Conventional Vis-à-Vis Distance University Education

Until two weeks ago, all of my university-level education was garnered through Athabasca University’s (AU) distance education. I am very accustomed to self-discipline with regard to studying and individualized learning. I often wondered, while taking a break from the books in my basement office, what it would be like to actually attend classes at a conventional university. I envisioned many aspects of an on-campus university education but understood that many, if not most, of my musings had to be no more than anticipatory socialization.

Many of my forethoughts about what in-class education would be like have been remarkably accurate”?others have not. I have discovered that each type of university education has advantages and disadvantages.

There are marked fiduciary differences between AU and the University of Saskatchewan (USask), where I am presently a first-year law student. A full-time undergraduate course load at AU would run the in-province (Alberta) student $4960 per year; the out-of-province student residing elsewhere in Canada, $5660. These fees include student union fees but exclude invigilation costs and registration fees (if applicable). By comparison, my tuition and student fees for the 2003-04 academic year at USask runs me $6514.71.

This is a significant difference in itself; however, the AU tuition includes course materials (books) and the AU student has the advantage of being able to write-off nearly the entire cost of their education from their taxes. Conversely, the tuition costs at USask do not include course materials and those costs cannot be written-off. The costs of my course materials for this year have come to $858.04, bringing the total fees to $7372.75 for this year, only a portion of which can be written-off. It should be noted that law is a professional program; however, an LLB is still regarded as an undergraduate degree.

Distance education (other than paced courses) is extremely flexible and allows the student free-reign as to assignment submissions et al. As long as the course is finished before the requisite contract date, the work can be completed entirely at the discretion of the student. Course extensions can be purchased if the student requires one (or two). Compare this to in-class study, which is rigidly paced and assignments/exams are strictly due at particular times/dates.

Getting set-up to study through AU is a leisurely process of surfing the university website, browsing through courses, choosing one, and ordering it. A couple of weeks later, the course materials arrive at the student’s door via mail and the student can begin working on it. Such was what I was used to; but no more. During orientation last week, the students were cursorily shown how to access the USask bookstore website to find out which books were required for which courses. Then the mad dash began: Through throngs of disoriented fellow-students, I pushed my way along mazes of unfamiliar tunnels in my quest to find the illusive bookstore. When I finally found it, I was turned away in order that I store my backpack in a student-run bag-check. In order to do this, I had to wait in a long line of students.

Once my pack was stored, I returned to the bookstore only to find an even longer line-up waiting to get into the store. After faring that queue, I pushed my way through competing students and gathered half of the texts that I needed (the others were not in the store yet). Then I stationed myself at the end of the longest line yet”?the one at the tills. After paying, I lined up to repatriate my packsack. I had to repeat this process no less than four times in order to get all of my required books; and I am lucky, as many of my fellow students have yet to acquire their books, the store having sold out of them. That fact hasn’t stopped the relentless pace of assigned readings from those books though, and lacking students must line up to borrow the single copy on reserve in the law library long enough to photocopy the pages of required reading.

Another issue that distance students need not contend with is parking. USask has a chronic shortage of parking for students, staff and faculty. The limited number of parking permits that are available are sold on a first come first serve basis through a system called U-STAR (an acronym standing for something like: university student telephone access registration:). Beginning at 10:30 pm September 10th the passes went on sale and two of the three parking lots were sold out in an hour and one minute. I never got through to anything but busy and fast-busy signals. Then the U-Star system crashed; presumably from the tens of thousands of people trying to call at the same time. The last parking lot went up for sale at 10:30 pm September 12th and this time I won the lottery by getting through and acquiring a spot. The only problem is that the lot has no plugs for block-heaters and my diesel Golf is unlikely to start without one in the depths of a Saskatchewan winter (CAA to the rescue:). Still, I am ecstatic at having secured a spot at all”?some third year students have never been so lucky. For the luxury of an un-powered parking spot located 3/4 of a mile from the College of Law, I pay $155.03 for the academic year. Does your kitchen table seem a little more convenient now?

These niggling annoyances aside, the distance student does miss out on numerous aspects of education that class-based students take for granted. The biggest two are doubtlessly student interaction, both socially and during class debates; and, face-to-face professor access. One of my biggest concerns about attending a university campus, after more than twenty years away from a classroom, was that I would not fit in socially and that my mind is geared exclusively toward individualized study”?as opposed to group projects et al.

My fears, as most usually are, were baseless. I thoroughly enjoy the lectures and in-class debates and the law library has become my favourite place on campus. The law program is perfect for me because it entails a huge proportion of self-study in the form of out-of-class readings & writings”?skills that I honed through AU distance education. There are few, if any, group projects in the law curriculum.

It should come as no surprise to those who follow my article and know that I relish education of every sort, that I find pleasure in both distance education and class-based study. While they each have their cons as well as pros, I will continue to enjoy each in their own unique ways and will endeavour to share my experiences with fellow students in each genre.

Wayne E. Benedict has a varied career history and strong links to the Canadian labour movement. He is working part-time toward his Bachelor of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Athabasca University. He is a fulltime first-year student of the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. For a more detailed writer bio, see The Voice writers’ feature page, at: If you would like to send article-feedback to Wayne, he can be reached at

%d bloggers like this: