With a full-time job, two kids at home, and a husband studying overseas in England, diving into a doctoral program at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) seemed like a daunting prospect for Gloria McPherson. “When I started the program, my kids were still young, and we were in a position where I couldn’t stop working; and it was difficult, with the kids’ busy schedules, running back and forth and daycare and school and after-school and everything else,” she says. But earning her degree through distance education made it possible. McPherson didn’t have to pull up stakes to attend a full-time campus program, and she had the flexibility to fit the work into her already hectic days. But it wasn’t always easy. “There were many times when I sat typing essays with my kids on my lap.”
Distance education (DE) is booming in Canada. At the Canadian Virtual University, a confederation of 13 Canadian universities offering more than 2,300 online and distance courses, executive director Vicky Busch estimates that registrations have increased by 10 percent in each year since its 2000 launch, recording approximately 150,000 registrations in 2006 alone. Alberta-based Athabasca University (AU), Canada’s leading DE and online university, has seen its enrollment double over the past six years to about 32,000 students. And a 2005 Statistics Canada survey found that 26 percent of those who logged onto the web for purposes related to education did so for distance education, self-directed learning or to take correspondence courses.
The days of DE degrees serving as a source of derision and laughter — the era of Sally Struthers-style mail-order courses in TV/VCR repair — are long gone. Programs are offered in almost every imaginable field, from anthropology and biology to music and political science. The nation’s top schools now confer prestigious degrees, including MBAs and PhDs, that were earned off-campus, at home. Courses can be completely paper-based, but an increasing number are now delivered mostly (or even wholly) online. Most students study only part-time, and typically take several years to complete a full degree. The cost varies depending on the university, ranging from a low of about $300 up to almost $800 for a three-credit undergraduate course.
Busy moms (and dads) are taking advantage. At Athabasca, the typical student holds a full-time job and is in his or her 30s and 40s. And Dr. Clare Brett, a professor at OISE, says that she sees a similar trend amongst her graduate students. “The students that I have are older, are mainly women, most of them have children, and they’re all working full-time.”
In the past, someone who registered for a DE course also signed on for many solitary nights of work, toiling away in isolation, wondering if there was anyone else out there in the same situation. “It was a pretty lonely experience: there was you and your materials, and you would work away and send in your assignment, and some anonymous person would mark it,” says Dr. Brett. But new technology has pulled back the curtain and allowed DE students to form a community. In her courses, students start out by creating an online bio to share with others in the course. “People have babies in the middle of the course, and put pictures up in their bios. Everybody shares in that, and we have little celebrations,” she says. Students also get to know one another through video conferences and in the course chat room, where they can discuss material, life issues, and even their instructor — Dr. Brett pledges to stay out. And she allows students to become familiar with her through funny, informal podcasts that she produces and sends out each week.
Beyond building community, new technology is revolutionizing the way that materials are delivered. Online course management systems facilitate the creation of group projects and host forum-style discussions, students and professors alike maintain blogs and wikis, and cutting-edge software and virtual worlds like Second Life allow for real-time conferencing.
But while technology has changed things, Dr. Brett warns prospective students that it still hasn’t eliminated the need for time, and lots of it. “You need to be able to imagine a realistic amount of time that you can devote to your studies, so it’s not a constant struggle,” says Dr. Brett. “You can’t just do it instead of sleeping.” (She recommends reserving at least four to five hours per week, per course.) Heather Scarlett-Ferguson, who graduated from Athabasca in 2004 with a master’s degree (specializing, appropriately enough, in distance ed), adds that it’s important to get the family on board. “It makes things so much easier if you can say to your husband, “I have a paper due tomorrow — can you please get the kids out of the room for awhile?’ It may seem like a little thing, but having a supportive family at home is so big,” says the mother of two from Ponoka, Alta. She will soon be starting her doctorate at AU.
McPherson, a professor at Seneca College in Toronto, advises other parents that, once they have decided to enroll, they should commit to it and never look back. Prepare for feelings of guilt — that you’re not a good enough student or parent, because you never feel you are giving 100 percent to either — and be ready to banish it. “Give yourself a pat on the back along the way. Say, “My kids are thriving, fed and in school, I’m doing well at work and I’ve got a good job, and we’re managing and have a roof over our heads,” she says. “Take a step back to reflect, and then you can keep on going.”
Distance ed wasn’t widely available when contributing editor Tim Johnson attended university, but he admits that it would have been a tempting alternative to 8 a.m. classes.