Queen’s degrees: just a click away

Online degrees connect new demographic of students to a university degree

Credit: 
Illustration by Leah Petersen

Like most Queen’s students, Jessica Guthrie-Mohsen comes from Ontario and had graduated from her high school with honours. Unlike most Queen’s students, Guthrie-Mohsen has never actually stepped foot on Queen’s campus.

A mother of two with another child on the way, Guthrie-Mohsen is completing her English degree online with Queen’s while traveling between Ontario and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Guthrie-Mohsen was originally enrolled to attend university right after high school. “But about two weeks before I was supposed to begin classes, I decided that’s not what I wanted so I packed up and left for Northern Africa,” she told The Journal via email.

After spending nearly two and a half years traveling Africa, Guthrie-Mohsen settled down and has been focusing on her new family. She has now made it her goal to get her degree and eventually teach overseas.

“Because our lives are spread out between two countries, I knew it would be impossible for me to stay somewhere for a minimum of three years to complete my degree. So when I began searching for online options, I was ecstatic when I found that Queen’s was offering online courses,” the 24-year-old said.

Guthrie-Mohsen is a part of a growing demographic of Queen’s students who obtain degrees from the school without ever physically attending the classes.

The number of off-campus online students at Queen’s has increased by 250 percent in the past three years, making it the fastest growing group of online students, Debbie Rogers, marketing and communications coordinator for Arts & Science Online told The Journal via email.

Rogers described the average off-campus student as typically female, around 26 to 35 years old, working full-time and with a family at home.

“Online learning is convenient to this student because they are looking to balance work, family, personal commitments and education,” Rogers said.

Until 1971, Queen’s required students to spend at least a year attending the University on-campus before being eligible to obtain a degree. Today, Queen’s online course catalogue has grown from only offering supplementary classes — to offering complete degree programs online. 

Over the past three years, Queen’s has received $3.4 million from the Ontario Online Learning Consortium — a not-for-profit organization financed by the Ontarian government — to develop online courses. About $2 million of that amount was used to create 42 online courses within Arts and Science Online, which is now the main distance studies hub at Queen’s.

Promising students the same quality of education they would receive on campus, the University charges the same tuition for online students as those on-campus.

However, normally teachers are not paid additionally for developing online courses. 

According to Beverly King, manager of Continuing and Distance Studies, it’s considered part of their regular work of teaching, research and service.

Professor Danielle LaGrone is a religious studies professor who was recruited to design and repurpose RELS 131: World Religions. She converted the pre-existing on-campus course into an online format and has been redesigning it every couple of years since.

“When we first did the online course in 2007, I, at least, didn’t have any previous experience in teaching online and so it’s been a big learning curve for everyone, faculty and students alike,” LaGrone said.

The course has grown significantly over the years. At the beginning, students would mail in their culminating essays for marking. Now, they can debate each other online.

The structure of the course poses a unique plagiarism challenge to the instructor. Unlike other online courses, RELS 131 doesn’t have a proctored exam, which would require students to prove their identities.

To combat plagiarism, LaGrone said she tries to keep the assignments as close to the material as possible. “I also change up assignments all the time as a way to prevent plagiarism from prior years, to prevent someone reusing a paper for example,” LaGrone said.

LaGrone said she tries to make RELS 131 more interactive with every redesign of the course she implements. “It’s different in the sense that a regular session class, a TA – most often in tutorial – contribute their own perspective a little bit more. That’s harder in [an online course].”

Lynn-Ann Saunders is one of LaGrone’s students in RELS 131. Saunders has been an aircraft mechanic with the Canadian Armed Forces for seven years and is looking to use Queen’s online courses as a stepping stone for further education.

“Becoming an officer in the military, you need to have a degree so that’s kind of my next goal,” Saunders said.

Though she finds her courses enjoyable, Saunders joked that Moodle — the course management system Queen’s uses as a platform for its online education — is sometimes a hassle.

 “I spent the first week just trying to access my courses because I had no idea how to work it or where to go or what Moodle even meant.”

“Initially, it was a stressor,” Saunders said. “I don’t think it is very intuitive.”

Saunders said that once she figured out how to use the website, she enjoys the flexibility offered with online learning and that she can balance the course with her career.

“I’ve always wanted to do more education, to get a degree and to better myself.”

Two other online educators, Jeanne Mulder and William Racz are teaching PHAR 100: Introductory Pharmacology. Once a course on campus, PHAR 100 is now only offered online.

Dr. Racz has taught in-class lectures at Queen’s since the 1970s and said there is a missing element of communication in online courses. In his experience, Dr. Racz is better able to emphasize information or reiterate material for students by gaging their reactions in a live lecture setting.

“That sometimes doesn’t come through as readily in an online course because the students are not there and they’re not reacting to you,” he said.

Dr. Mulder, however, said she has been able to have a more personal relationship with some of the students in an
online environment.

“Whereas, especially in a first year course when you have an in-class of 200 to 400 students, you don’t get to really know any of their names. But in the online course, you see them posting in the discussion forms, they email you one on one so it’s a little more personal that way,” she said.

The professor also said she finds students don’t miss information the same way they can in a lecture setting since all the material is provided for the students to refer back to.

Dr. Mulder had been able to continue to teach PHAR 100 while on maternity leave in Hamilton. 

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