to doing a test in class where you'd have to memorize a lot of terms and concepts."
Ms. Pillwein also likes that the professor uploads all of her PowerPoint presentations for students to access and review. She feels that helps get the material embedded in her brain more than writing things down word for word during the lecture.
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"Being online allows you a lot of flexibility in how you choose to learn," Ms. Pillwein says. "You can tweak how you study and how you learn the material rather than being forced to do it only one way in the classroom session."
Laura Hotham, a psychology professor at Niagara College, teaches the abnormal psychology course that Ms. Pillwein is taking at the Welland, Ont., campus. Ms. Hotham finds that the combination of two hours of classroom lecture and then one hour of online activity for the week is an effective way of teaching the material, particularly because it gives students time to take away what has been said and digest it.
After two years of teaching the course with the online component and one year before that of teaching without it, she says the student grades are higher than when she taught only in the classroom.
"I teach the material during the lecture and then load activities online that allow them to apply it," Ms. Hotham says. "For example, after they learn about personality disorders in class, the online component requires them to read a scenario involving a description of different people at a social event. Then they have to complete a quiz matching the personality disorder to the description of how each person was acting. It's better if they can see it for themselves instead of me just describing what a narcissistic personality disorder is. If students learn to apply the information, they'll have a better understanding of abnormal behaviour and mental illness when they're out working with people."
Ms. Hotham also finds students are more engaged in the discussion the week after doing the online activities because they have more to talk about. Sometimes she posts a video, which then becomes an online discussion.
"When I do an online discussion, I'll often get an opinion from a person who never says a word in class but who may have great thoughts," Ms. Hotham says. "Some people just don't feel comfortable in the classroom setting."
Susan Cluett, dean, faculty of regional and continuing education at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., says they are moving more and more into online and blended hybrid deliveries for postsecondary programs, in addition to what they have traditionally offered in continuing education online. Over the past two years, she says, Fanshawe has increased its blended deliveries by 50 per cent and its online deliveries by 75 per cent across the college.
"We're well aware that our students and potential students are seeking flexible options for their academic programming," Ms. Cluett says. "That can mean things like more flexible delivery starts for courses and programs and moving away from the rigid September, January and May intakes. But most importantly, our growth online is to address that flexible delivery opportunity for students to study when and wherever they are. That may be at home or on the road, or at hours where we don't normally offer classes."
Fanshawe is also seeing the demographic change for postsecondary students, with more mature students coming to college after working for a period of time or who are re-entering the academic environment after being away from school. Ms. Cluett says those students want flexible options that allow them to study on a time frame that works for other aspects of their lives – whether career, family or other personal competing interests.
That is what made it possible for Victoria Bos, 24, who recently completed the occupational health and safety program online through Fanshawe College, to continue her studies. After graduating from Fanshawe with a two-year diploma in human resources, Ms. Bos wanted to continue her education, but was needed to help take care of her grandmother.
However, she found she missed the classroom experience, with teachers who were there to encourage students and make them want to do better.
"When you're doing a course online, you're only as good as the effort you put into it," Ms. Bos says. "But the pros and cons evened out. In the end, it was a really good learning experience to be able to make sure I sat myself down, scheduled my time appropriately and completed it all on my own. The best thing is that you can just continue with your life. You can make it work for you."
As for the online programs themselves, Ms. Cluett says they are moving toward becoming much more interactive and engaging. All of the colleges have a tool in their learning management systems that enables virtual interaction, whether synchronous (when members of the class participate online at the same time) or asynchronous (online on their own time) presentations and class discussions.
"We try to mirror the learning experience of students in the online programs to be much as it would in a face-to-face class," Ms. Cluett says. "So we find our courses are moving toward virtual experiences and simulated environments – whether that's technology courses with simulated labs and shops, or human services courses where they have a simulated interaction that would otherwise happen in a classroom. There are opportunities for creating really engaging learning experiences, not just reading materials that have been posted."
Patrick Lyons, director of teaching and learning services at Carleton University in Ottawa, visualizes online learning taking many different forms, presenting all kinds of opportunities that could not be delivered any other way. Carleton has a long history offering distance learning, first broadcasting courses on a local cable TV channel in 1978 and then offering the world's first video podcast of a university credit course in 2006. Currently, as many as one-third of all Carleton students register and complete an online course in a given year.
"If you think broadly and creatively, you can have wonderfully rich online activities," says Mr. Lyons. "The tools are astounding right now. We've had instructors facilitate a completely online language course in a 3-D environment where they were meeting in a virtual space as avatars. We've had courses featuring engaging short lectures from amazing people who might otherwise be difficult to bring into a classroom, such as a supreme court justice, an RCMP officer and a practising physician."
Mr. Lyons says he has watched some instructors at Carleton hold more engaging seminars online with richer communications than he has seen in face-to-face seminars. One example he gives is a graduate course with a small class of about 30 students who meet online at the same time.
"In some ways it mirrors a face-to-face seminar graduate course where you'd have a live discussion going back and forth, but you're doing this online with 30 people spread out around the world," says Mr. Lyons. "And because of the technology, they're able to break out into groups and have these small private discussions between three and four people and then bring that back to class. The wealth of ideas and the rich diversity that they're bringing are so different compared with a face-to-face classroom environment. Online learning can absolutely bring us new opportunities to connect people who may not be easily connected, and in areas where face-to-face teaching may not be the best choice."