Who needs a classroom?

Ontario Online Institute to pose challenges for students


Learning about Socrates through Facebook forums and chatting with a professor through Skype is the reality for students as e-learning claims a more dominant role in higher education.

Ontario is the latest jurisdiction to jump in with plans to launch the province’s first fully online university, and that has educators urging students to weigh their options carefully before deciding to turn their computer into a classroom. “Most people, if given the choice, would still prefer a traditional university,” said Glen Jones, an expert in higher education policy at the Ontario Institute for Education Studies in Toronto.

Related: Who needs a prof?

Jones said sometimes distance from a school, the necessity of full-time jobs and family obligations make going to university impossible. For these reasons, getting a degree online might be an attractive alternative.

But there are also drawbacks.

Sometimes the cost of clicking a mouse can be just as high as attending a university. Then there’s the lack of companionship that can sometimes make e-learning an isolating experience. And will employers value credentials earned online as much as they do those gained in a classroom?

Ontario hasn’t yet provided details on how its proposed Ontario Online Institute will work, saying only that the virtual school will offer e-courses from several universities as the province tries to produce a more educated workforce. “The ministry is working with college and universities to look at what they’re doing that has been really successful and how to improve the current system,” said Annette Phillips, a spokeswoman for the minister of colleges, training and universities.

But there are already several models across Canada and around the world for Ontario to borrow from. The University of Phoenix allows students from across the United States to earn online degrees. In the United Kingdom, Open University combines the traditional format of correspondence learning with online tools. Similarly, Alberta’s Athabasca University focuses solely on correspondence and online learning.

Richard Pinet, head of e-learning at the University of Ottawa, teaches faculty how to incorporate online tools into their classroom. He says academia in the Internet age has evolved dramatically. Pinet has used Skype for his “office hours,” as he meets with students online through the Internet program that allows people to make free video calls.

Another instructor at the university’s faculty of music has used video conferencing and sound recognition to teach a student at home how to play the piano. “The notion of any time, any place kinds of learning–that students can learn at their own pace–is an advantage to a lot of students who work,” said Pinet. “They can do this late at night, early in the morning or in their pyjamas,” he said. “In traditional face-to-face teaching the prof is kind of — I hate to say it — the sage on the stage, and what e-learning does is it looks at the prof like a guide on the side.”

Pinet says students at the University of Ottawa can earn a bachelor of education exclusively online. St. Paul’s University, an affiliate of the school, became one of the first institutions in Canada to offer PhD courses online.

Jones said while online learning is important, especially for students juggling busy lives and families, tuition can still be prohibitive. “People often assume distance education is inexpensive,” said Jones. “It’s not necessarily cheap.” Online learning replicates an in-person experience and programs still need faculty and the technology to deliver the course work.

Pinet said it can also be difficult for students to self-motivate when learning from home. “The other challenge is they have to learn how these online tools work and, if you’re technologically challenged or threatened, that can be a bit of a hurdle to overcome,” said Pinet.

Academics in the field also fear that online education could morph into a gaming-like environment, where instructors have to compete with short attention spans and constantly deliver interactive lessons.

There is also the question about the value of a degree earned exclusively online. Both Pinet and Jones said it’s difficult to assess how an employer would view an online degree, adding if the credential is bestowed by a reputable institution it shouldn’t matter how it was attained. Then again, it would also depend on the subject. “If I had a brain surgeon who took his degree online, I probably wouldn’t want that guy anywhere near me,” said Pinet with a laugh.

The Canadian Press


Who needs a classroom?

  1. For online education it is important that a student must be aware of its drawback and benefits. Online learning requires students to be self-disciplined, keeping up with their studies of their own. If a student lacks time-management skills or is more of a dependent learner, the absence of in-classroom contact may be considered a disadvantage of online learning.

  2. There are so many misconceptions in this article that it is difficult for me to know where to start, but I shall try. First of all, employers (outside of some university professors who fear technology and change) have no problem with hiring students with distance education credentials. In fact reports from employers show that there is a preference for elearning students because they are perceived to be more , mature and independent. The “traditional university”as Jones refers to no longer exists in Canada. ALL Canadian universities use the internet and a wide range of digital communications as part of their courses or programmes.

    In Canada, students need basic computer and online skills in order to graduate from high school. When professors complain about students being uncomfortable with online tools the are all too often projecting their own insecurities. These are the same professors who fear the “morphing into video games” of learning. There is ample evidence that the use of games for learning is an extremely effective pedagogical approach. Moreover, knowing how to use online tools (including game) and having experience with them is an important job and research skill that is becoming essential for a modern education.

    There is a vast body of research that points to “no significant difference” no matter the technology or lack of it. There is NO evidence demonstrating that classroom teaching is the ultimate and only credible approach to learning. There is some evidence showing the opposite particularly classes that use the “sage on the stage” methodology.

    Finally, the last statement is so uninformed that as to be laughable. Medical professionals, including brain surgeons are among the heaviest users of the internet and online learning for upgrading their skills. I would not want to be operated on by a brain surgeon, who did NOT use elearning. Nor would I want one who was only educated in the classroom without practical experience in the operating theatre. Whatever you can do in the classroom, you can replicate online. IF you cannot do it in the classroom (practical on site activities), you generally cannot do it online.

    By the way, our university has consistently rated above other universities in student satisfaction since this measure was introduced by the Alberta government.

    Rory McGreal
    Assoc. VP Research
    Athabasca University

  3. As a total aside, it’s “Saint Paul University”, not “St. Paul’s University”.

    Also, there is an affiliation agreement between the two universities – the article makes it read as if Saint Paul is some sort of college of the larger University of Ottawa, and that’s not really so.

  4. Online or in a classroom- it very much depends on what one puts into their studies and which program etc. There is no “right” answer to such a complex topic.

    I have taken courses at different universities and found Athabasca U quite good- which was online. But, I did love the university experience at Acadia University as well.

    Both can be beneficial.

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