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Contrary to popular belief, taking a class or completing a degree online isn't about lounging on the couch watching The Price is Right in your pajamas. Sure, technically you can be nude while participating in a heated discussion about the economy and you can submit your assignments while lying in bed, but the benefits of virtual distance learning are far greater than the freedom to not leave your house all day.

Distance education allows students to study, learn, and participate on their own schedule, at the place of their choice, and without the limits that face-to-face contact with a professor or peers demands. This type of learning is especially beneficial to students living in remote and sparsely populated regions, students with disabilities or special needs, mature students, and workers undertaking professional development. The ÔÇÿdistance' in distance learning can be psychological, social, or geographical; there are many factors that limit a students' ability to attend a brick-and-mortar institution but that doesn't mean their access to education has to be jeopardized.


Online and distance courses give students flexible alternatives so they can maintain work, family, and personal commitments while earning credits towards their degree. It also allows students to save money on commuting to and from campus, moving or living expenses, as well as the potential costs of day care if they have children.

Jenna Laskin, 28, a student completing a Human Resource Management degree from Humber College, decided to learn online for some of these reasons. I wanted to be able to work and travel while completing the degree, she says. I was actually living in San Diego while taking my first three courses.  Humber was the most appealing to me because the program started immediately and was very flexible. As a mature student, the idea of sitting in a classroom again did not appeal to me.

In addition to the flexibility that distance education provides, there are also environmental benefits. By not having campus attendance requirements, distance learning reduces the carbon footprint of maintaining classroom spaces and student commutes. The growing use of e-text books also saves trees. This makes it a much greener alternative, says Dr. Nancy Parker, director of Institutional Studies at Athabasca University, a Canadian open university. By having online learning resources and reducing the need to construct new learning spaces, virtual distance learning not only saves students' time and money, but also helps save the environment.

The other benefit that you gain by doing a degree [or taking a course] online is that you learn how to communicate the way the world is communicating today, says George Siemens, who has taught hundreds of courses online since the late 90s and is currently an online professor at Athabasca University. By learning online, you are developing your skills and ability to communicate in an age where being technologically savvy is key to your success.

Siemens also notes how distance learning and discussions online can be particularly useful for students who are more reserved and may have difficulties participating in the classroom. In some ways, there's a greater equity of participation online, he says. Someone who might be a bit more introverted might need more time to process their thoughts before sharing their thinking. So there's more equity in that regard: the conversation might not be dominated by a few people as it might have been in class.

Dr. Adam Chapnick, an associate professor at Canadian Forces College who has taught online and documented his experience on a blog called Virtually Learning, agrees. To take a course online allows you to express yourself in online discussions in much greater depth than you often can in a face-to-face limited time discussion. It allows you to think through your comments in terms of class participation, edit them, proofread them, and double-check them before you post it. It allows you to get a broader sense of an entire dialogue before you add your comment. It leaves you with a record of other students' comments that you can go back to, you don't need a tape recorder. I think that a lot of the benefits come in the potential for depth in the students conversations that go on.


Because of the aforementioned couch-potato stereotype, virtual distance learning often gets a bad rap. Students interested in online learning might be deterred because they don't want to be seen as lazy and they want to ensure that their degree will be recognized once they graduate. There is a fear that online learning is perceived as easier and lower quality than campus-based learning and distance learning institutions being equated to diploma mills that simply churn out certificate after certificate. However, research has consistently demonstrated than the student learning outcomes from reputable providers are equivalent to more traditional delivery, says Dr. Parker.

Siemens notes, There was a time when there was a lot of suspicion about the validity of online degrees and just online learning in general. I think definitely over the last five years the perspective has changed quite a bit. Part of the reason is that we now spend most of our day ' in our work and personal lives ' involved in some sort of technology-mediated communication...I think that part of the reason that some of the negativity around online learning's validity has changed is due to the fact that we're living our lives in online networks.

Dr. Chapnick also notes that commonly held beliefs about virtual distance learning being easier is untrue. If you really want to learn from the experience, don't go in thinking it will be easier than in class, or a lighter workload. Learning requires effort, whether that's online or in class, it's the effort that really counts. There are some specific benefits, especially if you are in a remote area, to taking online classes, but none of them have anything to do with an easier or a less rigorous experience if you really want to get something out of the course, he says.


