Lighthouse Labs, Laurentian and Royal Roads cite larger markets, flexibility in hiring high-quality faculty, and greater access to education among reasons for investing in remote learning.
In March 2020, COVID-19 forced most post-secondary campuses to shut down, which led to a rush of remote learning, exposing those institutions that weren’t ready for the transition and highlighting the ones that could successfully deliver learning opportunities to students, in some cases better than they had even prior to the pandemic.
Some, like Canadian tech education company Lighthouse Labs, had a large geographic footprint providing instruction through 12-week coding bootcamps on campuses in almost every major city. Founded in 2013, Lighthouse Labs provides accelerated coding bootcamps for those looking to launch a career in software development and other in-demand tech disciplines. While Lighthouse Labs CEO Jeremy Shaki says the company is still “very focused on building and maintaining connections to major locations across the world,” he says the transition to virtual learning has allowed the company to reach much wider audiences living outside major cities.
“With the growth in remote work, it meant we could help those people get jobs as well. The changes we have all gone through during COVID mean that more homes have good internet service, a suitable workstation, and a better set of agreements between couples and roommates around how work can be done in the house. That type of change has led to a much larger number of students who can succeed in online courses,” says Shaki.
While Lighthouse Labs had plans to offer a remote track for a long time, when the pandemic first hit, they still believed they would come back to in-person learning. But by November 2020, they saw equal results in learning scores and the ability for students to secure jobs as with the in-person programs. That pushed Shaki to commit fully to the online experience.
Expanding reach to more learners and attracting new instructors
“The addressable market is much more significant,” says Shaki. “And while it’s allowed us to reach new provinces and people in rural areas, the biggest growth we have seen is in students who live in suburban areas of the major cities we were already in. The same goes for instructors. We have seen a huge jump in developers and data scientists who would have lived too far to show up at our physical spaces. It’s led to a huge influx of talent that has helped our students tremendously.”
By going fully remote, Lighthouse can now hire from anywhere. It also has more nationally focused teams that work together, as opposed to city-based teams that work more in silos,” he says.
Laurentian University’s Centre for Continuing Learning has also seen an increase in students enrolled in fully online degree programs, says Jennifer Johnson, manager of Laurentian Online in Sudbury. “We have about 26 degree programs and over 350 fully asynchronous course offerings that contribute to those programs,” she says.
Two years into the pandemic, Johnson says the increase in interest and overall enrollments is just the first step.
“We need to look three, maybe even five years out to really see what people’s interests will be. The real impact that we’re going to see is with those students coming out of high school now or those people who are considering retraining or re-educating themselves, those impacts are going to be felt for years to come,” says Johnson.
Not surprisingly, new online universities and programs are emerging, while even institutions that have largely returned to in-person classes expand their online offerings.
More opportunity for international students
While there was always a strong presence of international students in fully online programs at Laurentian, Johnson says the pandemic allowed the university to be more sensitive to factors such as time zone requirements when considering the use of technologies to secure an exam format, for instance.
“If an exam is being timed for a particular time zone in the past, they might have gone to an approved exam center. Now we’re making accommodations for different time zones so that the student in Russia and the student in Sarnia or Timmins are not getting up at weird hours of the night to write their exam,” she says.
Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia was already online when the pandemic hit, with many programs offered in a blended format or fully online. The university did shift its face-to-face programs online during the height of the pandemic as well.
Royal Roads pioneered blended learning, the combination of periods of synchronous in-person and asynchronous online learning, in 1996 with what is now its Master of Arts in Leadership program. This approach increases access for people who want to earn a credential while they continue to work and live their lives anywhere in the world. The school shifted its typical periods of synchronous in-person learning that used to be held at the Victoria campus online with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a wide range of pedagogical strategies to engage students during these intensive learning periods when students are all online together at the same time, Royal Roads was able to continue offering rich learning experiences even for highly interactive programs such as the Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching, or the Master of Arts in Leadership.
In-person learning still on the table for Lighthouse Labs
Despite taking all Lighthouse Labs programs online, Shaki says he hasn’t ruled out a return to in-person learning in the future. However, online will still likely be the predominant delivery model, with the sessions offered more with a hybrid focus where instruction might still be online, but spaces for students to meet each other will be offered.
“There is a community and camaraderie element to in-person learning that’s fantastic, and I imagine there will come a time when we are able to offer a few in-person sessions for those who really crave it,” he says.