Volume 96, Issue 59
Wednesday, January 15, 2003

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Education just a click away

Adapt, change and grow – this is the message from university administrators these days. Find ways to get the most students into a school with limited finances. Attract students and professors with new departments. Make the use of school property more efficient by offering both day and night classes all year round. Universities, like all corporations, are under constant pressure to evolve.

It is these forces that have led to the dramatic rise of distance studies and online courses at universities.

The reasons behind students taking this atypical approach to learning vary. Why take Actuarial Science 153 on campus three days a week when you can do it on your own time? Have to be in Toronto for a summer job? No problem – take a summer course online and you can even write the exam in Toronto.

Enrollment in online courses at Western has grown by 25 per cent over the last year. Alberta's Athabasca University has seen tremendous growth as an almost exclusively online university.

For some students, the rise of online courses has been a blessing. Those students who learn by reading with minimal outside instruction could find online courses to be a great way to fit academics into their busy schedules. However, many students still rely heavily on the explanation provided by professors in class and the regular opportunity to meet with an instructor one-on-one.

Although the number of online courses a student can take towards their degree is limited, it's unlikely the electronic trend will falter. Whether it is a healthy trend is another question altogether.

Critics claim online courses detract from the university experience because students miss out on the classroom debates, both with professors and fellow students, that can mean so much toward a good education.

The trend towards online courses where students rarely – if ever – see their professor, can be viewed through the larger window of modernization. Bankers use ATMs instead of conversing with a teller. Customers talk to automated answering machines in the place of real operators; increasing digitization is all around us.

The biggest knock against online courses is that they sap people of communication skills. What good is it if a student obtains a university degree online if they lack the ability to communicate the skills they've gained?

Perhaps the proliferation of online courses should be embraced as one more way for universities to appeal to a wider range of students. Then again, if online courses create graduates who can't sell themselves in an interview, they might put even more distance between university grads and the world of employment.



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