Moving where the students are: Trent’s push into online courses

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The nature of work has changed in university life to embrace the digital tools at our disposal.

The Internet provides a vast resource for academic research and forums for discussion. And while most acknowledge the facility it provides for research in academics, the question remains and is currently being meted out as to what presence a university should have online.

Building off of the ubiquity of online academia, universities have begun pushing the frontier of online courses. Online courses take advantage of programs like Blackboard and Moodle that provide an interface for education regardless of spatio-temporal limits. Students and faculty can be flexible regarding when they complete course requirements, as online courses do not require presence in a classroom.

The benefits to the university in terms of finances are astronomical. An article in the Economist, entitled “The Digital Degree”, writes that online courses are a tool in the arsenal of universities to make them more attractive to potential students. For example, such American universities as Harvard and Stanford have created affiliated online platforms for the distribution of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) free of charge.

Certain other online universities, like Athabasca University, charge for their courses but provide officially recognized degrees to students.

The struggle for universities comes from making their experience more valuable than taking a free online course. The Economist predicts that only small schools with low teacher-student ratios will remain relevant in a new age of free universities. Lucky for Trent, this is one of our selling points.

Yet, in looking at trends of our university, this is not the priority highlighted by administrators. Rather than pushing our comparative advantage, rhetoric of remaining competitive in the online market is common.

Arthur met with Mary Jane Pilgrim, co-ordinator of the Trent Online and Distance Education department, who stressed that Trent students are seeking online courses and we may as well provide them.

“We are in the game of online learning whether we’re doing it ourselves or not,” said Pilgrim. “[Trent] is either in the online learning game by being a spectator or by actually promoting and developing the courses that the students want offered online.”

For students and faculty, online courses can provide the flexibility to participate in courses according to their own schedule and economic trends are showing that students seek out online credits to supplement their degrees. By offering them at the home school, Trent students are spared the cost of enrolment fees and often out-of-province fees.

At Trent, the bulk of online courses are offered during the summer semester, and student spending during this season indicates a demand for flexible courses. A majority of students seek employment during the summer break and for those who need to upgrade a course mark or get ahead in their credits, they need to work around employment schedules.

This past year, enrolment in online courses during the summer term eclipsed enrolment in classroom courses.

Questions have been raised about the realization in online courses of Trent University’s vision for an intimate, tutorial based learning environments. The intention when founding Trent was to stimulate academic discussion at every turn and provide students grounds to find their voice.

Online courses are broken into small groups, which organize the forum for students to engage in discussions. The format of discussion is different than classroom seminars, but the level of engagement remains.

Pilgrim explains, “In face-to-face seminars you’re sitting down in classroom and trying to make yourself heard; if you’re working in an online environment you have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for you to give your opinion on whatever is being discussed. I think it results in a more equal playing field where every student has a voice.”

Every student, who can discipline himself or herself adequately to complete the course, will find online courses an appropriate venue for degree completion. For those students that lack the self-discipline, online courses can be disappointing. The drop-out rate is holding at 20%, which is only 5% greater than the drop-out rate for classroom courses.

Pilgrim feels that the benefit of online courses is not only in the course material being transferred but also with soft skills of Internet literacy. “I think that what [students] are learning with the online courses is how to interact with the media and with each other in the digital fashion.” A skill that will be highly relevant for graduates in workplaces revolving around digital media.

It is clear that the Trent Online team is working to make online courses fit with the university’s core values and courses which best suit the needs of students. There has been and continues to be drive from the administration to increase the offerings of online courses.

University President Leo Groarke and Chancellor Don Tapscott are heavy proponents of online learning, they further have the capacity to shape university priorities.

In an interview with Arthur, published on October 14, Groarke said, “I think that Trent, along with every other university, needs to expand in the direction of digital learning and we need to do so in a way that’s in keeping with what our core identity is and that is by stressing interaction, feedback, discussion, and active learning. This is an example of how we can change while still staying the same and I think that’s what we have to do.”

It remains to be seen how online programming will evolve at Trent, but it is clear that digital media is shaping the priorities of the university.

I can only hope that those policies makers retain the core of Trent’s values in their decisions for future courses, online and in classrooms.

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