As she puts it, Avi van Haren never gave herself the gift of postsecondary education when she was younger. The Vancouverite jumped straight into her career, and as it progressed, she simply didn’t have time to get a degree – or degrees – to accelerate it further.

After years working as a business analyst and product manager for a medical imaging company, Ms. van Haren decided to give university a try. Her options were limited. She was constrained not just by work hours, but work travel. Everything needed to be on her own time. “I needed the freedom to do my coursework anywhere I was in North America,” she says.

So at 41, four years ago, she applied to Royal Roads University’s “blended model” bachelor of arts in professional communications, which is completed largely online with two intense three-week student residencies a year. Thanks to her extensive work experience, Ms. van Haren was accepted into the accelerated program, and graduated in just two years. She liked it enough that she went back to Royal Roads for a blended MBA in executive management. She graduated earlier this month, and her hustle has already paid off. In October, she was hired as director of product management at health-tech startup Ayogo Health Inc.

“I believe everyone should have the option for an education,” Ms. van Haren says. “Being physically in one place shouldn’t prevent you.”

As universities catch up to technology, it’s still early days for degrees that can be completed fully or mostly online. But they are becoming increasingly prevalent. In doing so, they are making postsecondary education available to a wider swath of people than ever, allowing them to complete degrees without leaving the work force.

The number of schools offering online or mostly-online degrees has risen so much, particularly for business education, British education network Quacquarelli Symonds has begun ranking the world’s top online and distance MBAs. The firm also conducts annual surveys of worldwide MBA applicants, and has found that the appetite for part-time and online MBAs is growing.

Among 4,900 respondents, QS found that 32 per cent of MBA applicants were interested in part-time studies this past year, up from 28 per cent in 2013. The firm also found 19 per cent were interested in online programs, up from 16 per cent in 2013. (Seventeen per cent were interested in executive MBAs, which are also often delivered in a blended distance and in-person basis, but are structured differently and cater to a higher-income demographic.)

Mansoor Iqbal, who both leads the survey and edits the MBA listings for QS, says the greater interest is the result of two trends feeding into each other. More low- to middle-income managers are interested in boosting their education without leaving their jobs, and part-time MBA programs are becoming available at growing numbers of reputable schools.

There are no Canadian schools yet on QS’s 25-name list of the world’s best online MBA programs, but that owes more to the nascent nature of digital program delivery. Mr. Iqbal says there are several Canadian universities “around the edges” of the list, which ranks program delivery style, opportunities for in-person meeting and completion rates.

Summit Search Group, a national recruiting agency, has seen a rise in the number of candidates with online degrees applying for jobs. Bruce MacEachern, Summit’s regional manager for the Ottawa area, says the employers he works with don’t discriminate against the new learning style. In fact, they embrace it.

“What matters is, do they actually have the degree?” he says. “We get all kinds of candidates that come in with partially completed degrees. In this day and age, it’s so easy to go online to finish a degree, it’s almost expected of you to have some postsecondary education.” Online courses and degrees, he says, make that easier than ever.

Earning a reputable online degree, especially while working, tends to reveal a person’s hustle. “There are a lot of organizations that appreciate the ability of someone to work and attend school at the same time,” says Grant Tufts, co-founder and president of Impact Recruitment in Vancouver.

Mr. Tufts’s firm hasn’t seen the same growth in online applicants that Summit has, but he says certain sectors they work with, such as digital marketing, tend to be more open to online education. “The construction and engineering industries will always look for somebody who’s gone into a class and taken part,” he says as an example. But he agrees that online university education is slowly levelling the playing field. “It’ll open up opportunities for people from more rural towns, where there isn’t a brick-and-mortar institution that companies would recognize.”

For Ayogo co-founder Paul Prescod, obtaining an online degree while working “shows initiative. It shows passion. It shows resilience.” He saw all of this when hiring Ms. van Haren. “She has a really good analytical approach that she learned both in school and in her work before.”

When Ms. van Haren showed up on the first day of her undergrad residency, she says she didn’t feel qualified to be there. But Royal Roads’s blended online program showed her that she was a great fit for academia after all. She received the chancellor’s award for highest academic performance when she finished her undergraduate studies at Royal Roads, and when she earned her MBA, she won the school’s Founders’ Award for leadership and personal development.

“For anyone not sure they can do it,” she says, “with a lot of focus and a lot of determination, anything is possible.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 7:53AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 3:07PM EST