Online classrooms never too crowded

Don’t love the idea of getting up early for a morning class? You might not have to any longer.

You can take classes from home instead, through the webOption, a program that posts lectures online. Offered through UTSC, and open to all U of T students, webOption lets participants follow lectures from home, only going to campus for midterms, final exams, and tutorials.

“The hope was to enhance traditional lectures by giving students more flexibility,” said Steve Joordens, a psychology professor who’s in charge of the program.

UTSC launched webOption in 2004 to accommodate the double cohort of undergraduate students after OAC was eliminated. John Bassili, chair of the psychology department, recorded lectures and posted them online for students who couldn’t fit in the lecture halls.

This year, webOption offers more than 25 online courses, from management to biology. Although most are in science and math, Joordens hopes to expand the program to other disciplines.

Students said they chose webOption for various reasons: convenience, safety after night classes, accessibility issues, less distractions, and not waiting to take a class. Tapes and slideshows are posted a few hours after the class, while night course lectures are posted the next morning.

All recordings are archived and some are re-used from fall and winter sessions to provide a summer option. Students can meet with the professors during office hours and email questions.

Students sign up on ROSI for lecture period LEC60, indicating a webOption course. They can later choose to transfer between the online and in-class lectures.

“The videos are rather low-quality, but it’s the sound that matters,” said Joordens. Occasional glitches include interference from wireless microphones or problems with the tapes. Sometimes whole lectures must be re-given in a spare room.

Joordens acknowledged that this option doesn’t work for all students and professors, and that in-class interaction can be vital to certain courses. Some students, however, don’t need the classroom to have discussions.

“There were times that my family and I would learn about some very interesting issues that would lead us to a topic of discussion over dinner,” said Eleni Kanavas, a student who used webOption for introductory psychology.

Earlier this year, Joordens and Bassili published a research paper in the Journal of Distance Education, which found no significant difference between online and in-class students.

The program costs about $25,000 per year to run. “The goal is student satisfaction, not making money,” said Joordens. “[It’s an] economic way of doing something tangible.”

He added that the program is considering podcasts, and may develop a separate office with full-time staff.

This October, U of T president David Naylor’s controversial Towards 2030 framework document was approved by Governing Council. The plan included methods to deal with increasing numbers of undergraduates, including capping and reducing admissions. Online classes could be one way to address these problems, but lack of campus resources remains an issue: many have complained about webOption students filling UTSC computer labs.

The Right is still right

Alex Nursall’s GOP-bashing article (“The craziest party that could ever be”) is an example of why the Republican Party’s future should be left up to conservatives. More a collection of stereotypes and clichés than substantial analysis, the article revealed all the worst extremes of modern North American liberalism: condescension towards common folk, suppression of intellectual difference, and dismissal of the ideological opposition. I was instantly reminded of why I crossed over to the Right in the first place.

Although my conservative colleagues have sufficiently demolished Nursall’s polemic in The Varsity’s comments section, I am compelled to make a few brief observations. In a cautionary sentence about how evangelicals are increasingly voting Democrat, Nursall writes, “The Republicans are losing their base, and if the trend continues, they’ll be nothing more than a party of fanatics, clutching at their guns and religious texts, weeping bitter tears for an America that never existed in the first place.” Given that evangelicals and social conservatives make up a large portion of the GOP base, this sentence is self-contradictory: if the base is eroding, the party should be left with anything but gun-toting church-goers. She laments that Mr. Obama was unfairly lumped together with Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, but the two indeed served on the CAC board together and Ayers made a small contribution to Obama’s campaign. It was not hatred that motivated Mr. McCain to warn of this association, but concern about Mr. Obama’s judgment.

In any case, Nursall’s “hatred” theory for why the GOP lost the election doesn’t hold water in the face of a few facts. If Americans so resented conservative “intolerance” and had moved to the centre, why was it that Proposition 8—the California ballot initiative to ban gay marriage—passed by vast majorities in the country’s most liberal state? Why is it that the Democrats who beat out incumbents for congressional seats in both 2006 and 2008 were mostly socially conservative populists, like Virginia senator Jim Webb? There is indeed a looming problem for Republicans in the future, but hatred isn’t it. Instead, it is an inability to think and argue innovatively about the economic issues of today—globalization, health care, and education.

In the economic boom times—2002 and 2004—Republicans were able to tout their family values and national security credentials to an inherently conservative working class. But since then, economic hard times have convinced the Average Joe to place his checkbook above partisanship. These woes go beyond the inflation of early 2008 and the financial crisis of the summer. Dating back to the 2004 outsourcing scare, American workers have seen their wages stagnate while corporate profits skyrocket. This is not due to executive greed, as the Democrats assert, but simple economics: American workers have been facing increasing competition from cheaper foreign labour in the rising economic powers of China and India. Increase the global supply of unskilled labour, and the price of labour falls.

