This spring, public postsecondary institutions across Canada delivered most of their schooling online.
They had no alternative in the wake of the global outbreak of COVID-19.
But virtual learning is not a novel development—not by any means.
As far back in 2002, UBC's Faculty of Education pioneered the first fully online graduate program in Canada.
The Master of Educational Technology program website states that it "educates professionals in the use and impact of digital learning technologies".
What is the biggest misconception about this approach?
"In the past months of the pandemic I have often heard individuals claim or report that online learning is inferior to face-to-face learning," MET program director Teresa M. Dobson stated. "Such individuals seek a return to 'normal' (e.g., face-to-face settings) as soon as possible.
"When learning is robustly designed for online contexts, it can be rich, varied, and highly engaging," she emphasized. "It is not inferior to face-to-face learning; it is different."
The MET program is an extension of UBC's fully online certificate in Technology Based Distance Learning. There are 320 students enrolled in either the 10-course MET degree program or the five-course MET certificate program.
"They can also ladder up to the degree program from the certificate program," noted Dobson, also a professor in UBC's Department of Language and Literacy Education.
She explained that the MET is a professional, part-time program ideally suited for working professionals. They can be employed in the K-12 school system, higher education, information technology, health care, business, and the military, among other fields.
"Many of our students lead online instructional design in their workplaces," Dobson stated. "When global lockdowns commenced in view of COVID-19, our students were in high demand. Some were called upon to lead their respective workplaces—schools, universities, businesses, et cetera—rapidly through a pivot from face-to-face to online forms of education.
"Others were hired into new positions as leaders in developing online education options to supplement or replace existing face-to-face programs," she continued. "MET students continue to be in high demand and will be for the foreseeable future."
That's because nowadays, people with the skills and knowledge offered through the MET program play a critical role in developing safe approaches to education. That can be through virtual learning but also working with hybrid approaches combining online with face-to-face instruction.
Through the online graduate MET program, students learn about technology-supported instruction, as well as planning and management of e-learning and learning technologies.
In addition, they gain insights into the design and development of digital learning technologies and environments, digital literacy, and digital culture.
"Most of our courses are 'asynchronous' rather than 'synchronous'," Dobson stated. "Although students must follow a schedule from week to week over a given term and meet set deadlines for submission of work, they are not required to attend lectures at specific times.
"This makes the program accessible for people in multiple time zones and with different work commitments. Our students complete weekly tasks when they are able."
The MET program offers 21 courses, covering a wide range of topics, including Indigeneity. Among the other courses are Technology and Education; Mobile and Open Learning; Ablism, Equity and Educational Technology; Energy Literacy in Society and Culture; Digital Games and Learning; and Design of Technology Supported Learning Environments.
According to Dobson, one of the advantages of online programs is that they "generally increase accessibility for a certain segment of the population. That includes those living in remote communities, Canadians living or working abroad and who want to study at a Canadian university, and those with mobility issues.
Alumni work in so many different settings and this community shares its experiences with current students.
"As we look to the future, it is clear that online learning will supplement other forms of learning for the foreseeable future," Dobson predicted. "Rather than position it as an inferior form of learning, we would do well to contemplate its affordances and attend to well-established best practices from the field of online education."