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Why more universities are offering online graduate degrees

Give up a regular paycheck and leave home for grad school? Why bother, when more graduate programs are available by distance, especially for working professionals.


Practising medical doctor in India, Kalpita Gaitonde was hoping to resume her health care career after moving to Waterloo, Ontario, but she wondered how to balance additional training with raising two young children. Joan Francuz had always wanted to write a book, but didn’t want to give up her day job as a business analyst or move away from her community in Nova Scotia’s rural Annapolis Royal.

In the past, these aspiring students may have had to choose between their busy lives and their advanced degrees. But today, Ms. Gaitonde is a proud graduate of the online master of public health program at the University of Waterloo, and Ms. Francuz is a student enrolled with the first cohort in a master of fine arts program in creative non-fiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

When University Affairs last examined trends in distance graduate education 10 years ago, the focus was on universities that specialized in distance education, including Athabasca University in Alberta, TÉLUQ (part of the Université du Québec network), and Royal Roads University in British Columbia. Now, campus-based universities have joined in, offering everything from online MBAs to certificates and diplomas to PhDs.

“What we have seen in the Canadian market is many more traditional institutions getting involved in distance education,” says Gordon Tarzwell, former vice-provost of open learning at Thompson Rivers University, where he is now interim dean of business and economics, and also president and chair of the Canadian Virtual University, or CVU, a group of institutions promoting online learning.

Enrolment is growing, too, especially for institutions that are investing seriously in this arena. At Memorial University, online courses now account for almost 40 percent of all graduate course registrations, according to the distance education, learning and teaching support office. University of Waterloo saw enrolment in online graduate courses nearly triple between 2009 and 2013, at which point almost nine percent of graduate course enrolment consisted of online students.

These are just two of the universities identified as leaders by CVU. Others include Manitoba, Thompson Rivers, Laurentian and Concordia universities. New program launches are happening outside this core group, as well; a recent example is the University of Alberta’s online PhD in nursing set to debut this May.

Besides a wider range of graduate programs at a distance, some trends in program delivery have solidified. One is the move towards brief on–campus residencies for distance students. Flagged as a possible direction 10 years ago, this model invites students to spend a few weeks on campus, where they can build a sense of community with their cohort and teachers.

In fact, community and connection have become the watchwords for distance graduate programs. Now, programs often require grad students to enrol together as a cohort that takes a prescribed set of courses, rather than allowing students to enrol individually, study at their own speed and choose from a wide range of electives. The technologies today aim for maximum connection, including online face time.

The trend to bring students together for a limited residency is especially popular with traditional campus-based universities. In the University of Alberta’s new nursing PhD, three-week summer residencies are a centrepiece of the program’s first two years. “From the literature we know that discussion and dialogue is better generated if people have met each other before starting,” says Wendy Caplan, education developer and manager of the online PhD program in U of Alberta’s faculty of nursing. The first residency allows students to get to know their classmates and instructors and even to complete the first course together. The second residency focuses on an intensive research project.

At the University of King’s College MFA program, an annual two-week residency in Halifax kicks off the two-year program. It is the first of four residencies, including two shorter get-togethers set alternately in the publishing hubs of Toronto and New York. The program founders say that meeting face-to-face helps solidify relationships among students and faculty members.

“It gives the students an opportunity to spend enough time to get to know the mentors that they’re going to be working with,” says Stephen Kimber, professor of journalism and co-founder of the program. “We wanted to create a community.”

David Hayes, an author and mentor in the program, agrees. “It’s hugely important to have a residency component when they’re trying to get these things off the ground.”

Yet the residency trend is not a new idea. In fact, if you ask one of the pioneer institutions with more than 20 years’ experience in offering graduate degrees by distance, the real change is to shorter residencies.

“Now, our average residency is probably more like two weeks, rather than five weeks when we started out,” says Steve Grundy, vice-president, academic, and provost at Royal Roads University, where 93 percent of graduate students learn online or partially online.

Another trend, says Dr. Grundy, is to create programs that are completely online. Royal Roads offers four completely online graduate programs, ranging from a master’s in interdisciplinary studies to an MA or MSc in environmental practice. At Memorial and Athabasca, almost none of the graduate programs have a residency component. Other universities, including the University of British Columbia and University of Waterloo, offer both styles.

Illustration by James Dawe.
Illustration by James Dawe.

Terms and technologies
Here is where terminology becomes important but it can also be inconsistent, as institutions variously use such terms as distance, online and blended to describe their offerings. “Distance” refers to courses delivered when the instructor and learner are apart, historically described as paper- (and then television-) based correspondence courses; now such courses are mostly delivered online. “Blended” is the correct term to describe on-campus courses that offer a hybrid of online and in-person delivery. Yet, many institutions also refer to programs with any length of limited residency components as blended.

Perhaps it’s best to defer to the students: while Ms. Gaitonde’s public health and Ms. Francuz’s MFA program could be described by some as “blended” due to their limited residency components, both students say they enrolled in their program to avoid being tethered to a campus.

If the overall goal of a limited residency component is to give students connection and community, those qualities are also driving another important aspect of program delivery, namely technology. The growing ubiquity of learning management systems such as Blackboard, Moodle and Desire2Learn means that online programs have an established foundation. But program developers are experimenting beyond this core toolkit to add new technologies to the mix.

