Athabasca University was one of the pioneers of distance education in Canada. Today, AU is a leader in the online and distance education field. As such, they have a unique perspective on the development of online learning from distance education.
Athabasca takes after the British Open University's distance learning model established in 1971. The Open University model discards the notion that a correspondence course is just a textbook with notes and an exam.
"I guess it was the British Open University that developed Open learning which really is a step forward from the old-fashioned correspondence that left the student to figure out the material," said AU Vice-President Academic, Alan Davis. "There has always been a high emphasis at Open University on student services and the support that students get from their tutor."
Mandated as a distance university, Athabasca approaches the online learning model from a completely different perspective than a classroom-based institution.
"We've been building the model over time, particularly the last 10 years," said Davis. "The main issue has been 'how do we use the online environment to do things better than we used to?' We gradually added online components as the technology became more available and more user friendly. It's an ongoing process."
A tale of two systems
The University of Calgary and AU offer online education to two different audiences. U of C targets its online Faculty of Continuing Education management courses to adults and uses online supplements in face-to-face undergraduate courses. AU has online courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and supplements them with at-home labs and course materials.
"We looked at what other educational institutions were doing in terms of distance delivery, and this was something that we thought would be welcomed into our program," said Judith Russall, Team Leader for Management Certificates. "We have developed it to meet the needs of our programs and our students."
U of C's part-time Management certificate programs is over 30 years old. Russall explained that online courses were added in 1999. Student satisfaction surveys indicated students enjoyed the online environment, and desired additional courses.
"Last year we offered about 25 courses online with over 500 registrations and this year in the program we have 32 courses planned for delivery that will be delivered online," said Russall.
However, redeveloping courses for electronic delivery is not a trivial matter. It takes anywhere from months to years to put a course online. To help speed up the process, the U of C's Learning Commons has an online learning program called WebCT.
Learning Commons multimedia developer Patrick Kelly explained that WebCT, or Web Course Tool, allows instructors and educators to create a password-protected, secure online learning environment with the course material. The instructor can use the built-in WebCT tools and functions to enhance this learning environment.
"WebCT usage has tremendously caught on not only here, but worldwide," Kelly said. "It's one of the first software packages that includes everything an instructor wants and is relatively easy to use, but instructors can make it more complicated and enhance it with other technology."
WebCT is also used to evaluate student performance and assignment submission in the non-credit courses. In credit courses, students are still examined under supervision in their hometowns.
Since the university first used WebCT in 1998, both education and distance learning has evolved and instructors have kept up by integrating other technologies and education strategies with WebCT. Currently, U of C offers a complete management certificate online. However, even with integration and interaction, online education isn't meant to offer a complete solution.
"I think we look at the online courses as part of the whole management certificate program that we offer," said Russall. "A good majority of our students come from the Calgary area and will also take courses face-to-face here at the U of C, so it is a way for us to build in choice and flexibility for students. They can keep taking their courses if they get transferred and do not have to be physically here in Calgary."
Both students and instructors partake in online learning from abroad, according to Russall. To keep courses and relationships between students manageable, class sizes are limited to 25 students. The online format also allows them to offer speciality courses. This occurs when there is insufficient interest in any one city or when special courses are offered that are unavailable in a typical classroom environment.
The online format also allows instructors to create course materials not available on paper, such as virtual molecular models that students can manipulate. Currently, there are about 400 WebCT course sections online at the U of C.
At Athabasca University, online materials are incorporated into existing courses and courses are developed for the online format from scratch.
"On one hand we build programs from the ground up to be delivered completely online," said Davis. "The best example is our MBA program. We started with a blank sheet of paper, rethought the whole program and built a very sophisticated online platform.
The other approach is to add online components to existing print-based courses. Students get their notes, assignments, readings and textbooks online."
According to Davis, 90 per cent of students communicate with AU online. Booking exams and other interactions requiring face-to-face contact at traditional universities can also be done online.
Online learning has both advantages and disadvantages.
"Some students really can only study face-to-face in the environment provided in a classroom," said Davis. "They want to be able to learn in the presence of other warm bodies."
Davis also indicated that online study is geared towards self-motivated individuals who can successfully study alone.
"There should always be a choice for people to either attend the classroom with other students or study more independently," said Davis.
Like the U of C, AU surveys of graduates found that student satisfaction with studying online is on par with those from the classroom experience.
Other benefits of online learning include cost advantages. Fees generally cover both the cost of tuition and the learning materials which may include texts and lab materials. Costs associated with travelling to or living on a campus and loss of work income can also be reduced with online courses.
The cost of delivering an online course is also comparable to delivering a traditional course.
"The main difference is in the capital infrastructure," said Davis. "You don't need big campuses and buildings. The other costs are pretty well the same, you've got to have highly qualified people and an information technology infrastructure, you invest heavily in the development of the courses, you need Web designers and editors. It's a different mixture of costs. Online learning isn't intended to be cheaper."