Crisis Spawns Alternatives

How expanding online study options at Capilano University can lead to increasing accessibility, affordability and quality of education  

Lena Orlova // Staff Writer 
Annika McFarlane // Illustrator

Up until March 2020, obtaining a university credential online was only popular with working parents, mid-career achievers and job changers. Not anymore. The present pandemic ushered in a new reality of virtual education for all—and that’s not a bad thing. Expanding online study options can bridge accessibility and affordability gaps. New teaching strategies will innovate virtual pedagogy—which falls in line with Capilano University’s (CapU) mission to provide a quality learning experience.  

 “1.36 million Canadian students gain improvements in diversity, access, and opportunities through online courses,” reports BCCampus. Students benefit from greater flexibility in scheduling classes when they want to work part-time to offset tuition costs. Those wishing not to relocate save on moving expenses and preserve their peace of mind. 

While living on campus is a great way to integrate with the university community, relocation uproots students from their communities. A lot of well-researched studies show that staying close to our social networks maintains our mental health. The 2018–2019 CapU Institutional Accountability Report showed that stress impaired academic performance for three-quarters of surveyed students. While studying from home cannot prevent heightened stress, having family and friends around is a stabilizing factor for psychological welfare.  

Online studies have been growing in popularity even before the pandemic. In a Tracking Online and Digital Learning in Canada (TODLC) survey conducted in 2019, one in five Canadian students took or will take an online course for credit. While not all on-campus universities offer fully online programs, “more than two-thirds of all Canadian public universities and colleges offer online courses for credit.”  

Before Fall 2020, the majority of CapU coursework was still offered at its North Vancouver, Sunshine Coast and the newly built Lonsdale Quay locations. If students wanted to take more undergraduate courses online, they had to look at institutions such as Athabasca University and Thompson Rivers University.  

What’s stopping us from adopting more virtual education options isn’t unpopularity or infeasibility. Dr. Tony Bates, co-researcher of the TODLC survey wrote that “additional effort required of faculty was cited as the most significant barrier (85%).” Additionally, “inadequate training and support for faculty in online learning was identified as a key barrier by 73% of respondents.” Yes, the switch requires extra training, but it could lead to innovative ways of presenting curricula such as more digestible, shorter lectures, mixed-media formats and simulations. 

“One of the things that online learning has done is driven innovation and exploration into teaching and learning practices,” says Aldo Caputo, an expert on online learning and teaching at University of Waterloo in an interview with MacLean’s. “There is that reflection on that idea of ‘How do you best teach this material?’” 

Nonetheless, not everyone is convinced. Private institutions such as Rutherford University in the U.S. became famous for “diploma mills”—unaccredited credentials for people willing to pay. Understandably, many students and employers are weary of online programs in general. The same isn’t true for Canada, where most students choose to enroll in publicly-funded institutions with greater government oversight.  

We are more ready for the new reality than we thought. The majority of courses at CapU already involved some sort of an online component. CapU faculty use a blended format for classroom learning, using both in-class lectures mixed with online assignments and readings through the Learning Management System (LMS). The Department of Behavioural Analysis offers three different streams to qualify students for Assistant Behaviour Analyst certification. The two post-baccalaureate options allow on-campus or online completion of courses. 

Granted, flaws exist. Students complain about the lack of interactive learning and dull presentations. However, the faults don’t discount the advantages —if development is given enough investment and time. No institution making the switch to online learning in one semester will get everything right. In the long run, expanding virtual education at CapU would address many accessibility, affordability and flexibility needs faced by prospective students. My hope is that remote learning—and working from home—will continue to be part of our new normal. 

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