Sask universities discuss offering more online courses, and possibly blended programs

June 7, 2023, 2:11 pm
Sierra D'Souza Butts

“I took online classes because I like being at home, everything I love is here,” said Sunnette Kamffer, second-year student of University of Regina.

Since the pandemic, more opportunities in online learning have broadened and opened doors for students globally, but more specifically, students rurally, allowing them to complete their post-secondary education from their home communities.

Yet, with more of a demand for additional online courses and undergrad programs that can be completed online, the University of Regina (U of R) and University of Saskatchewan (USask) share what their plans are for offering more online schooling.

U of R explores new blended degree program
A new flexible, blended online and face-to-face post-secondary program is currently in the development stages at the University of Regina, said Dr. Christie Schultz, Dean of the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) at U of R.

“There have been conversations recently through a partnership across the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Arts, and the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance,” said Schultz.

“We’ve are looking at, and a possibility, of offering an online completable degree. I’m using the phrase online completable degree because while it’s in the early stages of development.

“The intention would be that it wouldn’t be online only, but students can choose from a mix of course modalities to fix their needs, interests, and location. For instance, you might be able to take a semester of psychology in Regina, then a semester from a home community, and that flexibility would be focused to the program.”

With the new degree program still in the planning stages, Schultz said the university has noticed an increase in requests for more online learning opportunities.

“We’re very much in the early stages at exploring the possibility, but we do see the interest and indeed demand for this kind of degree program, primarily from those three faculties,” said Schultz.

“I would say there’s been some interest that’s been expressed to us from both rural Saskatchewan, as well as from areas that have regional colleges on site to be able to access the University of Regina courses in home communities, so either online or face-to-face at the regional colleges.

“There is an interest in that. Anecdotally, I have heard many students who are keen to take part of their program from their communities, for instance a first year.

“One of the things we already offer is a liberal arts certificate program which is a 10 course program, a full year of courses, that can be taken fully online and can latter into a number of full degree programs that we offer at the university.

“For instance if you were to take the liberal arts certificate, those courses could count towards a social work degree, a business degree, a degree in media arts and performance, science, kinesiology, health studies or arts.”

USask looks at more online opportunities
Dr. Nancy Turner, Senior Director of Teaching and Learning Enhancement at the University of Saskatchewan said the university has discussed expanding their online options in post-secondary education as well.

“We have seen an increase in our offerings of online during the pandemic, as well as a lot of discussions about different forms of delivery including what we would call blended,” said Turner.

“Some of the programing would still be offered in-person, but more of it would be offered online as well, so a blended approach. Also offerings where you can have a cohort of students on campus and then a cohort of students online learning together. We’ve been having discussions about all of those modes for offering.

“We’ve seen an increase in (online) offerings coming out of the pandemic, at the graduate level particularly, but also at the undergraduate level. We do have more fully online courses now than we did pre-pandemic. This certainly has been driven by the needs of our students, but also the fit with the academic program.

“We know there are some programs where there’s a need for hands-on learning, where the learning outcomes can’t be achieved fully online or are certainly more challenging, and so it’s both ensuring that we are maintaining that high quality learning experience, and we are providing the type of learning that will allow for achieved outcomes while also responding to the interest and needs of students and service to the province, in terms of the type of provision we have.”

Turner was asked if the university has received high enrollment for online courses from students who study rurally.

“We do have work that happens through the regional college network in the province to have that type of programming,” Turner said.

“Students can access it directly, they can also connect with their regional college and access the programming that way as well. Certainly we are aware that online programming allows for students to stay in their home communities and continue to advance their studies.”

Having additional online courses and programs would expand the university’s reach to students, said Turner.

“Certainly it would widen our reach and our service to the province which is really what we’re here for, is to ensure that we are accessible and can connect to people in the modes and ways that they want to continue to study, while still maintaining that high quality provision,” she said.

“I think that’s one of the key benefits we can see in terms of connecting to learners wherever they might be located so they can access the high quality programming we have.”

Challenges with online learning
Despite the advantages online learning provides for students and universities, Turner also spoke about the challenges students may face when it comes to studying completely online.

“We learned a lot in the pandemic about both what was possible, but also what some of the challenges are,” Turner said.

“Certainly the fit of online provision with the learning outcomes is one of the things that we need to keep in mind. There is sometimes the need for hands-on courses, access to equipment, tools and laboratories, clinical stimulations, those types of things that we know we need to have hands-on opportunities for students to learn.

