Spring and summer are generally quiet times on university campuses – but not at Brock University. The university, located in southern Ontario’s Niagara Region, is quickly expanding course offerings in its spring-summer term to meet the strong demand from students like Renata Di Cienzo.
Ms. Di Cienzo, a 43-year-old single mother with a full-time job, has been working towards an undergraduate degree in public health part-time for eight years. “It’s a lot,” she admits. “My downtime is my study time.”
Brock’s spring-summer courses have helped immensely, she says, because some of the classes are compressed and accelerated while others are offered partly or fully online. Last year she used a week of vacation time to enrol in a half-credit course, The Art of the Clown Doctor, that was delivered at Brock’s St. Catharines campus over five days. This year, Ms. Di Cienzo enrolled in an online course that runs from May to July – an “ideal” set-up for mature, part-time students, she says. She’d like to see Brock offer even more courses, particularly online classes, in the spring-summer term so that she can complete her degree more quickly.
It’s something that Anna Lathrop, Brock’s vice-provost, teaching and learning, is working towards. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a huge demand for spring-summer courses,” says Dr. Lathrop.
In its strategic mandate agreement submitted to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Brock pledged to double enrolments in the spring-summer term over five years as it moves towards a tri-semester academic year. Enrolments for the term rose 17 percent to about 11,000 in 2013 from the previous year; they are expected to increase 15 percent this year. Brock predicts that enrolments could reach more than 19,000 by 2017. Many schools offer courses in the spring and summer but Brock is unusual in the emphasis it has placed on expanding its spring-summer term and in making it one of the university’s distinguishing features.
The courses attract traditional Brock students who want to repeat a course, transfer majors or get a jump on the coming year’s work. They also appeal to mature part-time learners, like Ms. Di Cienzo, and students enrolled at other institutions who are home for the summer and want to pick up an extra credit through a letter of permission. Brock’s housing services offers short stays of up to two weeks in the spring and summer to accommodate some of these students.
Many of them are attracted by the mix of accelerated courses – which Brock calls Supercourses – and online learning options. The format “fits the needs and desires of students without compromising academic content,” says Brent Faught, professor of epidemiology. Some of his past students in the spring-summer term included public health employees, a retired elementary school teacher and a computer programmer who had left Brock 30 years earlier just two credits shy of earning a degree to accept a job offer; the student, since retired, had returned to complete it.
Dr. Faught teaches a first-year full-credit course, Introduction to Community Health Sciences, over two weeks and a fourth-year half-credit course, Clinical Epidemiology, over one week. The classes run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and students write their final exam on a Saturday. The course content, tests and assignments are identical to those given to students in Dr. Faught’s fall and winter classes. But class time in the Supercourses is a few hours longer. Next year, Dr. Faught plans to offer an online course in the spring-summer session to complement the face-to-face ones he gives now.
He and a colleague recently launched a study to test the knowledge retention of students in the accelerated courses and compare that to outcomes in traditional classes, by testing the students three, six and 12 months after completing the course. He expects to have the results within a year.
Early indications are that students fare as well, if not better, in Supercourses: the class average of final marks in one of Dr. Faught’s first-year Supercourses was eight percent higher than for the traditional format classes. In his fourth-year course, the class average was virtually the same. In surveys, those who had taken the Supercourses said they’d gained time-management skills and learned to ask for a professor’s help immediately when they didn’t understand a concept.
Dr. Faught says he believes the condensed format of Supercourses benefits students with learning disabilities, perhaps because they can more easily recall the material, although he hasn’t studied this formally. “I was always concerned that these students would be further disadvantaged in the Supercourse,” he says, “but in the experiences I’ve had over four years, I think they are advantaged.”
Moving towards year-round learning helps the university too. Classroom space is at a premium at Brock, as it is at many universities, and offering courses from May to August helps alleviate the space crunch, says Dr. Lathrop, the vice-provost. It also gives Brock an added revenue stream. While many universities host conferences in the spring and summer months to generate additional income, Brock estimates that revenues from spring-summer enrolments could reach $6.5 million by 2017.
I think it’s funny that Brock speaks of expanding enrollments when they tell their stakeholders that enrollment is down; a major contributing factor in their reported budget crisis. It also begs the question of how Brock plans to support this increase in students and course offerings after laying off over 80 staff members as a result of budget cuts, with more to come. These are questions that Brock Students and Faculty should be asking.