In 2008, the Democrats, with their natural big government and pro-union slant, offered an arsenal of solutions: universal healthcare, middle-class tax cuts, and tuition credits, all funded by higher taxes at the “top five per cent” of the income bracket. All the Republicans could come up with was a plethora of tax cuts at a time when marginal tax rates were historically low. They had no plan for education, and McCain’s healthcare plan, though fundamentally sound, was barely mentioned during the campaign. No wonder the working class picked handouts over trickle-down. The data resonates with this line of thought: CNN polls showed that in two swing states, Florida and Ohio, 62 and 61 per cent of voters cited the economy as their top priority, respectively. Of those voters, Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain by a margin of 7 to 14 points.

If the Republican Party is to make any serious comeback in the future, it must come to grips with its economic problem. It’s correct on the fundamentals: tax cuts and free trade have served the U.S. well since Reagan’s time in power, delivering robust economic growth. But on class equality issues, the GOP must come up with alternatives that help the Average Joe without overweening government intervention.

Mass rapes in the Congo are ‘sexual terrorism,’ says doctor

“Hundreds of thousands of women are humiliated, dehumanised and without protection in the Congo,” Denis Mukwege told a crowd of 1,500 at Convocation Hall Friday night. As a surgeon, Mukwege has witnessed the results of brutal acts of violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The founder of the Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu, he described his work performing reconstructive surgeries for women who have been raped and mutilated.

Mukwege spoke of villagers rounded up by soldiers in the middle of the night, armed men raping and mutilating women in public as their helpless family members look on, and hundreds of thousands of girls, some as young as three years old, left scarred.

“These acts go beyond sexual desire. They are driven by a political and socio-economic agenda,” said Mukwege, calling the mass rapes “sexual terrorism” where perpetrators seek to gain power over the country’s precious mineral resources. The epidemic of sexual violence in the Congolese conflict has been called an unprecedented use of rape as a political tool.

“This kind of rape that takes place leads to a loss of identity,” said Mukwege, causing physical and mental wounds. “When husbands witness their wives being raped and they cannot do anything, it’s shameful for them. It’s shameful for the community and for the family.” The most natural result, he said, is the displacement of entire communities that subsequently allows rebels and warring parties unrestricted access to important mining areas.

Also in attendance were Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and playwright Eve Ensler. Both are outspoken activists for the plight of the Congolese women and have worked with rape victims at the Panzi Hospital.

Lewis and Ensler questioned the role of the international community in the disaster. “On Nov. 21, just one week ago, the [UN] Security Council voted 2,800 more peacekeepers and 300 more police personnel for the Congo. No one knows which countries they will come from. No one knows when they will arrive. No one appears to know anything,” said Lewis. He added that the ongoing conflict needs a force of tens of thousands, not merely thousands. The speakers emphasized that the harsh reality contains potential for change. Ensler underlined the strength of the women she met and their potential empowerment, given the right resources, while Lewis encouraged audience members to pressure local politicians.

“We continue to be optimistic on the ground because there are men and women like you tonight who’ve begun to wonder about the fact that there are more than five million four hundred thousand deaths related directly or indirectly to the war without any measures to be taken to end this catastrophe,” Mukwege said.

A victory for free speech, a loss for civility

Canada’s major newspapers have almost unanimously agreed with the main recommendation of a recent report—namely, repealing a controversial section in the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA). The report arrives on the heels of a 2007 controversy involving Maclean’s writer Mark Steyn, and four Osgoode Hall Law School students who filed a complaint with the Canadian, BC, and Ontario Human Rights Commissions. They claimed that the magazine, in publishing the article, was involved with the dissemination of Islamophobia and hate speech. While the well-known conservative’s article served as the immediate cause of the complaint, the students also compiled a list of 22 other Maclean’s articles published over the course of two years, claiming they constituted hate speech under Canadian Law.

Initially, the students approached the magazine proposing that it publish a “representative response, from a mutually acceptable author, of adequate length.” They were told by editors that Maclean’s would rather “go bankrupt” than publish a counterview, at which point the students filed their complaints. Several prominent conservative writers (including Barbara Amiel, Margaret Wente, Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant) framed the issue in terms of free speech rather than discrimination. Writers at the National Post and other Western publications claimed that the attempt to force Maclean’s to publish a counterview article amounted to interference in the magazine’s internal editorial decisions, and therefore press censorship. As the issue caught steam, the Ontario and Canadian Human Rights Commissions refused to hear the case against Maclean’s, ostensibly for legal reasons, although many suspected that they had caved due to conservative pressure.

The BC Commission decided to hear the case, despite the political risk associated with taking on the conservative base at a time when the Harper Tories were in power (and could conceivably attack human rights commissions, compromising valuable work that they do in other areas). Despite the commission ruling in favour of Maclean’s, largely due to the lack of sociological evidence showing that the articles exposed Muslims to hate, the magazine objected to the admission of Internet hate speech as evidence. After the BC hearing, it pressured the Canadian Human Rights Commission to review its policy on admitting Internet hate speech. The Commission appointed Richard Moon, a constitutional law expert at the University of Windsor, to review and advise the CHRC on section 13 of the Canada Human Rights Act. The act legally defines Internet hate speech as discrimination and a matter of federal jurisdiction.