“Those types of things we know we need to continue to offer in face-to-face, again, in flexible ways that we can, but there are some face-to-face provisions that need to continue just to achieve learning outcomes.”

Schultz of U of R said one of the main challenges she noticed students faced with online learning is missing the face-to-face social interactions.

“For the students, one of the things that we experienced through the pandemic that we do hear is that there is something really wonderful about the community and connection on campus,” Schultz said.

“That’s something, so far, we haven’t been able to replicate online. That’s one of the reasons I do think an online completable degree might be ideal in many ways, but certainly we do love to connect with students in-person, and we observe that students really enjoy connecting with one another in-person on campus too. I think that is truly one of the greatest challenges.”

Schultz was asked what the best approach would be to tackle that challenge of students missing out on connecting with their peers while pursuing post-secondary from an online environment.

“I would say many of our instructors and faculty members do try to create that sense of community within their own online classes, but that’s still really within the online class setting” she said.

“Instructors and faculty members will do that through assignments they provide and other discussion interactions, but, those hallway conversations, at least at this point, is really difficult to replicate.”

Benefits for studying remotely, says rural student
For her first year of university, Sunnette Kamffer of Moosomin enrolled in all online classes as part of her Bachelor of Kinesiology program at the University of Regina.

Kamffer spoke about why she decided to attend U of R for post-secondary.

“It’s the closest to me if I have to move there eventually, and I think it’s a smaller school than it would be going to Saskatoon,” she said.

“I took online classes because I like being at home, everything I love is here. My family’s here, the farm’s here, my dog’s here, my boyfriend’s here and work is here, that’s the biggest thing I would say.

“I can keep working in Moosomin, and I have a house so I don’t have to look for a different apartment to live in and pay expensive rent in the city to only be there for a couple months of the year.”

With wanting to pursue her interest in kinesiology at the post-secondary level, Kamffer was asked what she would do if there was no option for online classes in her field.

“I think the decision would be a lot harder to make, whether I would pursue post-secondary or not,” she said.

“Because I was in the middle of choosing to do it or not to do it, and since it is online, it was easier. It’s more convenient being at home when I’m still able to do it and keep my life somewhat the same.

“But, I do think if it was fully in-person and there was no online options, there’s a slight chance I would not be there. I’m just not a big move away from home type of person, it would take a lot more convincing for myself to pack my bags and move to go to school for four years.”

After graduating from high school, Kamffer took a year off to work full-time before enrolling into post-secondary. She said being able to keep her job and live in her own house while attending post-secondary online is one of the main benefits she finds from online schooling.

“From the online option I get to stay at home, I get to continue working part-time and make a living that way where it’s not just fully based on student loans,” said Kamffer.

“Also living conditions, now that I have a house I live in, if I were to move to Regina I would have to get an apartment and lease it for a year, but when you come home for four months of the summer there’s no one living in it. So maintaining two houses at the same time, plus driving expenses for moving there and moving back every year would be expensive.”

One of the challenges with taking online courses are the technical difficulties, said Kamffer.

“I would definitely say motivation is the a challenge, especially for an online class that’s all online because there’s not a scheduled class that you have to attend and write notes, everything is based on your own time,” she said.

“But with synchronous classes where there are Zoom meetings, there’s been lots of times where classes got canceled because the Zoom link wouldn’t work and none of the students could get in so we wouldn’t have class, but the in-person students would, or sometimes submitting assignments doesn’t work because the course’s page would be down, stuff like that. Technology is the biggest issue I would say.”

Kamffer was asked if she had the choice of finishing the rest of her schooling online or a blended approach, what would she choose.

“Currently, I’m going with the flow,” she said smiling. “If they’re online that’s great, but if they do become in-person then eventually I will take them in-person.

“I can’t just quit because they’re in-person, but if it was up to me I would do everything online. I understand that for my Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology it makes it harder because there are in-person labs, and because when it comes to a science class or a health care class eventually I’ll have to go to clinics to work on people.

“Stuff like that can’t always be online because it’s not always 100 per cent possible. I think a mix of both would be good, like if I had four classes online and had to drive for one, or even if I had to drive for a couple I would still do it. I also think that would come in with experiencing the big city and getting to know what it’s like being there, rather than just doing everything online. I think that’s important to at least get away from home to experience that.”