Flexibility of virtual learning prompts some post-secondary students to pursue more online studies

The greater flexibility and accessibility of virtual learning is prompting some post-secondary students to seek out virtual classes and forcing universities to rethink how they structure online degrees, including science courses that depend on in-person laboratories, practicums, co-ops and residences.

Some universities rethinking how they structure degrees

Online learning can offer greater accessibility for students. (Rido/Shutterstock)

Three years ago, Patrick Suthers was a full-time paramedic looking to supplement his work with a science and health-based education program.

Despite his interest, he was worried about how he would balance work and school life. Then he began to consider a degree being offered by Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"I stumbled across a bachelor of health sciences online and [thought] this is the perfect fit for me," said Suthers. 

Since joining, Suthers has found an online community of other paramedics and military people who are part of his study group. He said he's found the quality of online learning better than in person.

"Some professors will have Zoom sessions to communicate, but the responsibility dynamic shifts a little bit, where although the school is very supportive, it's all about the initiative from the student." 

The online program, which has been around since 2016, was created for students like Suthers. For labs, they use virtual simulations and visualizations using real data.

Most Canadian post-secondary students experienced virtual learning of some sort during the pandemic. Although many were not fans, its greater flexibility and accessibility is prompting some students to seek out virtual classes and forcing universities to rethink how they structure online degrees, including science courses that depend on in-person laboratories, practicums, co-ops and residences.

Patrick Suthers is a full-time paramedic and current student in the Queen's University online bachelor of health sciences program. (Submitted by Patrick Suthers)

Greater accessibility is one of the reasons why Michael Adams, head of the Queen's program Suthers is enrolled in, created the online offering. Currently, there are more than 500 students in the online program. By next year, Queen's expects there will be 650.

"I had a mother who was pulled out of high school at the age of 15 because of the Second World War in England," said Adams.

"[She] never got to go back to school and just couldn't see herself travelling back to a university town to go into a degree program for three to four years with 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds." 

According to a 2018 national study from the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association, there were more than 1.3 million online course registrations at Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2016-2017, with that number expected to rise in the coming years. And in a soon-to-be published 2021 survey from the association, 78 per cent of institutions said that more fully online courses were either very or somewhat likely for winter 2022.

"Institutions can be a lot more nimble when they're set up to be able to move back and forth between online and face-to-face, and they can keep that continuity of learning," said Nicole Johnson, executive director of the association.

Students with disabilities, anxiety disorders and socioeconomic issues all benefit from access to online programs, Johnson said, and as pandemic restrictions ease, the power now lies in the hands of the universities to keep them going.

"I don't know that going back to the old normal is possible," she said. "Those next steps lie within offering choice and access, having online programs and courses available [and] having hybrid courses available."

Future technologies in development

At the University of British Columbia, several technologies are changing the way we think about and interact with online learning environments. 

The Tapestry tool is an open-source, equitable and accessible non-linear learning environment in development where teachers can engage with students and create course content. 

"There shouldn't be any disadvantage to taking a course remotely as opposed to in-person," said Steven Barnes, director of the undergraduate program in neuroscience and the brains behind Tapestry.

"We would like to see that boundary, that barrier, removed so that anyone, regardless of their [financial] situation or their disabilities or their internet connection is still able to access post-secondary education in an equitable fashion."

WATCH | Steven Barnes explains the Tapestry tool:

Tapestry Tool challenges linear learning model

1 year ago
Duration 2:53
Steven Barnes, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, walks through the functions of the Tapestry Tool, a non-linear learning environment in development at UBC.

Meanwhile, in UBC's department of cellular and physiological sciences, one professor is reimagining how students see and study the human body with a mixed reality headset called the HoloLens.

"I teach anatomy and it's a very visual science," said Claudia Krebs, a professor in UBC's faculty of medicine. "So we've created apps with augmented reality or mixed reality with the HoloLens to interact with the brain."

Krebs described technologies such as this as lifesavers for those who face barriers to learning and communication.

Students with disabilities now have the opportunity to interact with the human body in ways many people never thought possible. As these technologies become more available, students and faculty can utilize them in online learning.

"I think one of the things that's stopping us is just the barriers inside of people's heads that they really want to revert to the old normal," Krebs said.

WATCH | How science labs are using virtual reality:

New tech allows researchers to study brain with holograms

6 years ago
Duration 1:06
Holographic Brain Project developed at UBC with Microsoft

George Veletsianos, Canada research chair for innovative learning and technology and a professor of education and technology at Royal Roads University in Victoria echoed those sentiments. He said universities now have the task of seeing themselves and their students differently.

"Typically, institutions see themselves as the places where students come to," Veletsianos said. "[Online learning] basically requires institutions to see themselves differently, to look at their offerings and try and figure out how those can be redesigned in ways that they can support students who are not there."

For online learning to be successful, universities will need to invest in and apply creative technologies and collaborative methods. 

"I think the important part here is not to take in-person [learning], that's sort of the gold standard, and try to replicate it online or say that it doesn't work online," Veletsianos said, "but to actually take a deeper look at what it is that we are doing in-person and ask whether in-person is truly the best or if we can do different things."

'A very disruptive model'

Online degrees, however, are not new. 

Athabasca University, which launched in 1970 in Athabasca, Alta., offers 21 degree programs and counts 43,000 learners in 87 countries.

"Online [learning] is a very disruptive model. It's actually changing the way we think about things," said Athabasca president Peter Scott. 

For some, however, there's a stigma around online degrees. 

"It is still the case that some employers are locked into the older model of looking at universities through the research rankings and believing that [rankings] mean a better learner," said Scott. "We do encounter that as an issue."

Although attitudes are changing, these fears are not exclusive to employers.

Five years ago, Jiun Zullo was an emergency nurse and a mother of two who wanted to pursue a graduate degree in nursing. She was considering Athabasca, but the decision did not come without its own set of doubts and questions. 

Jiun Zullo is mom of three and a graduate of the online master of nursing program from Athabasca University. (Submitted by Jiun Zullo)

"I recognize that there probably is a stigma associated with [online degrees] because it seems almost non-competitive. It seems that in-person institutions would be more competitive to get into," said Zullo, now a graduate of Athabasca's master of nursing program.

"At the time I was applying with a colleague of mine [and] she, unfortunately, wasn't able to enter the program. So I know that they certainly have their own benchmarks set that they have in order for students to enrol."

Now a mother of three, Zullo has no regrets about attending the online university and could make the same decision a second time. 

"I'm actively considering pursuing a doctorate level degree and I am actively looking for programs that allow me to work online," said Zullo. 

"Being a full-time student and a full-time employee, I am actively looking for those sorts of options, and I would lean more towards an online platform rather than in person."


Dannielle A. Piper is a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism and a 2021 CJF-CBC Black Women's Journalism Fellow. Born and raised in Jamaica and now living in Vancouver, Dannielle covers entertainment, identity politics and social justice. Twitter handle: @dannielleapiper