Online resources must be considered

Letter to the Editors

Re: “Online learning puts revenue first” (March 23, 2012)

Dear Editors,

In his Op-Ed, Professor Jones’ omissions seriously distort the total picture. For example, on transfer credits, Jones ignores Queen’s long history of transfer credits and how they expand students’ academic experiences. He also overlooks faculty regulations governing transfer credits, preserving a Queen’s degree’s integrity.

“Online learning” (it is really instruction with online resources) is Jones’ greatest concern but his critique, especially of Continuing and Distance Studies’ (CDS) initiative to develop more online courses, is selective and partial. What’s missing is critical.

Queen’s is among the oldest distance education providers in North America. Not long ago, distance students could complete degree programs exclusively through correspondence. Students around the globe, of varying socioeconomic status, completed degrees even when they could not afford living on campus for part or all of their studies. CDS made Queen’s more accessible.

The precipitous decline in CDS offerings over the last two decades changed accessibility. The reduction was not due to courses’ academic rigour, assessments of student progress or quality of learning. It was simply a reallocation of resources (one currently being reconsidered). The increased accessibility that CDS growth offers is positive — not negative.

Jones argues that because “ordinary” and online courses do not require separate curriculum committee approval, “an online course may have little in common with the on-campus version” beyond title, number and credit value. This is true of every Queen’s course, not just online courses.

Once courses are approved, instructors determine their content based on the course description. Two sections of a course taught by different on-campus instructors, different instructors in different terms, or the same instructor in different years may differ considerably — far more than an on-campus course and its CDS version. In reality, there is significant overlap, often outright duplication, of the material in on-campus and CDS courses.

Most important, the academic integrity of Queen’s courses resides with their instructors. Is Jones questioning Queen’s instructors’ integrity?

Not long ago, departments’ “integrated commitment” to on-campus and CDS courses meant that on-campus instructors taught correspondence courses. When departments eliminated integrated commitment, CDS had to secure the instructors for many distance courses. If Jones worries about the correspondence between on-campus and distance courses, he should advocate for a return to departments’ integrated commitment — not denigrate CDS’s growth.

Online courses are Jones’ main concern. For decades distance courses were paper-based. Course notes, serving as one-on-one student/instructor tutorials, guided students through course readings. Students’ assignments were submitted, evaluated, and returned with detailed comments; students and instructors or tutor-markers conferred by telephone, the mail, email, etc.; students completed invigilated examinations. About all that distance courses lacked were blackboards, an in-class lecture and, as technology advanced, overheads. But lecture rooms have changed dramatically and so must CDS courses.

The Internet provides distance and on-campus instructors with numerous opportunities to enrich students’ experiences; digital media help stimulate interest, convey material, and provoke deep learning. Only a crude technological determinist would claim that online instruction is necessarily inferior to on-campus delivery.

University-level teaching and learning centres on the instructor’s and students’ commitment to course material, the quality of that material and student engagement. In many courses, online instruction offers learning opportunities well beyond lecture style teaching (and the Internet allows instructor/student interaction in real time eliminating a major difference between distance and on-campus instruction). Good instructors carefully assess the media that will encourage and facilitate student learning; today online resources must be among the media considered.

Finally, Jones dismisses the blended learning initiative without indicating what a “blended learning” course is and why it is self-evidently bad.

For those who have developed courses over decades, using multiple media, stimulating student engagement in different ways, blending an enthusiastic instructor’s knowledge and passion for course material with texts, PowerPoints, unique audio-visual presentations, active learning experiences, and Internet resources is an opportunity to improve upon what we already do well. In the appropriate courses, instruction using online resources, in a blended-learning format, will enhance the learning experiences Queen’s provides students on-campus and around the globe. That is the total picture!

Rob Beamish,
Queen’s sociology professor

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