“What I am seeing now is the start of a move away from these learning management systems,” says Royal Roads’ Dr. Grundy. “There are a lot of very good synchronous tools around, and people are making much more use of social media in their classes.”

The better-known asynchronous tools that are at the heart of learning management systems – such as wikis and discussion boards – allow students to participate without all of them being online at the same time. These are still standard for online learners; but the newer synchronous tools can replicate online the face-to-face feel of a classroom.

At U of Alberta, the distance nursing program uses Adobe Connect in this capacity, and Ms. Caplan expects this to continue in the new doctoral program. “It allows for things like student presentations,” she says, noting that such tools help to build “social presence” and a sense of connection with fellow learners. Athabasca uses the same program for all its thesis proposals and defences.

Choosing technologies to suit the program’s learning outcomes may sometimes mean embracing the traditional rather than the newfangled. In the new King’s MFA, students use Blackboard to complete some assignments but many students choose to keep in touch with their mentors using old-fashioned email, plus phone or Skype meetings for longer feedback sessions.

Looking ahead, the acting dean of graduate studies at Athabasca University predicts growing demand in another new realm that will also be driven by students. “The next thing we’re going to be talking about is mobile learning,” says Shawn Fraser, who is also an associate professor in the faculty of health disciplines. “We’re seeing demand for that and we’re updating all our web pages, so if you have a smart phone or tablet or computer, the screen you’re seeing will automatically adjust.”

While people who are serious about distance graduate programs are thinking about innovations like mobile delivery and responsive design for websites, some who monitor online education in Canada argue that the country isn’t moving forward quickly enough. A 2012 CVU report (Online University Education in Canada: Challenges and Opportunities) points to a lack of national data, strategic planning, collaboration and business models as factors limiting the potential for online education. It concludes that “the ongoing strategic vacuum creates an environment that fosters weakness and duplication and is causing Canada to fall behind other nations in online education.”

Tony Bates, a well-known researcher in the field and proponent of e-learning, agrees that Canada needs a national strategy and more collaboration. Yet, he also argues that Canadian online graduate programs are impressively solid in their academic rigour, and he sees opportunity for further development.

“I think there’s a huge market that Canada hasn’t really tapped into yet for professional master’s programs,” says Dr. Bates. “It’s a market where students can afford to pay the fee because they’re working, and it gives them career advancement.” He points to UBC as a success story in running cost-recoverable online graduate programs.

To be sure, the existence of consortia like CVU and Canada’s Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research (COHERE) suggests that institutions are interested in the online effort. So does the investment by traditional universities that are serious about online programs: U of Waterloo has about 70 instructional designers and digital media specialists, while Memorial’s distance education, learning and teaching support team has close to 100.

Despite the changes and advances in program delivery, the student profile for distance graduate programs remains remarkably consistent over the decades. The students are usually mature adults working in professional jobs who are exploring online programs because of their need to balance studies with a life already well in progress.

“They are very much situated within their own communities. They’re not 26 years old,” says Ms. Caplan at U of Alberta, describing the majority of the applicants to the nursing PhD program. At U of Waterloo, Catherine Newell Kelly, director of the Centre for Extended Learning, says, “The target market is working adults, working professionals in the field.”

If the learner profile is consistent, so too is the goal of most students: to obtain a professional credential to advance a career. That has led to a rather narrow array of options, where education, health care and business far outweigh other offerings.

“Distance education is primarily being used today for people looking to improve their job prospects or move up in their organizations, and those things really happen at the graduate level, so they’re looking for more concrete credentials where they can get that pay increase,” says CVU president Dr. Tarzwell.

But in the vast country of Canada, a second student profile has even deeper roots: those who are geographically isolated. Memorial dates its involvement in distance education back to 1969, when it started making correspondence courses available to serve students in remote areas of the province. Athabasca, the first institution to specialize in distance education, was founded in 1970.

Ms. Francuz, who enrolled in the King’s MFA program from her home in the historic town of Annapolis Royal, says that the online, limited-residency program has allowed her not only to fit learning alongside her job but also to have the same opportunity as writers working from the big cities.

“I can still have access to all of these excellent people – it’s a great equalizer,” she says. “Rural Canada is not full of bumpkins. Because of things like distance education, we can participate equally in what’s available out there.”

Suzanne Bowness
Suzanne Bowness is a Toronto-based writer/editor and part-time professor of writing. Find her online at
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  1. Lynne Siemens / April 9, 2015 at 13:47

    Great article on distance graduate programs. Here at the University of Victoria, the School of Public Administration has been actively involved in distance education for many years. We offer two online graduate programs, a Masters of Public Administration and a Masters of Arts in Community Development.

  2. Virginia / April 10, 2015 at 07:18

    On-line graduate programs with a residency requirement is not doable for most graduate students, Most students at this level are working full-time and time off from work, lodging and travel cost make this offering difficult.

    I chose my on-line program because there was no residency requirement, not because it was the best program choice for me. Had there have been on-line only at most institutions it would have opened more opportunities to choose a different study direction.

    We also need an on-line LLB/JD program in Canada. There is no reason why this degree could not be completed on-line, when there is a year of articling for the practical hands on learning. After which a Bar Exam is taken. I am in my fifties and would have chosen law, but financial obligations prevent me from attending full-time.

    Many changes needed in education, and they are not happening fast enough. Canada is lagging way behind Europe, USA, and Australia


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