Back to school online

Go online to enjoy the many benefits of life-long learning.

If the crisp September mornings bring nostalgia for the days when Labour Day meant the start of a new educational experience, you’re not alone. Mature students are heading back to class to enjoy the many benefits to life-long learning: exercising your brain can keep it sharp; trying on something new can lead to new friends and joys.

But finding time to attend class between family and other commitments can be a struggle, and traditional correspondence classes can become tedious.

Fortunately there’s a modern solution: online courses. These are designed to provide some of the advantages of a traditional classroom experience while giving students as much flexibility as possible. Chat software, forums or bulletin boards, and email enable students and instructors to interact from their desktops from all over the world. And presentation software like Flash or Powerpoint makes the experience of learning fun and interactive. And while online courses are available all over the world, Canadian institutions have emerged as some of the leaders in distance education.

Are you ready?
Online learning is not without its challenges. On the technical side, familiarity with basic communications software – a web browser, email, and a word processing programme – is a must. On the educational side, instructors aren’t always able to see if their students are struggling, so a willingness to speak up and ask questions is an important skill.

And most of all students must be self-directed and willing to put the effort into working through the material. These last two qualities, however, are something many of us acquire through life experience so many mature students find that they have an advantage in the online arena.

Where to start
The first step in looking for an online class is to define your goals. Are you looking for a fun way to pass the time, hoping to zero in on a specific interest or area of learning, or do you want to plunge into a degree programme? Once you know, it’s time to get online and start looking. Here are some places to get started with your research:

The BBC offers a number of online free courses at

These include:

– 22-step and 10-step courses in languages such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, and even Greek. Designed to give travellers basic phrases and beginners basic grammar, the site is both useful and friendly. The videos will have you speaking to your monitor in no time.

– gardening and gardening design classes in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society

– a how-to course in family history that includes activities and quizzes

MIT’s open courseware site at is a bit more high-brow. MIT has made course materials for many of its courses, including lecture notes, available through the web. Sorting through this site takes a bit more effort than the easily designed courses, but it certainly provides fertile ground for the mind.