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Though hared numbers are difficult to come by, about 20 per cent of students do their undergraduate degrees online, according to experts.Getty Images/iStockphoto

As Jason Nixon watches his twin seven-year-olds kick their way through karate class, the dad, husband, politician and champion for the homeless can often be seen booting up his computer – to work toward earning his bachelor of commerce degree through Alberta's Athabasca University.

At 34, Mr. Nixon possesses many of the traits of the typical Canadian taking an undergrad program online – he's older than the average early-20s student attending university in person, has been working for years, and has a growing family.

The father of the twin boy and girl, and a teenage son, lives in a rural community near Sundre, a central Alberta town about 130 kilometres northwest of Calgary. His wife works full-time outside the home for a pipeline company. His own work responsibilities include being Athabasca's student union president, and this summer, he won the provincial nomination for the Wildrose Party for the riding of Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.

"I always knew from the beginning I would want to turn my diploma into a bachelor's degree when I was done," says Mr. Nixon, who completed a business diploma – also online, at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology – while working for a non-profit organization that helps the homeless.

Having earned credit for courses he completed for his diploma, Mr. Nixon expects to complete his BCommerce in accounting in about a year. He is three-quarters of the way through the 24 courses he needs, which cost about $500 a course, including textbooks, so he expects the total cost to be about $12,000.

"I could have gone to the University of Calgary or another spot for my degree, but I didn't want to stop working," he says in a phone interview from his home. "And [doing an online degree] allows me lots more flexibility, including with the kids. I could be studying on my iPad while I'm at my kids' karate, and my oldest is into kick boxing.

Fully online, or blended options

Each university offering online undergraduate programs – which experts say are growing in offerings and popularity – has its own approach to catering to the needs of online undergraduate learners. But a common theme for such schools is they keep in mind that most students have full lives outside the virtual classroom, and want a top-notch curriculum that can be easily accessed and used on their computers.

Athabasca and Téluq, Quebec's only university providing just distance learning, are among the few universities with fully online undergraduate programs, as most have some sort of in-class component to them, according to the Canadian Virtual University – a consortium of about a dozen universities (also including the University of Manitoba and the University of Fredericton) that collaborate in online education.

For instance, at Victoria-based Royal Roads University, a former military college which became a university in 1995, there are nearly a dozen undergraduate degree-completion programs covering the last two years of a bachelor's degree – in everything from communications to justice studies, global tourism, environmental management and environmental sustainability, and business administration. Students follow a "blended collaborative cohort" model – they live and work intensely on campus for three weeks at the beginning of each year, and interact in person and then later online for the remainder of the program.

Tony Bates, a Vancouver-based consultant in online learning strategies and author of the open online book Teaching in a Digital Age, says while there's no hard national data in Canada to go by, his research indicates online university enrolments have increased 10 to 15 per cent in North America each year for the past 10 years.

"Taking an undergraduate degree is the least component of online learning," says Dr. Bates, former director of distance education and technology at the University of British Columbia.

He says most students either are taking the odd postsecondary course, including to work toward a degree or diploma, for instance, or are going for their master degree, such as an MBA. However, there are indications 20 to 25 per cent of online education enrollees in Canada are doing their undergraduate degrees (an Ontario study in 2010 indicated it was 20 per cent), while U.S. figures, including by the Kentucky-based Learning Center, point to 25 to 30 per cent of all course enrolments being in undergrad programs.

Distance education pioneer

Now with a $130-million operating budget, Athabasca University, located north of Edmonton, is credited with becoming Canada's first university specializing in distance education in the early 1970s and becoming a leader in developing computer applications for course materials in the 1990s.

With satellite campuses in Edmonton, Calgary and St. Albert, Athabasca emphasizes removing barriers to education – including helping accommodate prospective students in aboriginal and remote communities, for instance, as well as the needs of the typical online degree seekers, says Margaret Kierylo, director of academic planning and priorities at Athabasca.

Dr. Kierylo gives these characteristics about the average undergrad at Athabasca (they tend to mirror findings at many other online postsecondary schools both in Canada and the United States):

• The average age is 29.

• 87 per cent work while studying.

• 43 per cent support dependents.

• 67 per cent are women.

• 70 per cent are the first in their families to earn a university degree.

• Programs in business administration and nursing tend to be most popular.

"The flexibility factor for these students is key," says Ms. Kierylo. "Students [at Athabasca] can start whenever they want and do the program at their own pace – there's no stipulation you have to finish in two to three months. … That openness allows for people working, having kids, looking to upgrade their college diploma or taking even a second undergrad degree."

Students are engaged largely in individualized studies to accommodate their unique timetables, but can connect with tutors online through a special centralized system of communication, or via e-mail or telephone. As well, students can submit assignments before their due dates and get coaching from a writing coach to improve them.

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