Every year, approximately 1.5 million students across Canada set out to college in an attempt to earn a diploma, according to the latest data available from the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.
But these days there is also an increasing number of options for these students to obtain skills and information quickly and less expensively online.
College campuses have adjusted to this by creating their own online programs, but it raises the question of whether on-campus learning is still relevant in the age of digital content. If students can now finish all of their college courses online, without ever going to a campus, why is college any longer necessary?
Online education has increased rapidly over the last decade, according to a November 2011 report by the Babson Survey Research Group. The report indicated that more than 6.1 million American students took at least one online course throughout the fall of 2010, a 10 per cent increase when compared to the preceding year and almost four times the number of students participating in a online courses a decade ago.
“Students say they provide them with more flexibility,” said Mary Blanchard, associate vice-president of Academic Planning at Durham College, about the benefits of online courses. “So that in many instances they wouldn’t necessarily have to come on campus as frequently.”
This flexibility may allow schedules to not be as rigorous when taking part in an online course, since students are permitted to complete their assignments whenever they choose, as long as done by the mandatory due date
The costs attending college in Canada have risen dramatically over the last decade. According to a report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, average fees, in current dollars, have increased from $1,464 in 1990-91 to $6,348 in 2012-13, and they are expected to climb to $7,437 in 2016-17.
“It comes down to the convenience of not having to come to school,” Blanchard said. “Especially for individuals who live in a metropolitan area, it becomes very costly to afford transportation, and when you live in residence, that all adds up in the costs of a college education.”
Online learning, she says, allows college students to better manage their lives outside of learning, because it lets students stay in permanent jobs and give more attention to their families while finishing courses.
“We’re becoming more sophisticated,” Blanchard said, explaining that online learning is now being taken more seriously by students and potential employers.
“Ten or fifteen years ago, an online course was just putting Power Points online, and there wasn’t that integrated learning. And students were able to tap into a lot of online resources to enhance the learning experience.”
However, according to education officials, while online courses may offer more convenience and flexibility to students, the programs lack the in-person experience and support that makes college campuses irreplaceable.
“You miss out on all the student social activities and those experiences,” said Tara Blackburn, director of Career Services at Durham College. “You meet new students face-to-face. If you’re moving away from home, you get the residence life experience.”
“There’s no question online learning takes a great deal of personal motivation and time management skills,” said Blanchard.
Many students and teachers agree that while online courses will likely never entirely replace campuses, hybrid courses might one day.