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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Continuing education goes virtual

By Lisa Fattori
Special to The Toronto Sun

Part of Jacinta Hughes' day includes powering up her PC to work on her Masters degree. Online, she reads course materials, submits assignments, communicates with instructors and engages in dynamic discussions with fellow students at a designated chat room. She does all this from the comfort of her home.

Hughes is part of a growing number of people who are opting for the flexibility and convenience offered by online distance learning. Obtaining a certificate, diploma or degree online appeals to adult learners who don't have the time or the opportunity to interrupt careers for on-campus education.

Educational institutions are responding to this demand. Today, more than 57% of Canadian universities and colleges offer more than 3,000 courses online.

The logistics of obtaining an online education are not nearly as cumbersome as one might think. As president of Peakes Performance Consulting in Pickering, Hughes must juggle career and family obligations with her studies.

She is working towards a Masters of Arts - Integrated Studies at Athabasca University in Alberta, and so far, is very impressed with the support and quality of education that she receives from the university.

"I'm a real people person, so I was a bit apprehensive about this format of learning," Hughes says. "But I found the experience to be so much better than I expected. You truly feel like you're in a classroom. The instructors do a great job facilitating the program and the other students bring a real richness of experience to the class."

Workers are increasingly being asked to improve their skills to keep pace with an ever-changing market. Through e-learning, students can not only pursue part-time studies, they can work at their own pace and custom design a program to accommodate their individual schedules. As more specialized courses become available, people have the opportunity to fine-tune their own area of expertise.

University of Toronto's Joseph Rotman School of Management offers a diploma in Investigative and Forensic Accounting, a two-year part-time graduate program that is the first of its kind in the world. The course includes online material and a week of campus study, both at the beginning and at the end of the program.

"This is a rigorous program geared to professionally trained and experienced accountants," says professor Len Brooks, director of the DIFA program. "We are providing the best trained individuals in the world who will be expert witnesses in the field of accounting."

Athabasca U, a pioneer of online learning, has offered distance education for almost 30 years. The university's enrolment has doubled in the last six years and currently serves more than 22,000 students each year. "Our average student is 28 and married with two children," says David Annand (Phd), director of the undergraduate school of business at Athabasca U.

"Two-thirds of our students are women. The flexibility advantage of online learning fits well with this demographic."

A consortium of participating universities and colleges makes it possible to transfer credits from one institution to another, which can then be applied towards the completion of a program. Learning done in the workplace is also getting more recognition as a legitimate contribution towards a degree. A prior learning assessment takes into account a candidate's experience and the skills acquired while on the job.

How are e-learners financing their education?

"There are hundreds of thousands of adult learners and very few are getting student loans," says Dave Cogliati, director general for Canada's student loan program. "This means that their education is either self-financed or employer-sponsored."

The opportunity for continuing education is one of the new company perks and more businesses are footing the bill to ensure a better skilled workforce.

"Years ago, people got their degree and thought that they were set for life," Hughes says. "This is not the case anymore because we have to stay current. The competitive advantage of companies is their human capital and, therefore, they must invest in the life-long learner."

(Lisa Fattori ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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