Ten years ago, Lisa Lalonde, now a professor in the faculty of early childhood education at Algonquin College in Ottawa, was cautioned by a friend about her choice to pursue an education almost exclusively online.
"When I first started this journey, someone asked me about what my career objectives were in the long-term … and they warned me that some of the upper crust of academia don't look highly upon this [online education]," she recalls. "Whereas, I'm finding that is definitely not the case any more."
Prof. Lalonde completed her master of arts in educational leadership and management from Royal Roads University in Victoria in 2014 and is pursuing her PhD online in applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute of Studies in Education.
"I have never been faced with, in any of my job prospects, having someone say [dismissively], 'Oh you did online learning.' That's never happened once," says Prof. Lalonde.
According to students who studied online and employment recruiters alike, Canada's employers do not see a digital education as inferior to its on-campus counterpart – as long as the courses are through a reputable university.
Online postsecondary learning is a growing global phenomenon and shows no signs of slowing. But there are still cautionary tales. The University of Phoenix – a for-profit institution that offers online education – has a history of being investigated for overstating results and other issues, along with other private institutions.
It's clear that caution needs to be taken when pursuing online studies, but ensuring courses are from a public, Canadian postsecondary institution is a good place to start, says Prof. Lalonde.
"I did my research," she explains, "and I was confident with my choice of school because I had done my due diligence and I would tell others to do the same."
Canada's postsecondary institutions are expected to continue to increase their online offerings to keep up with demand from students who like the convenience and affordability of online learning.
According to a 2015 study, Online and Distance Capacity of Canadian Universities, commissioned by Global Affairs Canada, 361,000 members (nearly 30 per cent) of the student population in Canada took online courses in 2015.
And it is this growing popularity that is helping to garner approval of online studies by Canadian employers, explains Mary Barroll, president of TalentEgg, a student and recent-graduate career resource company.
"I think there is a growing acceptance of online learning, but it fundamentally comes down to the reputation of the program, the institution offering it and the accreditation attached to it," says Ms. Barroll. "It doesn't have the same stigma attached to it as it did 10, 15 years ago."
While employers are not balking at a candidate's online education if it is from a recognizable source, they may question if the person has the interpersonal skills that many jobs require.
"Employers tell me frequently that they are looking for leaders and because of the nature of online learning, you have a harder job to prove that you have those soft skills that employers are looking for," explains Ms. Barroll. "So it's crucial that people have other experience – in the community or the workplace – that can demonstrate that sort of capacity to lead, collaborate and work in a team."
However, e-learning often requires self-discipline, drive and other skills that are attractive to employers, so online students should not be afraid to play up those on an application, says Ms. Barroll.
Online studies "are a really good way to show you've got time management skills, the dedication, the discipline and initiative that it takes to be involved in an online learning experience," she adds.
Kelly Edmonds, an e-learning specialist, echoes the call for caution when it comes to online courses.
"There are all sorts of courses – non-credit, recreational – out there now and the quality is all over the place," says Dr. Edmonds, who received the majority of her training online and says there was a negative perception of online studies in previous years.
"I think we've worked so hard in the e-learning field to contribute research, papers and articles, and have studied how students can learn better online, that the e-learning field is very much behind this concept of 'how can we do this better?'"
The availability and variety of online courses makes them accessible, but it does mean the onus is on the student to research the course to ensure it is going to be positively viewed by employers.
"It makes sense that employers would question where a program is from and place a value based on that assessment," she explains.
"I think employers would be skeptical if they saw an online degree from ABC University," says Dr. Edmonds. "But when they know the university, they can determine the calibre of the program and the rigour of the content."