July 19, 2012

NEWS: Students Can Stop Protesting

I've been having discussions with my nephews about university. One has graduated and is now paying off his debt. The other is working to get his degree as he goes, taking courses as time and money permit. "Why do I have to go into the city and sit in a classroom to learn something that I can study over the Internet?" he wonders. He's right, of course. Old-school really is old-school. Some objections to on-line learning may be valid: You get interaction in a group. Or do you? The average classroom, according to most students I have spoken to, is populated with teenagers sitting in front of either their smart phones or a laptop. Interaction with the teacher during class is rare, let alone with each other.

Let's face it - university is a great place to make friends, connections that will benefit you through life, and you will be exposed to a broad base of people who can shift your perceptions and expectations. For social networking, it can't be beat. But does that make it the golden halls of learning it was before the Internet? Do we really need the expense of operating and maintaining huge infrastructures to house professors and classrooms? What about students from out of town? Think of the costs they would save if they didn't have to live near campus. Think of the increased flexibility of having access to classes via live, recorded or interactive video feeds. Libraries? Again, the Internet is changing everything.

And yes, there's a lot of sentimentality surrounding higher education. As just one example, Montreal's downtown McGill Campus is hallowed ground, gracious and steeped in history. The name speaks for itself. Wearing the leather jacket gives you prestige. There's no denying that. But at what cost? And to what end? If you can achieve your learning objectives in a simpler, more cost-effective way, shouldn't that be an option? Well, now it is.

As reported this morning in the Globe & Mail: "This week, the University of Toronto joined Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and a dozen other major universities offering free online courses to anyone anywhere in the world with a computer. They are partners in Coursera, an online venture launched a year ago by two Stanford University computer scientists." Read more about it here.

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