I’ve had online learning on the brain lately: I’m taking a summer course this year—part three of a three-part specialist certification—and although I took the first two parts online over the past three years, I actually hoped to take it in person this time.
My last online experience was mediocre at best, and since I’m not doing camp this summer, I wanted a social activity. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that both of the two local universities that might run the course are offering only online versions!
How ironic that online learning is touted as this big money saver, and then they lose a local customer by not offering the live deal—I figured if I had to take it online anyway, I may as well go with the non-local university where I did the first two parts, since they have all my transcripts and info already and since I know their system by now.
Days after completing my registration, this article came my way via the alumni magazine of my alma mater, Queen’s University. Titled “Online Learning Comes of Age,” it profiles students taking online courses for various reasons: a mature student who plugs away at his course work via distance learning so he can continue to work at his job while he studies; an undergraduate who ‘economized’ during his final year by moving back in with his parents in another city and completing his remaining courses online; and people like me who take summer courses to upgrade their skills and enhance their professional portfolio.
The article points out that distance education is not as new a phenomenon as people make it out to be. Queen’s University, in fact, has had a distance education department since 1888! It’s only the format that has changed. I’m taking a hideous online training that involves a seemingly bottomless pit of video I must watch. (I don’t learn best this way, and it’s been torture.)
And the University of Western Ontario, where I’ll be taking my summer course, as in the past supplemented the standard assignments with a participation component where you must post to a message board a minimum of every three days in order to pass the course. I don’t know what changes they’ve made in the two years since my last course, but I do know that the welcome email said there is no textbook for this one. The course material will be supplemented by ‘online readings’ which will presumably be provided later.
Another interesting take on online learning came my way via this article on Coursera, purveyor of open online courses for the masses. They are proposing using these ‘massive open’ courses as a way for live universities to save money via strategic partnership:
“For some partners, Coursera could enable various campuses within a system to pool resources, which could be particularly helpful as state schools face tighter budgets. For example, one campus could create an effective Introduction to Biology class, another could create an Introduction to Psychology and the courses could be shared by students across the system.”
Personally, I have yet to explore Coursera’s offerings much—I have limited my online course-taking to stuff for which I can get real-world credit. But I do see the appeal in developing these types of systems further. I have not been too thrilled with the online courses I’ve taken so far because I’ve found it’s hard to get the level just right. One was painfully simple, another was hampered by the worst online textbook in the world, and a third was torture because it was taught completely in French and I hadn’t yet learned how to make accented characters on the computer.
I’m not sure I’d want to take an entire degree this way, but I can see students building their degrees on a mix of efficient online offerings and more hands-on in-person stuff. It might bring the cost of a degree back down to manageable levels, and it will end the days of students not getting into a course they want to take simply because of the lack of a space in the building.