Online learning has become more important than ever since the pandemic started, but that doesn’t mean the process has been an easy one.
The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) offers a variety of courses, and they have had to adapt their learning model as the pandemic progressed. “Newcomers… feel isolated at the best of times,” says Julie McCrea, the e-learning and employment program specialist at EMCN, “especially if they come over and they don’t have a lot of family or a developed network. So, having online [courses…] was not really making that connection.”
Her goal throughout the pandemic has been to create that same connection participants would experience in a normal face-to-face classroom in an online setting.
McCrea explains that most of the courses EMCN offers have become hybrid classes. There are asynchronous components (where you learn on your own time), such as YouTube videos that McCrea creates, but there are also synchronous components (learning with the help of an instructor) where an instructor will meet with the class either online or in-person, depending on the participants’ comfort level.
There were also obstacles during the initial transition online. “We have some people who just aren’t as familiar with computers and technology, or don’t have the… ability to purchase [technology],” McCrea explains.
“But there [were] challenges to face-to-face learning as well when you had parents that had a sick child or people who were working five jobs,” she adds. “[Now], instead of somebody having to miss out on an opportunity, they have the ability to balance those obligations and responsibilities a lot easier [with online learning].”
While McCrea notes that in-person learning is still the preference for many people, online learning provides flexibility for those who can’t attend class in a physical space.
“People are adaptable and people are hungry for that connection and hungry for that knowledge. So, we just wanted to do everything that we [could…] to make [online courses] as useful to them as possible.”
Onlea is a Canadian company that develops engaging online courses for organizations. One of their most recognized courses is Indigenous Canada, a course run through the University of Alberta.
Adriana Lopez Forero, the president and CEO of the company, says online learning is constantly evolving, and her team is always thinking about ways to incorporate new technology and make courses even better. “The pandemic did not change that,” she notes.
What has changed is the speed at which they need to develop courses for the institutions they partner with. The need for digital learning has been heightened by the pandemic, and organizations need courses now, not sometime next year.
Lopez Forero says that one of the biggest misconceptions about online learning is that it will never be on par with in-person learning in terms of quality. “The quality [of the course…] can be on par or even better in some cases [than in-person learning]. In addition to that, the flexibility… allows us to reach a [larger] number of learners that we could not reach just with traditional methods.”
This flexibility is one reason online learning is so valuable, says Lopez Forero, but it isn’t required in all cases. “Synchronous, in-person learning has a time and a place and is the right tool in many cases,” she notes. “I believe [online learning is] not going to be a replacement for in-person education. I believe it’s a complement to it, and it’s a complement that gives us the ability to get the skills we need in the time we need them in.”
Mistakes Lopez Forero frequently sees with online courses are that they are formulated exactly the same as they would be in person, that they aren’t engaging enough, and that they don’t provide enough support for students despite the increased potential for distractions and a less-than-ideal learning environment.
Online courses have been especially beneficial for lifelong learning. If you’re interested in taking free online courses ranging from language learning to personal development, check out the Edmonton Public Library’s database at epl.ca/learning-tools/courses-training/. There are thousands of courses at your fingertips, and they are all accessible from the comfort of your couch.