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Northern students flocking online to continue postsecondary studies

Contact North expects growth as COVID-19 delays traditional learning
(Adobe stock photo)

As COVID-19 keeps post-secondary students out of the classroom, Contact North is seeing increased demand for online learning, and that’s only expected to grow.

“No question that there is a big, big, big uptake in online learning – full stop,” said Maxim Jean-Louis, Contact North's president and CEO.

“And that's from all categories of people, whether they are students who are just finishing high school, whether they are adults, whether they are people who are already in the system who are already taking courses or programs.”

Created by the provincial government in 1986, Contact North administers online learning on behalf of Ontario’s colleges, universities, Indigenous learning centres, and training institutes.

By studying online, learners in rural, remote and underserviced communities can still earn an education while remaining in their home communities, making post-secondary education more feasible for many.

Jean-Louis said there are roughly 15,000 students currently enrolled in online courses through Contact North.

The results of an early-April survey of 1,555 students indicates that online learning is a trend that’s expected to continue.

Fifty-three per cent of respondents are planning to take more online courses in the future, while 61 per cent said they weren’t experiencing challenges continuing their education as a result of COVID-19.

“For them, it's business as usual because they were already taking it online, so they're just going to take more, because there are more courses available online now,” Jean-Louis said.

The most popular areas of study include health support services (nursing, personal support worker, social work), business courses, and the trades.

When it comes to courses that require students to complete a practical component, instructors are adapting to restrictions introduced by the pandemic.

For example, trades students can complete their theoretical component online, and then professors will arrange for them to come in at staggered times during the week to work on the practical component.

It allows students to meet their course requirements while still maintaining physical distancing. 

“The colleges and universities are being very, very insightful and innovative in finding ways to help the students’ access,” Jean-Louis said. “That's what we are observing all across Northern Ontario.”

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Even before COVID-19 hit, he said, Ontario was leading Canada in the sheer volume of online courses available – there are 1,000 full programs and another 10,000 courses available online.

But transitioning to online learning isn’t as simple as just connecting to the internet and turning on a device.

Faculty need to be trained and supported in making the switch to a new teaching method, and students themselves have to be able to adapt to a new way of learning, Jean-Louis said.

“It's a mistake to think that because all of our young Millennials are very good at using their cell phones that they are actually very good automatically at using technology to learn,” Jean-Louis said. “It doesn't necessarily transfer.”

Students learn from both their educators and their peers, and so losing the social interaction gleaned from in-person communication can be an adjustment, he said.

“So we have to figure out a way online to provide both aspects,” Jean-Louis said. “You learn as much from your fellow students as you learn from the faculty sometimes.”

Learning online also requires a fair amount of discipline and focus, he added. Some courses allow students to log in any time of the day to complete coursework, while others are scheduled to offer live instruction at specific times, as with traditional classes.

It’s up the student to make sure they tune in as required.

But after decades of offering online learning, Northern Ontario has an advantage over other jurisdictions that are just now getting into distance education, Jean-Louis said.

Even students in the most remote or fly-in Indigenous communities, like Moosonee or Attawapiskat, have been able to get an education, without ever leaving home to do it.

“Because of the huge distances and the sparse population, they've been doing online for decades,” he noted. “So for them… you are not new at this game at all. You've had to do it because it was the only choice in many ways to reach residents who were isolated.”