Mills: Online learning provided first steps into a new life

At 22, I found myself divorced and homeless. I had a high school diploma and a 9-month-old baby. Granted, I made some bad decisions in my youth, but I was determined to be nothing less than a role model and an inspiration to my daughter.

I wanted to make her proud.

After getting into university and applying for student loans, I then had to figure out how I was going to pay for daycare. I had no family to help; I was on my own. I could barely afford milk or a bus pass, so daycare bills were out of the question.

Luckily, my counsellor told me that I had an option to register for online classes.

Back in 1998, my online class was not much more than a correspondence course via the Internet. It was impersonal, difficult to figure out the content on my own and confusing to navigate. (But did I ace that class.)

But I was given a miraculous opportunity – an opportunity to create a better life for me and my daughter. I had such profound gratitude and respect for this online course that saved my life by offering me my first step into the world of higher-learning.

I completed the rest of the steps in the traditional way; I went on to earn two degrees, a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of Education. Years later, while living and working in the Middle East, I decided to earn a master’s degree in Adult Education.

Again, online learning opened the door of opportunity. I earned an intercontinental master’s degree. I learned from professors in universities in Canada, Sweden, Australia and South Africa with classmates from every corner of the globe. Together, we bonded over this mystic concept of learning online.

That experience could never have been achieved in a face-to-face classroom. Had online learning not existed, our paths would most likely never have crossed. Instead, we were a community.

Most profoundly, we were all lifelong learners. We were all working full-time in concurrence with earning our degrees. We were mothers and fathers, grandmothers and wives. We were doctors and teachers, academics and businesspeople, self-employed and unemployed. We were an eclectic mix of learners from all over the world joined initially by necessity, but before long, we agreed this medium was as precious to us as our face-to-face learning experiences.

My idea of online learning changed during those two years.

It used to be a Plan B, a necessity to turn to when face-to-face learning wasn’t possible. But, I soon realized online learning was an opportunity to learn without barriers of geography or finances; online learning alleviates a lot of costs the traditional student is burdened with, most significantly, the cost of transportation.

It was an opportunity for a working mother to better herself, and therefore, the lives of her children. To me, online learning is a savior to many.

Online learning offers a route that supersedes many barriers; I was motivated to stay involved in the field. As an educator, my first order of business was to start offering my courses as blended classes. Students responded with genuine gratitude. Their responses motivated me to continue learning more and more about online education.

Through the years, I have gained confidence as an online educator.

One year ago, I began to look for career opportunities in the field of online education. In July, I was offered a position at Western’s Continuing Studies. As the online development coordinator, it is my responsibility to ensure Continuing Studies grows its repertoire of online courses.

For Continuing Studies, the initial turn to online learning is due to necessity. There is simply not enough physical space at Citi Plaza to house all the students that want to take our courses. In order to grow, we have to move online.

But, I don’t see it as simply a necessity due to need; I see it as an opportunity to reach out to all the lifelong learners who are unable to make it to our campus. These learners can access whatever their hearts desires to learn. I am proud to be working in an area where I can truly make a difference in people’s lives.

Our aim is to create vibrant, engaging and interactive online classes that will serve as examples for the greater educational community. Our courses will be referred to as exemplars when educators are curious about how, exactly, does one teach through a computer.

Because of our ability to grow online, our enrollment is skyrocketing. Obviously, there is a lot more work to be done, but we are certainly headed in the right direction on the road to success.

Yasmien Mills is online development coordinator with Western’s Continuing Studies.