Online education opens up new learning opportunities

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When Wendy Walter, operator of an educational nursery near Grande Prairie, wanted to enhance her skills, she didn’t have to look — or travel — far. Once in her office chair, Walter had access to all the resources and expertise offered by Olds College, even though she is 700 kilometres away.

Walter recently completed the Prairie Horticulture Certificate program offered in partnership with Assiniboine Community College, University of Manitoba and University of Saskatchewan.

Olds College is part of eCampusAlberta, a consortium of 16 post-secondary institutions offering access to more than 60 accredited online certificate, diploma and applied degree programs and 800 individual courses.

High-speed Internet access has presented entire new business streams for institutions such as Olds College whose School of Agriculture has offered an online Animal Health Technology program since 2007. The program is capped at 30 students, and is full every year. Students take the online courses during the regular academic year and then attend the campus for the hands-on portion of their programs in the summer. A new online veterinary practice manager certificate program is in development.

The college is also working to enhance the agronomy online course offerings. The program began in the spring of 2008 and includes four online courses as well as a residency component, says Mary Jane Block, the Olds College Continuing Education program manager (Agriculture, Land & Environment). Students gain practical training in crop-production systems, nutrition and protection in the program, which is capped at 20 and often runs at capacity. Block said students include producers, retail ag employees and foreigners wishing to enhance their knowledge of western Canadian crops and practices.

The Rural Finance & Entrepreneurship Certificate Program, rolled out last September, had an initial enrolment of 17 which jumped to 39 in the next semester. The program is 100 per cent online, and Block said it plays primarily to a producer audience, usually participants who want to enhance bookkeeping skills or others who are taking over the family farm. “The most frequent feedback we get is that the training we offer can be put into practice the same day,” said Block. “You can get an accounting course anywhere, but where can you get agricultural accounting training?”

Connectivity gaps

The eCampusAlberta consortium recorded an 11 per cent increase in course registrations last year — its eighth consecutive year of double-digit growth. But with an estimated 72,000 rural households still without high-speed Internet access, there are still a few hurdles.

SuperNet, a $300-million, 12,000-kilometre high-speed fibre network, was rolled out in 2005 to nearly 430 communities. Private Internet service providers could then supply the “final mile” of the connection between the network and individual households. Doing that cost effectively wasn’t so easy and as 2011 wound down, some six per cent of households were still without access to high-speed Internet.

This January, the province introduced the $5-million Rural Community Program to support local municipalities in securing high-speed access. It is meant to support 75 per cent of eligible project costs to help pay for needed infrastructure such as towers and fibre optic cable, installation costs and other related expenses.

The Final Mile Rural Connectivity Initiative pledged another $10.5 million in March toward making high-speed Internet available to an estimated 43,600 households, using a variety of approaches including satellite and wireless. The province is making up to $900,000 available for a remote-area satellite solution that will reduce the distance costs of accessing high-speed Internet for Albertans living in low-density and remote areas.

In the next phase, the government is working with Internet service providers to add infrastructure to the remainder of unserved areas in rural Alberta, including the extreme north and south of the province.

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