Shift to online learning raises concerns with students

Student organizations on Canadian college and university campuses are casting a wary eye on an Ontario initiative to add more online courses to their programming.

Toby Whitfield, a national executive for the Canadian Federation of Students believes the plan would cripple the learning experience of students.

Whitfield was reacting to a plan floated last month by the Ontario government to study the benefits of converting a third of university and college courses to the online realm.

A leaked report called, “3×3” outlines plans to strengthen the post-secondary education system by providing easy to access online courses for students

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

Outlined in the report, the new initiative will have students enrolled in as many as three online courses out of a full five class semester. In addition, it would implement three-year undergraduate degrees and a longer summer semester for year round schooling.

For Whitfield, the plan is a way to decrease the high budget of Ontario post secondary education costs, which already surpasses our neighbouring provinces.

According to Statistics Canada, Ontario undergraduate fees continue to climb, with the average tuition fee around $7,000 in comparison to Quebec or Nova Scotia that range between $3,000 and 5,000.

According to Whitfield, governments believe a turn to more online focused courses would utilize fewer resources such as class utilities and lecture space, which could save government dollars.

“I think that there is a notion that online education is cheaper to deliver and we know that’s not always the case. Servers are costly and if the system crashes many students will be left in the dark,” said Whitfield.

Whitfield believes there’s a lot of room for government to shift to a model where there are smaller and more frequent classes instead of moving student course loads to online only.

However, Steve Joordens, Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, says there is some confusion regarding the report.

“When the Ontario government suggested the report, what they meant is that there would be an overarching institute that would grant students from different areas a way to get their degree in addition to offering more online options on top of regular schooling,” said Joordens.

According to Joordens, this means that if a current university student from Sudbury wanted a psychology degree they could theoretically take classes at University of Toronto or any other academic institutions and still get the credit.

Aside from bringing in more money from students it 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 and the government is pushing to see evidence of this,” said Joordens.

As one of the creators of University of Toronto Scarborough’s Weboption lecture, which streams online classes, Joordens has found that his it’s a more interactive learning environment on the web for his students.

For example, he will assign articles for his class to critique as well as provide articles from the web to support their statements. Shortly after their work will be evaluated and revised by their peers, according to Joordens this encourages better learning.

“Through students engaging each other 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,” said Joordens.

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 stay as an option for students who don’t have time to attend lectures.

“Post secondary education is important to all of us, so what we need to see are students graduating with a high quality education online or off,” said Whitfield.

As of now the “3×3” report is still in the discussion stages with Ontario government.