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Margin Notes

Core courses delivered online: a proposal, take 2

Curriculum would be devised through a collaborative effort of participating institutions.


In a previous post last month, I proposed an experiment whereby a number of core courses (think Psychology 101, for example) would be taught online, perhaps to several thousand students at a time at a number of collaborating universities.  I received a few thoughtful comments, but the proposal didn’t get quite the airing I had hoped. I also was a bit scant on some of the details of this hypothetical experiment, so consider this a second kick at the can.

First, I chose first-year foundational courses because there is the greatest possibility of achieving some economies of scale in program delivery because of the numbers involved. It might also be a good way to introduce students, right in first year, to the potential of online learning (assuming you believe in the potential of online learning).

The curriculum would be devised through a collaborative effort of faculty members in that discipline, at the participating institutions, who have a particular interest in pedagogical innovation. Ideally, the experiment would be funded through a research grant with the outcomes followed, rigorously studied and built upon.

The emphasis of the courses would be online content delivery, likely through recorded lectures but also using other online methods and media (mobile technology, perhaps?). I am far from an expert in this area, so I leave it to others to propose their ideas. The courses should also emphasize collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. The online content could be supplemented by study groups, labs or team projects to have students meet and work face to face.

Of course, an open question to such a proposal is whether it would actually be less costly to deliver. I don’t have an answer to that, but I do think universities need to find ways to lower costs. One could argue that teaching resources is not the place to start looking for cost savings at universities, and that’s a legitimate view. But let’s leave that discussion for later and assume simply that budgets are tight and every area of the institution will be called on to do their part.

One commenter to my earlier post was horrified by the proposal (actually, “frightened” and “astounded” were the words she used). She also asked, sarcastically and rhetorically, “Why stop at regional networks for an online course, why not have one course for the whole country?” My simple response is that, education being a provincial responsibility, that is not going to happen. But why, indeed, could there not be something like a province-wide “core curriculum consortium,” run by universities, that delivered a series of optional foundational courses online for all to take?

Note that I am not advocating, nor believe, that online delivery is the great “disrupter” it has been promoted to be, nor do I believe that it will one day replace the campus experience – which, for the record, I feel is an invaluable component of a university education, as is face-to-face learning with engaged faculty. But this proposal is only for a few first-year courses. There would still be lots of opportunity in the smaller, upper-year courses for classroom-based teaching and learning.

That’s my pitch. Your thoughts?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Radu Guiasu / February 22, 2012 at 18:46

    I submitted a reasonably detailed reply to the first article about this issue, and, since a second article was now published on this topic, and further input was requested, I don’t mind adding a few more comments. Aside from my previously expressed reservations regarding huge courses and online learning, I note that the article above (just like the previous one on this topic) seems to focus mainly on cutting costs and little else, while remaining quite vague about many potential practical and pedagogical problems. Again, if all testing is done online, and if students submit all their assignments online, how can we really be sure who is doing the work? I know the students in my courses personally, and I can directly monitor their progress. I am entirely responsible for the material I teach in each class, and I mark each student test, exam and assignment. With huge courses, and shared responsibility among many instructors and institutions, I think the possibility (or even likelihood) of chaos and administrative overlap and gridlock is always there. The bureaucracy needed for such courses is likely to significantly add to the costs as well. Who would be ultimately in charge of such courses? And who would offer help and assistance to students who may need and request such help? If, say, 20 different professors put together such a course, could any one of these professors answer for all the others?
    The article mentions that this would introduce students to the potential of online education right in their first year. In my experience, and having listened to students describe their experiences in huge first year courses, such enormous and impersonal courses tend to be a nightmare for many students, and many are quite discouraged by such experiences. The ones who survive such courses told me that they only started to enjoy their university experience once they had the opportunity to take more advanced courses in smaller groups, and began to interact with professors in a classroom setting. I know costs are a factor, but perhaps we should strive to reduce class sizes, rather than propose even larger and more impersonal courses based mainly on pre-recorded lectures… This is unlikely to inspire most students, and would not really prepare them for the experience and challenges of more advanced courses held in real classrooms.
    It also seems to me that another way of reducing class sizes in first year courses would be to have some types of entrance exams, to select only suitably well qualified students for admission into such courses (and into university). While I strongly believe in making university education as accessible as possible, the truth is that quite a few first year university students do not seem to have the academic skills required for a university education. As a result, many of these students find their university experience frustrating, and quite a few drop out after their first year. It is hard to see how huge online courses would help such students improve their academic skills.
    This would take too long to discuss in depth, and I do have some tests to mark, but I never fully understood why offering online courses is considered “innovative pedagogy”. Just because one uses technology to deliver a lecture, does not mean that one is an innovative educator. Anyone can pre-record a lecture. Also “innovative educator” is not necessarily equivalent to “good educator” or even “competent educator”. Doing a good job while teaching requires a high level of genuine expertise in the subject matter of the course, dedication, respect for the students, and hard work, first and foremost, and these are “old fashioned” principles which, in my experience, have always formed, and will always form, an essential part of good teaching. The important part is just how knowledgeable and well prepared a professor is, and how able and willing he or she may be to teach the material and answer student questions about the material taught in class. In my experience, most students appreciate having a knowledgeable, hard working, and fair minded professor who treats all students with respect, while at the same time maintaining high academic standards. It is not clear how students can assess, or relate to, a professor while watching a pre-recorded lecture on a computer screen.
    And, as a final point, since I mentioned student assessments of professors, and the topic is online education, in my courses, students still complete old fashioned students evaluation forms, by hand, at the end of each course, and the participation rate is typically about 80 or 90% (since most students attend my classes regularly). I am aware that for some other courses, in some other faculties, online evaluations have replaced classroom student evaluations. As a direct result, the rate of student participation has dropped significantly. For example, in one course with about 160 students, only 2 students completed online evaluations of their courses. So, as a result of the switch to online course evaluations, meaningful student feedback and input has been virtually eliminated for many courses.

    Dr. Radu Guiasu
    Associate Professor and Coordinator
    Environmental and Health Studies Program
    Glendon College, York University

  2. JoVE / February 23, 2012 at 10:31

    Many universitis offer several sections of intro courses without any coordination of content or pedagogy beyond a basic outline. It seems that coordinating such a common course amongst several institutions would be even more difficult,

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