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Graduate students get that long-distance feeling

Flexible and practical, online graduate programs are the right call for some students.


Shelley Evans was midway through a master’s of environmental studies degree at Dalhousie University when her son was born. She put her studies on hold to spend the next four years caring for him. When the time came to return to her academic work, Ms. Evans discovered that she would have to pay tuition fees for all the years that she’d been away (no longer the case at Dalhousie or most other universities, but it used to be standard practice to discourage graduate students from prolonging their studies).

So she opted instead to enrol in an online MA program in integrated studies at Athabasca University, an Alberta-based institution that offers only distance-education programs. Money was just one of several factors she took into account. “Being a mature student with the demands of work and family,” she says, “the flexibility of online studies is what really worked for me.”

A year later, when she and her family moved to Vancouver, she didn’t have to give up her studies or transfer to another university. Best of all, studying at home meant she could spend more time with her young son. “I found it tremendously exciting,” she says, “that I could be watching my little baby at home pulling carrots out of the garden while I was typing away on my keypad.”

Ms. Evans is typical of a small but growing cadre of graduate students who are choosing online degrees over more conventional studies. Most are working professionals who are looking to advance their careers or make a career change but some, like Ms. Evans, want to return to the workforce. Many are part-time students. Usually they opt for professional degrees in business administration, education and nursing (although experts say an arts degree is becoming popular, too). What they seek above all else is the flexibility to pursue their studies when they want and where they want, while they continue to work and raise their families – a flexibility that for some is only available online.

Athabasca is one of several Canadian universities responding to this need. Founded in 1970 as a distance-education institution offering mainly correspondence courses, Athabasca began its transformation into an online learning institution 10 years ago. It was one of the first universities in Canada to launch an online MBA and its executive MBA is now one of the largest in the country, with more than 1,000 students; its master of distance education, with some 400 students, is among the largest in the world. It also offers master’s degrees in counseling, health studies and nursing. It soon will offer a doctorate in distance education (awaiting approval from the Alberta government) and is proposing a doctorate in business administration.

Athabasca’s graduate programs have grown faster than its undergraduate programs over the past five years, a trend attributed to broader demand for continuous learning, especially among working adults. Terry Anderson, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Distance Education at Athabasca, says these graduate students “aren’t aspiring to be academics. They basically want to excel and contribute to their own profession.”

Quebec model
The province of Quebec is also home to a distance-learning institution, Télé-université du Québec, part of the Université du Québec network of 10 constituent universities. Télé-université plans to merge soon with Université du Québec à Montréal, pending Quebec government approval. The merger will create the largest French-speaking dual-delivery university in the world says Raymond Duchesne, director, academic and research, at Télé-université. After the merger, he says, students will be able to mix on-campus learning with distance education: “We are looking forward to a situation where professors from a large university can start writing courses for distance education. We have very ambitious objectives in terms of our distance students.”

Similarly, the British Columbia Open University, a distance-learning institution based in Burnaby, will merge later this year with the University College of the Cariboo to form the new Thompson Rivers University, offering both on-site and distance programs, although just at the undergraduate level for now.

Like their more traditional counterparts, online graduate programs require course work and in some cases, a thesis. Most communication between students and professors takes place by e-mail. “We had a lot of class participation,” says Shelley Evans, the Athabasca student, all of it by e-mail. These weren’t just brief messages, she adds, “but in-depth thoughts” that required thoughtful responses.

To conduct her research, she used Vancouver’s public library system, interlibrary loans and the library of the University of British Columbia, which has lending arrangements with Athabasca. “I pretty much accessed the same resources as you would at a conventional university.”

When it came time to defend her thesis, she did it through a telephone conference call. Each committee member was in a different city, and although they couldn’t see one another, Ms. Evans says “it was one of the most exhilarating conversations” that she ever had.

To be sure, campus-based universities are offering a wider range of online courses and programs, too. Many offer online MBAs and, increasingly, graduate degrees in other professions such as nursing. For example, the University of Waterloo offers an online professional master’s degree through its faculty of engineering and is about to introduce two more. York University is planning a master of nursing, to be delivered partly online. Sudbury’s Laurentian University has an interdisciplinary master of arts, offered simultaneously to campus and distance students through a combination of audio- and video-conferencing and e-mail.

