Online learning comes of age
For most of his adult life, Brian Woodman worked as an automotive technician in Kingston. Although he wanted a university degree, he’d never had the time to earn one. That changed in 2001, when – inspired by his mother, a lifelong homemaker who earned her high-school diploma as an adult – he enrolled in a Queen’s online course in English Literature.
Last November, after a decade of plugging away at his course readings and assignments at nights and on weekends, Woodman finally graduated from Queen’s at the age of 47. His mother, who’d recently been diagnosed with cancer, was at his convocation to watch her son receive his degree. Woodman is now training at the Faculty of Education to be a teacher.
Brian Woodman, Artsci’12, is just one of thousands of students who have changed their lives through Queen’s Continuing and Distance Studies (CDS), which has been a part of the University in one form or another since 1888. Until recent years, that has been in the form of paper-based correspondence, or “extension,” courses. Over the past decade Queen’s has taken much of this curriculum online.
Today, the University’s online courses – including ones in English literature, history, classical studies, drama, organic chemistry, anatomy, music, psychology, sociology, calculus, biology, and film studies – harness a full range of digital technologies to provide live tutorials, online seminars (“webinars”) and other interactive tools that enable students to communicate with their professors and teaching assistants, and with each other, in real time or whenever it suits them.
Plans are afoot to add many more new courses to the 60 or so that are now being offered.
“Advances in technology and knowledge about online learning allow us to offer programs with the kind of academic quality that Queen’s is known for,” says Brenda Ravenscroft, the Associate Dean (Studies) of the Faculty of Arts and Science. “Through online extension, we can reach out to some of those populations that Queen’s has served for more than a century.”
In fact, more than 4,200 students are taking online courses this year; about 85 per cent of them also attend classes on campus. The rest are true “distance students,” logging on from every Canadian province, across the United States, and from 11 other countries, including China, Germany, Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, and Taiwan.
You can work at your own speed, but there are deadlines. You have to really stick with it.
Online courses, which make Queen’s accessible to overseas students, adult learners, and those who take courses purely for enjoyment, also offer increased flexibility to on-campus undergrads. For instance, for personal or scheduling reasons, many students living in or near Kingston take some classes on campus during the day or evening and other courses online. Others might pick up a credit or two via summer online courses.
Online courses also allow mature students like Brian Woodman, who may be employed full time, to work at their own pace to complete their program – within limits.
“You can work at your own speed, but there are deadlines,” says Woodman. “You have to really stick with it.”
Queen’s online curricula are created and delivered by the same professors who teach on campus, while instructional designers work with faculty to ensure that online material reflects the best online pedagogical practices. That’s one reason why many younger students who have grown up with laptops and cellphones are so comfortable with the online format, and may even prefer it.
Justin Cumming, Artsci’12, does. The 24-year-old economized on living expenses in his final year of an English degree by moving from Kingston to his parents’ home in Ottawa and completing his remaining courses online. He found that his efficiency increased, and he understood the course material better because he had more time to digest it.
“The response I got from a lot of people when I told them I was studying online was, ‘Wow, that must take a lot of discipline,’” recalls Cumming.
“That was completely opposite to how I felt about it. For me, the real discipline was getting up at 8:30 am or whenever, and dragging my butt across campus to get to that early class. When I’m studying at home, I can get up whenever I want. It’s all my own schedule, and that’s wonderful.”