How all students can thrive in the digital classroom

Jun 25 2020, 5:00 pm

The past few months have accelerated a global shift towards digital communications. Apps we rarely used before are now a part of our routines for work, for virtually connecting with loved ones, and (as of this fall) for studying at universities and colleges.

While many Canadians are looking to upskill or change the direction of their careers during the ongoing crisis, 30% of returning and new students say they might change their plans about enrolling at a post-secondary institution in the fall.

Although online learning has long been an option for prospective students, it’s now at the forefront of future education. We spoke with Neil Fassina, president of Canada’s online learning institution Athabasca University (AU), to discover what benefits virtual classrooms offer to students — and why replicating the physical classroom digitally isn’t enough.

A flexible approach to study

Athabasca University’s ‘classrooms’ have always been virtual. As Canada’s online university, AU has been educating students nationwide and around the world through distance and online learning for more than 50 years.

Students can register at any time of the year, so there’s no need to wait until September or January. They can work at their own pace and have up to six months to complete each course, so schoolwork can fit easily into their everyday life.

During this time of uncertainty, students might not want to commit to a full course load or be tied to an eight-month curriculum, so AU’s flexibility is ideal, Fassina explains. “We don’t run traditional semesters. So if you want to take a course, you can start it the first day of any month,” he says.

“We recognize that learners can’t necessarily let go of their other commitments, whether that be their jobs, their families, their kids, their elders. Having a flexible environment allows the learning to fit around them, rather than them having to fit around the learning environment.”

Support for all learning styles

Learning in a physical classroom is not the same as learning online, which is why some students and teachers were frustrated by the sudden shift to online learning during the pandemic, says Fassina. “In a place-based learning environment, there’s really only the professor’s voice, and perhaps the learning resource, which is often text-based. At Athabasca University, we apply design elements that you simply can’t achieve in a place-based environment,” he says.

Professors at AU use a variety of techniques and resources that allow all kinds of learners to succeed. Other institutions across the country have turned to AU experts for help in moving their own, place-based classes online.

“Some learners have different learning abilities, or obstacles that may impact their learning. Through that digital space, we’re able to achieve and accommodate many different styles simultaneously, at a rate that works for the learner,” says Fassina.

Anyone nervous about returning to school in a digital world should know that learning online at AU does not mean learning alone, he adds. “There are a host of wraparound supports to help you understand what it means to learn online, to coach you to being effective as you learn online, and to keep you moving forward in your self-guided and self-curated learning experience.”

For example, many science and math classes include labs; At AU, the lab equipment is delivered to students at home. Students can also participate in virtual co-op experiences.

A pay-as-you-learn model

Many universities have a pay-by-semester system. At AU, students can pay course-by-course, offering a more affordable approach to education.

Fassina says that in a flexible, digital learning space, students don’t have to sacrifice work for school, or juggle two competing calendars. “There’s the ability to continue employment opportunities, which gives extra buying power to the learner,” he explains.

Students don’t have to worry about commuting to and from classes, nor do they have to pay for additional rental costs if they study remotely. AU also includes the cost of course materials in tuition fees so there are no additional expenses for books.

“There is an element of affordability that is built into digital learning, but it’s not front and centre,” says Fassina. “It’s not that you see it reflected in the price, but you see it reflected in not needing to spend money on things that you otherwise do if you’re studying in a physical location.”

Advancing your education

Taking courses at Athabasca University can also allow you to upgrade your marks to transfer to another university, fill a course gap in an existing schedule, or lighten your workload at another institution and ease you into the digital learning environment.

Sofia Descalzi, the national chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, said in a news release that the ongoing health crisis is affecting already marginalized populations, with a larger number of women and those identifying as visible minorities saying it will be harder to afford post-secondary. Athabasca University offers greater access to education for all, including marginalized populations: 64% of students enrolled in the university’s science, technology, and math courses are female.

When students are choosing where to study, Fassina says he encourages them to explore how institutions are creating their online learning environment. Consider whether they bring together educators, learning designers, and production designers to create a purpose-built digital learning environment. “When online learning is purposely designed, it is an incredibly flexible and engaging tool,” he adds.

Fassina says that amid the ongoing health crisis, there is a wealth of opportunity in the move to digital learning — which is ultimately a “silver lining to what is a very dark cloud.”

To learn more about the programs offered at Athabasca University and to register for a course that aligns with your interests, visit

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