Lots of online courses
There are many more offerings at the undergraduate level. A survey by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada shows that more than half of university courses feature an online component – ranging from posting lecture notes on the Web to fully online courses. Online technologies are used increasingly to enhance medical programs and other curricula. Universities have formed consortia, such as the Canadian Virtual University, to deliver a wider selection of online programs and make it easier for students to transfer credits and even mix and match courses.

“Canada is a leader in distance education, there’s no doubt about that,” says Jim Sharpe, dean of education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. The most successful online programs have been highly specialized – and high-demand – professional degrees. Mount Saint Vincent offers two, both master’s of education, with specialties in literacy and educational psychology.

But few Canadian institutions, including those specializing in distance education, offer research-based degrees at the graduate level by distance. Fewer still offer PhD programs. Dr. Sharpe attributes this to a prevailing belief in academe that residency is an essential component of graduate education, necessary to foster “a community of researchers.”

“Research degrees are driven by an apprenticeship-type culture” that requires one-on-one interaction between students and supervisors, he says. There’s a practical side to it too: universities require graduate students as teaching and research assistants.

With time, attitudes will change, Dr. Sharpe predicts, making the introduction of more online graduate programs inevitable. “I think there’s going to be a flowering across the country but I think it will take a while to be accepted.”

Filling a need
A 2002 report on e-learning to Canada’s three major research granting councils concluded that offering online research degrees at the graduate level would help the Canadian government meet its goal of doubling the number of researchers in the country and, at the same time, assist universities in replacing the coming wave of retiring faculty members.

“Canada has a broad population of university graduates already in the workforce who are able and eager to improve their research skills, provided they do not have to attend classes full-time,” said the report. “Online research training is key to matching the supply with the demand.”

The federal government has set up an interdepartmental committee on e-learning, including representatives from Industry Canada, International Trade Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development, to spur progress in this area.

But so far, progress on the research-program front has been slow, not just in Canada but in other countries, too, says Tom Carey, associate vice-president, learning resources and innovation, at the University of Waterloo.

Dr. Carey, who chaired the research council task force on e-learning, says Canadian universities have hesitated to introduce programs in the arts, humanities and research disciplines, largely because of the cost. Governments, while supporting online learning in principle, haven’t offered any new funding to allow universities to try it out.

He also says faculty members may not be familiar with new distance learning technologies, with their use concentrated in large classes at many universities. “There may even be some fear on the part of the faculty,” he says, that at the graduate level “we would begin to lose that sense of intimacy and personal mentoring that is so much a part of the graduate experience.”

Even Dr. Duchesne, who’s enthusiastic about Télé-université’s merger with UQAM and its possibilities for distance students, says that some of UQAM’s faculty are skeptical, particularly when it comes to online PhD programs. “We have to convince them,” he says. “We have to fight our way in.” Some students also aren’t convinced: students enrolled in a joint Télé-université-UQAM doctoral program prefer to meet their thesis advisers on campus, says Dr. Duchesne, rather than communicate online or over the phone. But, he adds, “they will come to see the advantages and possibilities.”

Record graduate enrolment
John Lennox, dean of graduate studies at York University, says universities are incorporating online learning into graduate courses wherever possible and appropriate to the needs of their graduate students. But, he says, it would be hard for universities to introduce a raft of new, fully online programs, since they already have their plates full serving an unprecedented number of graduate students on campus and since online programs are very expensive to mount.

Moreover, he adds, universities want to proceed slowly with online research programs because they don’t want to compromise quality for the sake of convenience. “I don’t think you can under-estimate the value of the graduate seminar where people get to talk about ideas and get to bounce ideas off one another,” says Dr. Lennox. He also wonders how institutions would provide online students with adequate access to research labs and library resources at an affordable cost. “It can’t be a second-class kind of degree.”

Athabasca’s Dr. Anderson concedes that online learning doesn’t provide the same degree of socialization as a campus-based education. But, he says, the research suggests that distance education, while different, isn’t inferior; in some ways, it may even be more challenging.

Dr. Anderson agrees with Dr. Lennox, that traditional universities are busy with record enrolments – “They just aren’t hungry for more graduate students, period.” But he says they may also be held back by what they see as their traditional mission. “By and large the academy has existed . . . to replace itself. So they like graduate students who are becoming researchers and going to go marching up to the PhD level. The prospect of having 80 master’s degree students [many of whom are part-time] who are not going to do theses or are not interested in academia per se is not very exciting for academics who value the grad students for their interest and contribution to research.”

