Report recommends more online post-secondary learning

The head of a national post-secondary student organization says Ontario’s plans for online learning won’t improve learning or save the system money.

In February, a leaked report to the Ontario government indicated the province was considering the benefits of converting a third of university and college courses to the online realm. The leaked report, called, “3×3,” outlines plans to strengthen the post-secondary education system by providing easy to access online courses for students.

However, Toby Whitfield, national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students, a collection of student unions and representatives, believes the plan would cripple the learning experience of students.

“There is value in being in class and participating in a more traditional setting,” Whitfield said. “This … is really the government looking for ways to deliver education more cheaply and we take issue with that.”

Outlined in the report, the new initiative will have students enrolled in as many as three online courses of a full five-class semester. In addition, it would implement three-year undergraduate degrees and a longer summer semester for year-round schooling. Whitfield said the plan is a way to deflate the high cost of Ontario schooling. According to Statistics Canada, the average Ontario tuition fee is around $7,000, compared to Quebec or Nova Scotia where it’s $3,000-5,000.

“I think that there is a notion that online education is cheaper to deliver and we know that’s not always the case,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield believes there’s a lot of room for government to shift to a model with smaller and more frequent classes instead of moving student course loads to online only. However, Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at University of Toronto Scarborough campus (UTSC), said there’s been a bit of confusion in regards to the leaked report.

“When the Ontario government suggested the report, what they meant is that … (universities) would grant students from different areas a way to get their degrees, in addition to offering more online options,” Joordens said.

Joordens suggested if a university student from Sudbury wanted a psych degree he or she could theoretically take classes at University of Toronto or any other academic institution and still get the credit. Aside from bringing in more money from students, the initiative would allow a greater focus on the online portion for what Joordens sees as a way to create a more engaging way to learn.

“What we’re doing is making online courses more about getting students to use what they learn in active ways which promotes deeper learning of the material,” Joordens said. “And the government is pushing to see evidence of this.”

As one of the creators of UTSC’s Weboption lecture, which streams online classes, Joordens said it’s a more interactive learning environment on the web for his students. For example, he would assign articles for his class to critique as well as provide articles from the web to support their statements. Then, their work would be evaluated and revised by their peers. According to Joordens, this encourages better learning.

“We’re promoting an active environment that goes beyond sitting in a lecture as well as giving busy students the flexibility to choose to actually physically be in class or have the convenience to watch it later,” Joordens said.

Although Whitfield remains skeptical about these new ideas, he agrees with Joordens that the role of online education should enhance the material in school and provide options for students.

“We need to see … students graduating with a high quality education online or off,” Whitfield said.

The “3×3” report is still in the discussion stage.