Click here for an education

As the Internet becomes a part of everyday life, more and more businesses and interest groups are discovering the advantages of using the World Wide Web. Concordia University is one such entity, putting educational services and courses online.

“From a student’s aspect, the Net is a fact of life, and it’s good that we give them something to do serious work and concentrate on, as opposed to just surfing,” said Dr. Peter Stoett, a political science professor.

Stoett has been teaching Contemporary Issues in Global Politics online for the past three years, with an enrollment of at least 120 students every semester. His class is so popular that whenever someone drops out, there’s usually another student ready to fill the position. Stoett, who worked with the distance learning program at the University of Guelph, said there are a lot of advantages in putting certain classes online. “It’s really designed to open up the accessibility of the course.”

According to Stoett, online courses are very interactive, which is a priority in his class. The advantage of class location is also two-fold. Since students can take the class from anywhere around the world, Stoett said it’s very interesting for a global politics class when students are physically out of the continent. Teaching a class online was also convenient for Stoett last semester when he taught for a month from Kenya.

But what the killer applications seem to be for online courses are the convenience and flexibility for students of staying at home and taking classes whenever they like. “A lot of them take the class so that they can do their homework at three in the morning,” said Stoett.

This proved useful for Melissa Duncan, a 3rd-year journalism student, who reduced her course load to part-time status for personal reasons last semester. One of the two courses she took over the Internet was Intro to Anthropology.

“I want to graduate. I didn’t want to fall behind. I wanted to stay in the mode of being in school,” Duncan said.

She also appreciated the convenience of being able to ‘take the class’ whenever she wished. “I didn’t feel alienated just because I was at home. In a way it’s setup better than a classroom cause you can always get in touch with somebody for help. Some classes you can manage passing without talking to anyone,” she said.

Dr. Arshad Ahmad is another Concordia instructor whose course is now provided online. “Our number one concern is access and convenience. You have to take into consideration the Concordia [student] community. A lot of them are working, may have children, and have busy schedules. [With online courses] they can learn at their own pace and own time,” professor Ahmad said.

Ahmad has been teaching at Concordia since 1982. Last year when he put his Personal Finance course online and opened it to students from all faculties, enrollment jumped from 50 to 450 students. He said the only enrollment restriction to his class is how many students he’s willing to take. Apart from administrative duties, the online course and a similar online graduate level course now take up all his time. “My plate is so full with these, that I don’t have time to teach anything else.”

Putting his Personal Finance course online was part of Ahmad’s doctoral dissertation towards a PhD in education. It turned into an “enormous case study” for his investigation into how students learn.

He said he worked at break-neck speed with IITS to put his class online within a year, when the usual time required to design a course is two to three years. “I miss the interaction, the physical presence, but I didn’t see line-ups of students in front of my door [before I put my class online].”

Ahmad said his Web site has components that follow the three necessities for a good class, outside of teachers and textbooks. First, it includes interactive tools that allow students to get hands-on experience with what they’re learning, in this case personal finance material like tax returns and stock investments. Second, the site provides practice opportunities for students, such as mock-quizes,

case studies, and questions. Third, the Web site and course are designed so that students work together, since Dr. Ashad believes students learn better that way. Students are encouraged to work in teams and find expert sources from outside the school.

“The model is very different than where the instructor is the king and everyone picks from his expertise. I wanted to spread out the expertise. It’s better for the students if you have at your fingertips a way of getting six experts’ points of view,” Ahmad said.

Jay Lin was one of the test students in the first semester of Dr. Ashad’s online class. At the time, the 21-year-old economics major was taking four other classes and also working as a part-time computer consultant. What attracted him to the course were the convenience of studying in the comfort of his own home and travel time saved. However, his impressions of the online format are mixed.

Apart from finding the young course somewhat disorganized, he found the flexibility and lack of specific deadlines and class times slightly disorienting.

“The online class really got sort of tiring, cause there’s no [personal] interaction. You’re just looking at a screen or chapter in a textbook. And if you have a question, you have to e-mail it in. The answer you get back might not be what you wanted,” Lin said.

The Dean of the faculty of Arts and Science, Dr. Martin Singer, echoed a common opinion. He believes that online education is not intended to replace the classroom, nor does he believe that it soon will. Rather, he said the Net is intended to enhance and suppliment the university experience.

“They didn’t close The Bay when E-bay went online, we won’t have to close the university because a university is much more than classrooms. There are multiple parts– extracurricular activities and social interaction are also part of student life,” Singer said.

Ahmad said many instituitions have toyed with the idea of ‘virtual universities’, putting whole schools and programs online and that there are just as many failure stories as successful ones.

Concordia University has taken advantage of the Net for years, as a brochure, course calendar and personal student information menu. But more classes are also starting to have a Net component, even if they are still classroom-based. Singer’s History of China course was one of the first to provide online class notes, syllabuses and video clips of lectures to students who may have missed a class. Contrary to what some may think, attendance increased following the introduction of these tools and Dean Singer found that students were more free to pay attention and interact during class.

He also believes there is still room for expansion on the field, hoping to someday have guest lecturers and to teleconference job interviews over the Net. Singer already knows of a case where a Canadian student in a foreign country was able to learn more about that country online, and of another student, who jumped at a good job offer, who was still able to finish his degree online.

“Part of our mission is to be flexible, integrative, and responsible to our community,” Singer said.

The university recently received a $1.25 million grant from the McConnell Foundation that intends to further the use of technology for educational purposes. Once the case study at Concordia is completed, it is hoped that the results will be disseminated to universities across Canada.

Singer and public relations officer Derek Cassoff said the school has received accolades for putting courses from various programs online, as opposed to only traditional high-tech courses.

However, they also add that very few courses are translatable to the Internet, usually introductory information courses. Ahmad guessed that less than one per cent of his faculty’s courses are online. The decision to go online with a class is purely voluntary for the instructor, and Stoett believes that there are probably many teachers who are weary of the new technology.

Some concerns brought forward by teachers were that the administration will continue to use online education as a cost-saving measure. Also, the same question of quality must be raised with online classes as those offline, including course evaluations.

But the unanimous caution was directed towards students– online courses are not easy. Ahmad found that some students were really not prepared for the extra

requirements, expecting an easy time. “The onus of learning really shifts to the students, there’s a lot more responsibility and discipline required. Students procrastinate as much online as they do offline,” said Ahmad.

Duncan said that a student has to stay on-track. It’s very hard to slack and pass. She said she wouldn’t mind taking another online course, but this time she’d put more thought into the course she chose and not just take it for convenience sake.

“It’s not meant for someone who’s looking to take an easy class. It’s a lot harder cause it’s all upon the individual,” Duncan said.

In the end, Lin found the course of medium difficulty as well as an okay experience. “Be sure to have a lot of paper in sight, cause you’re going to print a lot. All you do is waste your ink and paper.”

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