The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak’s impact on education this year was heavy, and sudden. Institutions found themselves needing to accommodate for remote learning, whether or not they had already implemented such systems. Unsurprisingly, they stepped up to the challenge, making sure that education could continue, and even making improvements that could benefit the future.
There were colleges and universities in Alberta that were already offering remote learning platforms for their students. Norma Schneider, vice president, teaching & learning and chief academic at NorQuest College, speaks of the advantage of remote learning. “NorQuest College has always been about accommodating learners where they’re most comfortable and in the ways they learn best, whether that is in person, remotely, or online. Having all of our offerings available online during the pandemic means we can balance the priority of keeping students, staff, and our community safe with the opportunity for learners to continue their education where they might not have been able to otherwise. The pandemic could have forced the hand of learners, but online education gives them choices.”
Portage College in Lac La Biche smoothly transitioned to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, even winning the Brandon Hall Group Award for their success. Making a note about remote learning, Guy Gervais, vice president academic, says, “An online modality of delivery opens up the opportunity for some students to take programs that were previously available only in a face-to-face modality of delivery. There are examples of programs that we have at Portage College that have increased enrolments due to being offered online during the pandemic.”
Gervais continues. “Moving online due to COVID-19 has challenged and stretched both program areas and service areas to think about new ways to deliver programs and support students. New ways of delivering curriculum and supporting students on the service side are being utilized. Additionally, new methods for delivering, assessing and interacting with students may continue when we go back to ‘normal.’ Minimally, some ideas used during online delivery will be blended with face-to-face delivery of programs.”
Meanwhile, at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), Sue Fitzsimmons, vice president academic and provost, notes additional benefits of remote education, saying, “Virtual learning allows students to access education from their home community, which can be a real advantage to students who don’t live within the Edmonton region.“
Fitzsimmons explains further, “When some people imagine virtual education, they assume there is no hands-on learning. At NAIT, this simply isn’t the case. We have many courses where students work with materials at home, or access virtual equipment so they can participate in hands-on learning under the guidance of their instructors online and in real time. Where learning outcomes can be achieved virtually, we’re providing education online. Where students need to come to campus to achieve learning outcomes, we are safely providing education within our shops and labs. Having lower numbers of students and staff on campus means we can more easily attend to cleaning, physical distancing and gathering protocols. In short, it makes things safer for everyone.”
Athabasca University (AU) has been a leader in online education in Canada for over 25 years, Dr. Neil Fassina, president, hopes that after the growing pains seen in other institutions of implementing remote learning across the country, it opens up more opportunities for everyone. He explains, “As Canada’s online university, AU’s mission has long been to make high-quality post-secondary education available to learners regardless of their age, work arrangements, location, educational background or family circumstances. What we are seeing now is that although many other institutions are opening digital options, they have not yet dismantled some of the barriers that stand between individuals and their learning. It is my hope that some of the early strides made by institutions will truly start to create greater access to higher learning for a broader demographic of learners. “
Fitzsimmons shared some interesting statistics from surveys with students. “NAIT surveyed students after classes ended last April. We wanted to understand the impact COVID-19 had on student learning in the early days of the pandemic. Nearly 4,500 students responded. What we learned was that 84 per cent of degree, diploma and certificate students and 75 per cent of apprenticeship students preferred a blend of self-directed and instructor-directed learning. This told us students are interested in exploring virtual options.”
However, they also found only 90 per cent of students had access to the necessary technology for virtual learning; but, through on-campus labs and loanable technology they are working to bridge that 10 per cent gap.
Gervais believes that flexibility will be key for opening up education options to more people. “The ultimate option for students would be to offer both online and face-to-face for more programs with the students choosing which option works best for them. Imagine a student who can choose their program and how they access the curriculum (online, in-classroom, blended, etc.), but also have the ability to move between online or face-to-face modalities during a semester depending on their personal circumstance on a given day or week.
“Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic circumstances and the switch to remote learning, continuing education continues to offer great value for the cost for any person looking to further their education, regardless of background or age.”
Schneider adds, “Learners come to NorQuest because they know the value of a NorQuest education, and that expectation doesn’t change whether they’re learning online or in person. We continue to provide value to graduates by focusing on building competencies and outcomes regardless of the delivery method, that way an accounting technician (for example) who graduates in 2020 or 2021 has the same value as one who graduated in 2019.”
Fassina highlights the benefits of flexible continuing education for those in the workforce, saying, “Many of our learners work and have family commitments, so they are already in the workforce. They turn to AU to get the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their academic and career goals in a way that fits into their lives. AU offers flexible, open, lifelong educational options to learners. From micro-credentials to doctoral programs, there is an option no matter where a learner is on their educational journey. Learners don’t have to leave their families, jobs and communities behind to learn. Instead, AU brings learning to them. “
Fitzsimmons on a NAIT education, adds, “Ninety-eight per cent of employers report satisfaction with the performance of NAIT grads on the job. No matter how it’s offered—whether virtually or on campus—NAIT’s highly engaging education is developed in partnership with industry and taught by instructors who have real world experience.”
Portage College has found through their monitored data metrics that every $1 spent on continuing education creates $4.60 in lifetime earnings for students.
Gervais concludes, “Our programs are connected with the business community and/or industry. This connection occurs through work integrated learning opportunities for students connecting the classroom to industry. Industry partners contribute to discussions at advisory committee meetings for all programs. This is an opportunity to ensure the program is relevant and current to what the employers are looking for.”
Continuing education remains valuable for students, whether coming out of high school, or already part of the workforce. Remote learning initially introduced some bumps, but the future looks bright beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring more people than ever will have access to continuing education to boost their full potential.