Who needs a classroom?

Ontario Online Institute to pose challenges for students

Learning about Socrates through Facebook forums and chatting with a professor through Skype is the reality for students as e-learning claims a more dominant role in higher education.

Ontario is the latest jurisdiction to jump in with plans to launch the province’s first fully online university, and that has educators urging students to weigh their options carefully before deciding to turn their computer into a classroom. “Most people, if given the choice, would still prefer a traditional university,” said Glen Jones, an expert in higher education policy at the Ontario Institute for Education Studies in Toronto.

Related: Who needs a prof?

Jones said sometimes distance from a school, the necessity of full-time jobs and family obligations make going to university impossible. For these reasons, getting a degree online might be an attractive alternative.

But there are also drawbacks.

Sometimes the cost of clicking a mouse can be just as high as attending a university. Then there’s the lack of companionship that can sometimes make e-learning an isolating experience. And will employers value credentials earned online as much as they do those gained in a classroom?

Ontario hasn’t yet provided details on how its proposed Ontario Online Institute will work, saying only that the virtual school will offer e-courses from several universities as the province tries to produce a more educated workforce. “The ministry is working with college and universities to look at what they’re doing that has been really successful and how to improve the current system,” said Annette Phillips, a spokeswoman for the minister of colleges, training and universities.

But there are already several models across Canada and around the world for Ontario to borrow from. The University of Phoenix allows students from across the United States to earn online degrees. In the United Kingdom, Open University combines the traditional format of correspondence learning with online tools. Similarly, Alberta’s Athabasca University focuses solely on correspondence and online learning.

Richard Pinet, head of e-learning at the University of Ottawa, teaches faculty how to incorporate online tools into their classroom. He says academia in the Internet age has evolved dramatically. Pinet has used Skype for his “office hours,” as he meets with students online through the Internet program that allows people to make free video calls.

Another instructor at the university’s faculty of music has used video conferencing and sound recognition to teach a student at home how to play the piano. “The notion of any time, any place kinds of learning–that students can learn at their own pace–is an advantage to a lot of students who work,” said Pinet. “They can do this late at night, early in the morning or in their pyjamas,” he said. “In traditional face-to-face teaching the prof is kind of — I hate to say it — the sage on the stage, and what e-learning does is it looks at the prof like a guide on the side.”

Pinet says students at the University of Ottawa can earn a bachelor of education exclusively online. St. Paul’s University, an affiliate of the school, became one of the first institutions in Canada to offer PhD courses online.

Jones said while online learning is important, especially for students juggling busy lives and families, tuition can still be prohibitive. “People often assume distance education is inexpensive,” said Jones. “It’s not necessarily cheap.” Online learning replicates an in-person experience and programs still need faculty and the technology to deliver the course work.

Pinet said it can also be difficult for students to self-motivate when learning from home. “The other challenge is they have to learn how these online tools work and, if you’re technologically challenged or threatened, that can be a bit of a hurdle to overcome,” said Pinet.

Academics in the field also fear that online education could morph into a gaming-like environment, where instructors have to compete with short attention spans and constantly deliver interactive lessons.

There is also the question about the value of a degree earned exclusively online. Both Pinet and Jones said it’s difficult to assess how an employer would view an online degree, adding if the credential is bestowed by a reputable institution it shouldn’t matter how it was attained. Then again, it would also depend on the subject. “If I had a brain surgeon who took his degree online, I probably wouldn’t want that guy anywhere near me,” said Pinet with a laugh.

The Canadian Press