No incentive for online courses

We would be increasing access, but access to something less valuable


You’re a professor at U of T. You get an email from the dean saying you can get up to $12,000 more in funding for your course if you redesign it to be fully online by the fall, an incentive covered in our news section this week. It’s part of Ontario’s $8.5-million project to develop online courses in preparation for the launch of a $42-million centre called “Ontario Online” (whose steering committee, according to the president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, quoted in a Globe and Mail article, includes no faculty). Do you take the money?

I, for one, am wary. First of all—but this is to be expected—let’s be direct that all the benefits of online courses given in U of T’s 2014 “Online Undergraduate Course Initiative” document concern increasing enrolment (first-year, transfer, and international specifically). So this has to do with increasing class sizes. Now, developing new courses is one thing, but redesigning them is another. And making classes bigger benefits the budget, not the professors or students (in terms of academics and comfort). After all, if funding is offered as an incentive, the motivation isn’t organic. It means that either someone somewhere along the line will make a profit or it’s charity intended to ensure Ontario Online gets a smooth instead of a rocky start.

We should also pause and read the Globe and Mail article linked in the very email asking professors to redesign courses. We would encounter this sentence: “Mr. [Brad] Duguid looked to assuage concerns from students that it might erode the in-class experience, saying ‘the idea of this initiative is not to replace classroom learning’. ”

But even creating new courses is iffy. Depending on how much they’re promoted­ as the norm—and harmless policies, as one of the faculty pointed out to me, often develop into guides for the distribution of resources—they could mean a dilution of quality.

Does that sound curmudgeonly?

To my mind, what we mostly pay for when we pay tuition is the professor’s time, presence, and attention. We can read textbooks on our own. And (yes, this is in response to the growing trend I’ve noticed in classes) we can watch YouTube on our own—for free. What’s left is the chance to hear the professor, talk to them, and visit them after class.

A friend pursuing a master’s in education points out that we don’t understand e-learning enough to implement it widely, and adds that if we can replace lectures with videos, something’s up with our educational model; we’re not making full use of our resources.

This is besides issues like the greater necessity of self-discipline, the terribly low conpletion rates of massive open online courses, and the difficulty of engaging critical thinking without easily ccessible peer stimulation. Right now, in nearly every course I’ve been in, students’ online communication consists of emails asking for notes and solitudinous, one-thread discussion boards. Do we make these the only means of contact between classmates and hope everyone picks up the ball?

We should be asking such questions before taking money to put our courses online. If I were a prof, I would.


Luke Sawczak