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As the importance of life-long learrning grows, not only are more people desiring to study beyond basic formal education, but education providers also have to provide high quality courses that are made as accessible as possible. This issue of CDTL Brief examines some of the issues surrounding Continuing Education/Distance Learning.

March 2002, Vol. 5 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Continuing Education through the Online Graduate Programme at the University of Calgary
Associate Professor Jo-Anne H. Willment
Faculty of Continuing Education
University of Calgary

The need for learning experiences while remaining at the workplace is a goal of many continuing education services in Canada. The Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is no exception. It has traditionally offered courses to provide knowledge, skills and/or attitudes to adults in their workplaces. Increasingly, learners are also encouraged to develop a ‘ladder’ between certificates and diplomas earned through continuing education that enable adults to apply for advance standing into regular post-secondary undergraduate admission at the University. These types of continuing education innovations are seen to benefit the learner, the workplace, the university and the community.

These leading edge innovations also extend into graduate education at the University of Calgary. Commencing in 1985, the Master’s of Continuing Education (MCE) graduate programme was developed under the auspices of the Faculty of Graduate Studies for delivery by the Faculty of Continuing Education. The programme has a specific focus on the workplace and requires applicants to have a minimum of five years work experience in a workplace environment. Typically, the enrolment each year is limited to two cohorts of 24 adult learners. Because 75% of the graduate programme is delivered online, learners have the flexibility and opportunity to study within an educationally-structured environment while balancing other life responsibilities. The programme provides specialisations in Workplace Learning, Leadership and Development with a third focus currently under consideration.

The programme is based on a curriculum development model which includes completion of First- and Second-year Institutes at the University of Calgary worth four credits with nine course credits completed through online education courses accessed by learners from home or office environments. This blended delivery approach necessitates learners and instructors who are comfortable in working within classroom and virtual environments. While most students completed previous schooling in the classroom, many are inexperienced online learners. The programme utilises FirstClass software with a dedicated server accessed at the University of Calgary, and all adult learners are required to install FirstClass software in expectation of the first online course in the Fall. Students receive a brief orientation to FirstClass at the First-year Institute, and a basic description of computer-mediated communication (CMC).

Research Opportunities

Each learner is required to complete a research study for graduation. Many of the research projects are work-based but the online environment is providing increasing research opportunities in the MCE–CMC environment. A twist to this model is to provide research opportunities at the outset of the programme to enable learners to learn about research before embarking on their own projects late in the programme. For example, the transition period can be difficult for learners who have completed the First-year Institute and arrive at home lacking in-depth knowledge or practice of the software they must access, install and utilise for their online courses. To address this issue, an MCE Learner Research Group was formed, and a study was initiated with the support and guidance of this author. Through the completion of a pre- and post-survey tools and selected learner interviews, a series of ‘learner snapshots’ is currently under development to indicate where, when and how learners are experiencing difficulties and what recommendations can be made to prevent this in future.

These research opportunities are self-directed motivators for learners. They provide first-year learners with an opportunity to work together as they learn more about a problem, its causes and ways to remedy through an active research process. It is an extremely rich learning environment for learners to have an idea, to work together as a group, to experience a mentoring relationship with a faculty member in the programme, through to writing and completing a paper for a conference and/or publication—all while continuing to work. This is but one example of why graduate continuing education programmes are so powerful for adult learners.

The Role of Facilitation in Continuing Education Graduate Programmes

Learners are anxious to explore the principles of adult learning, research and new knowledge in the context of identifying challenges, dilemmas and uncertainties in their workplace environments. Unlike traditional graduate programmes, learners in an online programme come with a sense of questioning, a desire for answers with a healthy dose of sceptical persuasion. Through inquiry, reflection and new and revisited knowledge, learners become open to alternative perspectives leading to new insights and learning. Communication dilemmas, discussion styles, and differing insights evolve and online disagreements or conflict may arise on occasion. Online conflict comes in many forms including, but not limited to, long silences from one or more learners, cryptic learner remarks, questioning, limited involvement with others, subtle communication cues, to name but a few examples. Using discussion, tactful questioning, open responses, debating, scenario-building, case-analysis methods, reflection with a healthy sense of humour, the facilitator is able to model their unique communication styles to students. Often, learners are quite surprised to see there are ways of addressing these challenges in ways that will convey the message but maintain a friendly, respectful and trusting approach. These types of communication processes can be lifelines for learners as they become empowered to develop their own comfort level and online voice.

The role of the instructor in the online CMC system is complex. The instructor has a facilitation role that is highly dependent on the ability to introduce, guide, mediate, group facilitate, problem solve, build consensus among the group, attain resolution and develop closure to discussions. Oft times these tasks are convoluted and ‘messy’ especially at the beginning of a term. Resources such as Salmon (2000) and Pratt and Palloff (1999) can be extremely helpful in understanding the role of facilitation and e-moderating in any online graduate programme. The author’s personal experience in teaching three separate online graduate programmes in Canada suggests that the perspective, demeanour, openness and invitation to join with a community of learners is as valuable to the learners as the value and knowledge of any discipline.


The lessons learned from online learning in this programme include the shifting of roles of the learner and faculty in the online environment; the focus on the transition that learners express as they proceed from novice to experienced online learners; the way in which they view themselves as online learners and hence as practitioners in the workplace; and, the deep learning processes that can occur for graduate students within the online, graduate continuing education environment. Further information on the MCE Programme is available at the University of Calgary website at:


Palloff, R. & Pratt, K. (1999). Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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Inside this issue
Distance and Distributed Learning in Continuing Education: Notes from the Front Lines
Continuing Education through the Online Graduate Programme at the University of Calgary
Life-long Learning: What Does It Mean for Us?
Continuous Education/Distance Learning: GSMS Graduate Diploma Programmes
Continuing Education in Dentistry
Learning to Go the Distance: A Decade of Expanding Opportunities for Distance Learning in Thailand