Distance education at your doorstep

Independent, flexible studies help professionals balance careers, lives and learning

It only takes Sylvia Kovacikova 15 minutes to drive from her home to Thompson Rivers University in Vancouver. But in pursuing a bachelor of commerce in HR management, she rarely makes the commute. Instead, she prefers to do her studies at home, receiving or sending materials or assignments through the mail or her computer.

“I’m working full time and I don’t want to spend too much time in a classroom if I don’t have to,” says Kovacikova, who has been a collections officer at Revenue Canada for three years. “This is a perfect scenario for me right now.”

It’s the flexibility of off-campus learning that has the greatest appeal. Originally set up to provide post-secondary access to people who live far from a college or university, distance education is largely made up of working professionals who may live nearby but prefer to take courses anytime, day or night, at their own pace, says Andrew McKay, academic director for business studies at Thompson Rivers.

To pursue the Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBS) program through distance education at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, candidates can receive materials by courier, participate online and study entirely on their own or choose blended learning, taking an online course and an on-campus class, says Ann O’Neill, academic director of the Canadian CEBS program.

“These are working professionals trying to balance their careers and life and learning,” she says.

Athabasca University, which offers a bachelor of HR and labour relations and bachelor of management in HR management, started offering distance education in the 1970s when it became clear this was the way the world was going, says Patrick Fahy, a professor with the centre for distance education at the school located in Athabasca, Alta.

“As soon as you require people to show up at a particular time and place, you basically disenfranchise them,” he says. “About 70 per cent of our students live within 10 miles of a traditional university. The difference between distance and non-distance (education) is blurring.”

Technological advances and advantages

For online, there are synchronous (classes offered at a set time) and asynchronous options at many schools, including Athabasca.

“We provide some synchronous opportunities because there are some students whose learning styles are really oriented to that and they just don’t feel comfortable with 100-per-cent asynchronous — they like to hear people’s voices, get together, so their social needs are being met,” says Fahy.

For some classes, Athabasca uses software that allows for real-time conferencing or synchronous learning, with a whiteboard, audio and chat capability, breakout rooms, web touring and multimedia files. And online course-management systems help with registration, group projects and the delivery of course material and quizzes.

People can even “raise their hands” by passing notes in a text area, says Fahy.

“There are a lot of little features that help that synchronous session, where people are not in the same room, to be productive.”

But Athabasca continues to offer an offline print option for most courses and most of its e-learning classes work with dial-up Internet, says Fahy.

“Our university is about reducing barriers to access, so we’re careful not to use technologies that are ‘bleeding-edge’ and so new their weaknesses are not known or demand so much technology, you leave out people,” he says. “That’s why we stayed with print, it’s very durable, well-understood, portable, cheap — it has a lot of advantages.”

The technology varies by course at Thompson Rivers but as programs and classes are revised, major and minor revisions are made to the delivery to make them more dynamic or interesting, says ¬McKay. And while the print option is offered in almost all courses, so people can mail in assignments, “with the technical competence rising in the population and good Internet access getting better, even in remote areas, clearly the demand for print-only is dropping off and web-based is up across the board,” he says.

At Dalhousie, facilitators of online classes provide audio introductions and biographies, using different tools to try and bring people onside, to get past the technology, says O’Neill. And while some might be concerned about the limitations of online education, such as the lack of group projects, people should remember distance education is about delivery, not content.

“A lot of HR functions and competencies required to operate are on the soft-skills side, and distance learning is appropriate for learning various theories and principles and practising applications of those for analysis and problem-solving. But for real-life role-playing and the interpersonal, you need a live environment,” says O’Neill. “It really depends on the learning objective, the levels of testing for proficiency.”

And despite the ever-changing technology, glitches are minor, such as browsers that don’t recognize certain graphics.

“There’s the odd little blip but generally we’re past the technology issues,” says O’Neill, and the newer tools and techniques make for a more interesting and enhanced experience. “When it started out, it was pretty boring.”

Not for everyone

In the old days, e-learning was not particularly successful because it wasn’t well-designed, people missed the interaction and many didn’t finish, says Fahy. Now an interactive loop is important in making sure people feel connected and heard.

“Completion rates are every bit as good as, if not better, than on-campus rates,” says Fahy.

But online education may not be for everyone, so many schools provide an online self-test that looks at issues such as a person’s study behaviour, self-discipline, need for feedback, professional and personal schedule and comfort with technology.

“People don’t automatically know how to study at a distance, how to be autonomous, self-directed, so we take it seriously, you have to show people,” says Fahy.

Distance education appeals to a certain kind of learner and learning lifestyle, says O’Neill, and there’s always a trade-off, so it’s a question of a person’s needs and priorities.

“There is always going to be a learner for whom the ideal is more traditional.”

Set your own pace

Kovacikova can attend class in person, which she prefers for accounting courses so she can receive immediate answers, but if she has questions during a web-based course, an online tutor quickly responds. And class discussions are posted daily, for her review or input.

She can also pick her schedule, from paced courses, which have set deadlines, and non-paced courses. There is greater freedom with the non-paced approach. During one course, a personal issue meant Kovacikova had to put her studies on hold but when she returned, she was able to submit six assignments in six weeks.

“It was very convenient,” she says.

And the non-paced courses allow her to complete courses faster, as a paced class is usually three-and-a-half months while a non-paced version can take only two months.

“In one semester, I can get three done, which would be impossible if I’m in class and working full time.”

In Revenue Canada, Kovacikova is fortunate to have a supportive employer that provides subsidies and flexible hours for her studies.

“(Distance education) is good for people who have the experience and who are self-disciplined; otherwise you won’t be able to do it,” says Kovacikova. “This is very suitable for people who’ve been in the workforce for a couple of years. It depends, some people can do it, some people are disciplined enough to do it, some people are not.”

HR 101

HR-related distance education programs

An expanding pool of colleges and universities offer a range of HR-related studies through distance education. Here is a sampling of undergraduate and postgraduate courses and programs:

Athabasca University, Athabasca, Alta.
Bachelor of human resources and labour relations
Bachelor of management in human resource management

Cape Breton University, Sydney, N.S.
Human resource management

Concordia University, Montreal
Certificate in human resource management

Dalhousie University, Halifax
Certificate in human resource management
Certified employee benefit specialist

Guelph University, Guelph, Ont.
Organizational psychology
Psychology in HR management

McMaster University, Hamilton
Human resource management
Organizational behaviour

Memorial University, St. John’s, Nfld.
Introduction to personnel and human resource management
Organizational behaviour
Organizational strategy

Nipissing University, North Bay, Ont.
Management of human resources

Ryerson University, Toronto
Organizational behaviour and interpersonal skills
Training needs assessment and evaluation
Occupational health and safety law

St. Mary’s University, Halifax
Personnel training and development
Human resource management
Wage and salary

Teluq, Quebec, Montreal
Certificat en gestion des ressources humaines
Certificat en relations du travail

Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, B.C.
Bachelor of commerce in human resource management

University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
Human resource management certificate

University of New Brunswick, Fredericton
Introduction to human resource management

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