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MARGIN NOTES

A humble proposal for online learning in Canada

Why not try a series of foundational university courses delivered to thousands of students at a time?

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | JAN 24 2012

Ever since the introduction of the Internet, there have been predictions that online education would transform the university as we know it. As early as 1997, for instance, management guru Peter Drucker observed in Forbes magazine that “already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost” and predicted that, “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”

Fast forward to today, and those predictions continue. Again in Forbes magazine, Tim Worstall of London’s Adam Smith Institute writes, “I would expect to see a crumbling of the extant educational order in the next decade or two. Why spend $30,000 to $50,000 a year to go away to school when you can gain the same or better degree at home for $3,000 a year?” He adds, “If I were starting out now I would be very wary indeed of trying for a teaching career in tertiary education. It’s entirely possible that in 20 years’ time there will be perhaps 10 percent of the number of positions, jobs, doing that as there are now.”

The lure of online education seems undeniable. The annual Sloan Consortium report on online education in the United States, released earlier this month, found that 6.1 million American college students took at least one online course in fall 2010 – a half-million more than in 2009. The report further noted that nearly one-third of all college students are learning online now, up from less than 10 percent in 2002.

Then there’s the recent phenomenon of the 160,000 people who leapt at the chance to enrol free of charge in the online course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” offered by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun. There’s also the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new MITx e-learning venture, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of college lectures on iTunes U, the thousands of videos available from the Kahn Academy, and so on.

And yet, I remain unconvinced that a revolution in higher ed is at hand. Or, more precisely, I think the predictions of the demise of the traditional university campus are greatly exaggerated. There is a value to the campus experience and the campus culture that is very real and hard to replicate online. As one professor wrote recently, “There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters.”

But I do believe that online education will continue to play an increasingly important role in higher ed. I also think that, for better or worse, the impetus for this will be more economic than pedagogical. University costs continue to increase well above the rate of inflation and are unsustainable in the long run. As Stanford’s Dr. Thrun opined in the New York Times, “I’m not at all against the on-campus experience. … I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.”

Which leads me to a (non-Swiftian) modest proposal: why couldn’t we try an experiment where a number of Canadian universities banded together to create a series of online foundational courses – Psychology 101 or Introduction to Chemistry, for example – that all of their students enrolled in those programs would take? The universities could be geographically linked, such as the six or seven universities in southwestern Ontario, or institutionally linked such as the institutions that make up the Université du Québec network. There would be a set, agreed-upon curriculum and the best lecturers from each university could prepare one or more of the online lectures while each institution would look after the grading of assignments and the provision of on-campus labs where appropriate. Finished the days of lecture halls filled with hundreds of first-year students.

Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, recently offered a (somewhat) similar vision: “It makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented.”

This is also somewhat along the lines of what Dr. Thrun has in mind, although he takes it much further. Again quoting from the New York Times: “Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone.”

I say let’s take the first step as I outlined above. Any takers?

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. Radu Guiasu / January 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    There are quite a few problems, in my opinion, with many online courses – some of them practical and some related to our general view of a what a good university education should be. Among the practical problems: the article above mentions on-line testing. It is not at all clear that we can evaluate what students really learned in a course, without real and properly invigilated exams in a university setting. If students submit all their assignments online, and are only tested online, as well, we have no way of knowing who is doing the work, and how much the students actually know about the course materials. There is also the problem of student identity. Theoretically, it is possible for somebody functionally illiterate to obtain a degree online. Furthermore, for courses such as Introductory Chemistry, or Biology, or Physics, etc., laboratory sessions are required, so the physical presence of students on campus will obviously be required for such courses. We certainly don’t want students conducting chemistry experiments at home, without proper supervision… The reality is that there is probably no good substitute, in the vast majority of cases, for an on-campus education. In order for university education to continue to be meaningful, and for university degrees to retain their value, I think on-campus education should always play a prominent role. Also, it should be acknowledged that the push for increasing on-line education is not always taking place for the best of reasons, in my opinion. Some students would rather take online courses because they don’t want to bother attending classes, and because they suspect such courses may be easier to pass (sometimes, these are the least motivated students, and they are looking for easier alternatives), and some professors may prefer on-line courses because they also want to avoid going to class and directly interacting with students in a classroom setting. It is very hard to believe that the quality of academic interactions between students and professors would actually improve, if we offer huge online courses to many thousands of students, from several different universities, at the same time (as suggested in the article above). To me, this sounds like a recipe for chaos. So, I think we should think hard before embracing online education unreservedly. Just because something is new and fashionable, it does not mean that it is an improvement on the current situation.

    Radu Guiasu
    Associate Professor and Coordinator
    Environmental and Health Studies Program
    Glendon College, York University

  2. Sharon-Dale Stone / January 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    “why couldn’t we try an experiment where a number of Canadian universities banded together to create a series of online foundational courses – Psychology 101 or Introduction to Chemistry, for example – that all of their students enrolled in those programs would take? The universities could be geographically linked, such as the six or seven universities in southwestern Ontario, or institutionally linked such as the institutions that make up the Université du Québec network. There would be a set, agreed-upon curriculum and the best lecturers from each university could prepare one or more of the online lectures while each institution would look after the grading of assignments and the provision of on-campus labs where appropriate. Finished the days of lecture halls filled with hundreds of first-year students.”

    With all due respect to Mr. Charbonneau, I am absolutely astounded to see someone seriously put forth such a proposal. While I could itemize at length the problems with the proposal, suffice it say that I am frightened to think that someone might think it is possible to objectively pass judgement on who is the “best” or what ought to count as essential foundational material in any particular subject. I would also pose the question: why stop at regional networks for an online course, why not have one course for the whole country, or perhaps the whole world (with appropriate language translation of course)? Down with the iconoclastic individual, onward to the brave new world!

    Sharon-Dale Stone
    Professor of Sociology
    Lakehead University

  3. David Harpp / January 25, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    We have been recording lectures at McGill since 2000 and presently have over 300 courses being recorded with a potential audience of ca. 50,000 on campus with many students who have up to 5 courses recorded per semester..

    What is proposed in the article is available.

  4. Joseph Fall / January 27, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    I do a fair bit of online instruction. What I find objectionable in the argument presented here is:

    1) it assumes there is a “best” curriculum and pedagogy for a given introductory subject. In my mind, an important part of academic progress comes from the variety and range of approaches – it is primarily through this experimentation at different institutions by different instructors that we improve the way we teach.

    2) it presents the “lecture” as THE model for teaching first-year classes. While this may be de facto at larger institutions, at my home institution, we continue to put a priority on small classes and innovative pedagogy. In my classes, I rarely “lecture” to my students – I present them with problems, and spend the class solving and discussing those problems together. You could not simply record that classroom experience and broadcast it – the value comes from the interaction, not from a fixed set of content.

    We have certainly found that the online environment provides a great medium for broadcasting learning materials, for engaging students in non-technical, asynchronous discussions, and even for conducting quizzes. But give me a in-person, classroom experience any day for actually “teaching”, which is so much more than “lecturing”.

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