Universities may soon be forced to adjust their expectations, warns the tri-council report on e-learning, or risk losing many potential students to graduate schools in other countries.

Students like Nick Mulé. Four years ago he was working as an adult-services coordinator for an epilepsy support group in Toronto when he decided to pursue PhD studies. “Most universities in this country required at least one or two years of full-time study,” he says. “I was mid-stream in my career. I would have had to give that up to return to school, which has a huge financial cost.”

So he enrolled in a part-time online PhD in applied social sciences offered by the University of Manchester in England. Manchester’s program combines short on-site residencies with online learning.

Dr. Mulé says online education has disadvantages, mainly the huge time commitment required to juggle work and studies. Communicating by distance also presents challenges. “Any time you want to communicate with your supervisor you must write an e-mail [which] is almost like more work.” While research is by nature a solitary pursuit, online studies can be that much more isolating, he adds. “Not having regular communication with other doctoral students and sharing experiences and helping each other with resources was very difficult.”

Yet for him it was the only practical option. The experience has put his career on an entirely new and somewhat unexpected track. By the time he completed his thesis, Dr. Mulé was so intrigued by his research that he decided to pursue a career in academia, something he hadn’t originally intended to do. Dr. Mulé is now on contract as an assistant professor of social work at York University in Toronto. He hopes to return to Manchester one more time to attend its convocation ceremony and celebrate his achievement.

West-coast blend – sidebar article

The blended model of graduate programs – offered partly on campus but mainly by distance – may herald a new trend, because of the flexibility it offers students. Royal Roads University, based in Victoria, B.C., has made the blended teaching model a hallmark of its programs from the start. Its president, Richard Skinner, says most programs begin with a three-week residency (“an intellectual boot camp”) and require another short residency or two over two years. Students do most of their work online.

The model was designed for two reasons, says Dr. Skinner: to take advantage of the university’s scenic campus (a 1910 estate on 200 hectares overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait) and to give students a chance to get to know one another and foster a sense of community.

The 10-year-old school offers largely master’s programs in leadership training, applied communication and other emerging fields, designed to appeal to working professionals. Most of its 3,000 students attend full-time, although most also continue to work.

“We tapped into a market that was not well served by traditional universities,” says Dr. Skinner. “There was sort of a void for people, mainly 35 years of age and older, who could not see themselves in a traditional graduate program with 24- and 25-year-olds.”

Canada in the online world – sidebar article

The number and the choice of online graduate-degree programs is growing in Canada, but progress has been slow compared to the U.S., Britain and Australia, experts say. In the U.S., online distance education has surged over the past five years, according to a recent report by Eduventures, a U.S.-based, education-market research firm. It predicts that online enrolment will exceed one million students in 2005.

The U.S. has a huge array of online education providers, including many public universities and colleges. The market is also served by for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, with 227,000 students, more than half of them studying online.

The inroads made by for-profit institutions have led to a much more intense debate in the U.S. over the merits of online learning and its providers. Not-for-profit schools have started to respond to the aggressive marketing by their for-profit counterparts. Recently, 28 mainly mid-size American universities formed the Online University Consortium in an effort to provide quality assurance. The universities emphasize that they are “reputable” institutions providing access to “quality” online programs. Their Online UC web site provides a directory of schools that meet a set of standards required for consortium membership, a list of degree programs offered by its members, and a checklist to help students chose a quality online education.

The debate over quality hasn’t heated up as much in Canada, where for-profit universities are still relatively rare. But neither has the degree of innovation, argues Richard Skinner, president of Royal Roads University. “I haven’t seen the creative exploration of technology’s use as I have in the U.S.,” he says. Dr. Skinner previously worked for the University System of Georgia, coordinating the distance-learning offerings of 34 colleges and universities. “In the U.S., I’ve seen a whole array of models and a willingness to do this. I sense here in Canada it’s much more conservative and cautious.”

Britain’s Open University is also at the forefront of online and distance education developments, observers say. But a four-year project to develop an exclusively online university known at UKeU, which aimed to bring British education to students in other countries, failed to attract enough students and the venture ended.

Australian universities embraced online learning early on, partly because it is an effective means of reaching out to the country’s sparse population, says Wendy Jarvie, Australia’s deputy secretary of education, science and training. Now some Australian universities have as much as 50 percent of their students enrolled online, says Dr. Jarvie.

Rosanna Tamburri
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