These commonly held myths are being put to rest as the Internet is becoming more imbedded in our daily lives and distance learning is becoming an increasingly popular option to traditional face-to-face learning. According to Contact North, Ontario's distance education and training network, no reliable, systemic data exists for the number of students studying online in Canada. However, they estimate using proxy data, that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 to 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time. Dr. Tony Bates, an e-learning and distance education research associate consultant for Contact North and former online professor for over 20 years, notes that approximately 20 per cent of all course enrollments are online in post-secondary institutions in Canada.

To add more figures about this growing trend, Athabasca University, Canada's largest distance education university, awarded a total of 1,788 credentials (full degrees) online in 2012, made up of bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, as well as graduate and undergraduate diplomas and certificates. A large number of students also enroll in particular courses at Athabasca to use towards their degree at another institution and a total of 38,000 students register annually. In addition, Canadian Virtual University (CVU), an association of public Canadian universities specializing in online and distance education, had over 100,000 students register last year. These findings are indicative of the growing popularity of virtual distance learning.



According Dr. Parker, 5,000 of the students enrolled at Athabasca were from rural areas, which is an area with a population of 400 people of less. Dr. Bates notes that the data collected by Contact North indicates that there are 3,000 students in Ontario alone who are from rural areas and are enrolled in online courses. However, since education is not a federal responsibility, no nationwide statistics exist. What can be surmised is that distance learning is quickly growing, especially in smaller communities where the diversity and number of course offerings are minimal.

The online space has additional benefits, such as the access opportunity: you can take courses that might not be offered at your local university, says Siemens. If you are located in a remote or small Southern Ontario community, for example, and your local college or university doesn't offer a particular course, if you can go online you can take a course from any university around the world.

The benefits of online learning aren't inclusive only for those living in rural areas; all students benefit from increased flexibility and access. Jaclyn Tanz, 22, is in her final semester of a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Dalhousie University. In order to have a decreased course load as well as gain credits while she completed several co-op terms, Tanz took online courses from four institutions, including her home university. I took courses online from Dalhousie, Athabasca, Thompson Rivers, and at the University of New Brunswick. I lightened my course load during the year by taking classes in the summer and gained credits towards my degree while I was completing my placements and earning money, she says.   

As a student who has taken both distance classes as well as face-to-face, Tanz can speak to the different challenges of each learning method. When you are taking a course online, self-motivation is really important, because once you fall behind it is very challenging to catch up. When you go to class, you have a scheduled time each week that you devote to studying the material, so it is more structured.

Online professors also emphasize the importance of self-motivation. I think that self motivation is absolutely critical. Even the most attentive instructors can only do so much, Dr. Chapnick says. A willingness to ask for help when you need it is also absolutely critical.

Siemens notes the distinction between self-guided courses, which have little or no interaction with the instructor, and [the student] needs to be a highly-motivated and self-regulated learner, versus cohort-based models which are meant to resemble a traditional classroom as they have assignment dates and set times to participate.


Tanz, a seasoned online learner, recommends doing as much research as possible before committing to a distance degree or course. In my experience, each online class has been unique and each professor has different expectations and uses different tools and resources. Find out whether you will be required to work with your peers and how many hours a week the professor will be available to answer questions. The more you know about the class before you start the better.  

Dr. Bates recommends that students treat their distance classes as they would a classroom course, Be sure to set aside as much time for the online course as you would for the face-to-face course. Make sure you're well organized and you're not the kind of student who needs to be chased all the time, because it won't work very well. Dr. Bates also suggests that when deciding to learn, online students should consider how online education would fit into their existing routine. I would encourage students if they feel it would fit their lifestyle because it's more of a lifestyle choice than an academic one. You could learn just as well online as you can in the class. Check the courses out and make sure they're properly designed, he says.

Dr. Parker notes that the most successful distance students will be academically well prepared for the level of study they are undertaking, have clear goals, and support from their family and employers.

Whether you need to pick up an extra course, pursue an undergraduate degree or complete a graduate program, it is worth considering virtual distance education and seeing how it can fit into your academic lifestyle.

I would encourage all students ' at some point in an academic career if they are going to do at least a four year degree ' to do at least one course online. It stretches your brain in different ways, you learn in different ways, and I think that's just great for education in general, says Dr. Chapnick.

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