Online education vs. bricks and mortar

It’s not easy balancing school and work, but Lisa Harris found a way to cut corners and save time in her busy schedule. Although she was enrolled in five courses at Concordia University last semester, she only had to be present for four. For her fifth class, Recreation and Leisure in Contemporary Societies, she attended classes whenever and however she pleased – in her pajamas, on lazy Sunday afternoons, in the comfort of her or her boyfriend’s home, whatever was convenient for her.

“You don’t have a set class time so you can do your work when it’s convenient for you,” said Harris, a third-year communications and journalism student.

Her entire course was offered over the Internet. She interacted with other students through discussion forums. She only met her teacher twice, but was in contact with him over e-mail and if she really needed to see him, he had office hours every week. She handed in her assignments, mid-terms and finals by clicking on the ‘save’ icon conveniently designed by her teacher. And if she ran into trouble in the middle of the night and she couldn’t get an answer right away, Harris could refer to her coursepack.

Harris is just one of thousands of Canadian students who are taking advantage of the flexibility and convenience of distance education, known as DE. One of the Canadian Association for Distance Education’s definitions of it is “planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching and as a result requires special techniques of course design, special instructional techniques, special methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as a special organizational and administrative arrangements.”

But various professors have their personal definitions of DE and design their courses accordingly. Some believe that it’s communication through e-mail. Others design courses mixed with in-class sessions and online assignments. But more and more professors are designing their material, from assignments to finals, for the Net.

So far, many Canadian universities are experimenting with transferring some courses to the Internet. Athabasca University in Alberta is a rare example of a Canadian university that offers entire programs over the Net. The bug hasn’t bitten Canadians very hard yet, but when it does, what will be the quality and credibility of these courses and programs?

“You could have a whole bunch of bells and whistles going off, but no substance,” said Dr. Arshad Ahmad, a finance professor in Concordia University’s Commerce and Administration department, who developed an on-line personal finance course. He said that “just as there are poor quality on-campus courses,” there will probably be bad online courses, too; it all depends on the design of the course.

“Before people start saying that there’s a lack of quality in distance education, they must see the structure of the course first,” said Ahmad.

Concordia’s Provost and Vice-Rector Research, Dr. Jack Lightstone, has dabbled with the idea of DE and has certain elements of his religion course posted on the Internet. He said that online courses could provide the same quality in professional material, but he doesn’t believe it can give the same academic experience as an in-class course.

“Students need the structured context that a university provides,” said Lightstone. He sees online courses being more beneficial for students who already have a diploma and are coming back to update their skills. “They already have the discipline to be successful in the university,” he said.

Both Lightstone and Ahmad agree that distance learning is something that students want and need. Lightstone pointed out that 70% of Concordia’s full-time students work and 40% of the students are part-time, so they appreciate the flexibility of these courses.

“Our social mission is to make university more accessible. It’s a real contribution to education considering the demography of the students,” said Lightstone.

But as more courses are being designed to fit students’ needs, the structure must be well thought out. Harris said that her professor had all of his exams over the Internet. He set out a specific day when they all had to do the exam, and they had an allotted time to finish it section by section. She explained that one could not really cheat because the time constraints were so limited that if you went over the allotment time, you couldn’t submit your exam for grading.

“If someone wants to cheat, they will cheat,” said Andrew McAusland, director of Concordia’s Academic Technology for Arts and Science. He said that there will always be an opportunity, but they’re trying to lessen the inclination to cheat.

One of the ways he tries to control cheating in the six on-line courses he designed, is through the structure of the grading scheme and requiring students to do finals in class. McAusland explained that it would be impossible for the student to pass the final if they didn’t know the material of the previous work. He doesn’t believe there’s any other way to have a legitimate exam.

“If it’s a credit-based environment, like a course for university credits, credibility is everything,” he said.

Although professors are trying their best to recreate the learning experience, there are some things, like the human element, that just can’t be replaced. Despite this, Harris appreciated not having to go into class.

The danger with getting hooked on such courses and programs is that it can weaken students’ people skills.

According to Gregg Blachford, director of McGill’s Career and Placement Services, ‘soft skills’ such as interpersonal, communication and teamwork skills, are still in big demand.

“More employers are still looking for soft skills because they can teach the technical skills,” said Blachford. “It’s harder to teach someone to talk.”

He also said that students’ employability is made of several elements, and if web literacy is one of them, it’s an asset to the student, especially to those in Arts and Science programs.

“Some employers have the impression that Arts and Science students are less computer literate than others,” said Blachford. “Taking distance learning courses help to prove they have skills.”

Ahmad said that corporations have started getting into the act. “Business is more clever in understanding technology. They may start offering their own degrees online because they think they can do it better.” He also foresees traditional education running into some trouble.

“Open universities are a threat to traditional education,” said Ahmad, because students will get the same education but on their own time and with richly designed material.

Lightstone, however, is not convinced that open universities will have such an impact . “I believe the drop out rates will be high,” said Lightstone. “Too many students wouldn’t have the discipline to finish the program.”

“Therefore, all factors considered, I believe that a mix of online and in-class courses will give our students the benefits of flexibility, a structured environment and the social interaction they need to complete their studies.”

As convenient and accommodating as distance learning may be, traditional education may be around for a while because there are some courses that can’t be easily transformed into digital form. As McAusland said, “Would you like a doctor who only took online courses to cut you open? I don’t think so.”

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