The Moon report’s chief recommendation calls for the repeal of section 13 on grounds that defamation, stereotyping, and otherwise unfair characterizations of a group do not constitute hate speech and should be protected as free speech. Moon argues that in order to uphold freedom of expression, hate speech should be limited to speech that threatens, advocates, or justifies violence. (The report recognizes that there may be less overt forms of hate speech that attempt to unfairly characterize a group). The students charged that 22 Maclean’s articles “represented Muslims as a violent people incapable of living in their host societies, cast suspicions on Muslims at large as potential terrorists, attempted to import a racist discourse and language into Canadian discourse, attacked multiculturalism and religious freedoms, attacked laws that provide protection to identifiable communities from discriminatory journalism, and condemned any and all attempts by politicians, law enforcement and media to reach out to Muslim communities and exercise sensitivity.” The Moon report argues that these kinds of defamation and stereotyping should not be tried as hate speech.

“A Victory for Free Speech” reads the title of an op-ed by Ezra Levant in the National Post, highlighting the success of the conservative campaign to brand the students as enemies of freedom of expression. Levant himself had a human rights complaint brought against him (and eventually dismissed) the same time as the BC case for publishing the infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Western Standard. In this particular case, the students were never seeking to “censor,” block, or forbid Maclean’s in any way. What they sought was an opportunity to respond to what they said was a prolonged, unfair portrayal of Muslims in the largest weekly magazine in Canada.

If you feel that the group to which you belong is depicted as dangerous, hostile, and incapable of living peacefully by a national publication with a readership of 2.5 million, do you not have the right to act? Moon says that in order to address these forms of hate speech, “all major print publications should belong to a provincial or regional press council“ with the authority to take complaints, decide if the publication is discriminating against a group, and, if needed, order the publication to print the press council’s decision. Maclean’s is not currently a member of the Ontario Press Council, and neither is the National Post. If any action is taken towards implementing Moon’s recommendations, there should be an avenue to address concerns of unfair discrimination by the mainstream press. “A newspaper is not simply a private participant in public discourse,” Moon writes, “it is an important part of the public sphere, where discussion about the affairs of the community takes place. As such it carries a responsibility to portray fairly and without discrimination the different groups that make up the Canadian community.”

Magnate buys broke school

Who do you call to bail out a university on the verge of bankruptcy? Peter Chung, the 55-year old education tycoon. Chung has bought University Canada West, a private university in Victoria that failed to attract enough students since it opened in 2005.

The executive chairman of the Eminata Group, Chung owns 30 other educational institutions across Canada. He bought UCW for over $10 million.

Chung plans to pull in at least 700 international students, offering creditors 50 cents on the dollar for outstanding debts. While loan companies are shocked and angry, Chung said that if the university went bankrupt, the companies would get nothing. “So 50 cents is better for both,” he said.

Chung doesn’t plan to sell any of UCW’s properties.

Grab a tote, save a nickel

Last week, Mayor David Miller announced a 5-cent charge on plastic shopping bags, intended to encourage consumers to bring their own, environmentally-friendly alternatives to carry their groceries. The plan is supposed to reduce Toronto’s plastic bag use by 70 per cent.

It’s common knowledge that a plastic bag takes around 400 years to disintegrate in a landfill. The best way to change a person’s habits is to target their wallet. Individual stores have charged for bags as long as I can remember.

Toronto grocery stores hand out about 460 million shopping bags per year. When you think about those bags sitting in landfills for centuries, it’s clear that the city should take measures to reduce their use. While the bag charge seems reasonable, there’s a catch.

All of the profits will go directly to the stores that sell the bags. If the charge was implemented to help the environment, the revenue should go toward a related cause. Many grocery stores have promised to put the money towards environmental movements, but how can anyone hold them to their statements?

What’s an extra 5 cents? Well, stores still stand to gain a profit, however small—a plastic bag only costs around 1.5 cents. Of course, a 1.5 cent charge is hardly an adequate incentive to bring your own bag, but the 3.5 cent mark up means that stores will gain a 200 per cent profit on each bag they sell, according to the Toronto Star.

Get out there and buy your reusable bags and plastic bins now. You’ll not only be helping the environment, you’ll be making sure that your money doesn’t dribble away from you—5 cents per shopping trip adds up faster than you’d think.

U of T marks World AIDS Day

With artistic performances, displays, lectures, and panel discussions, U of T’s three campuses will observe World AIDS Day.

“It’s a very meaningful opportunity for the university community to come together to address this pandemic,” said Judy Kopelow, director of strategic initiatives with the Centre for International Health today.

A giant red ribbon will be installed on the front of Sid Smith, adorned with white balloons. As the day progresses, the balloons will be popped, symbolizing the breakdown of white blood cells in a person with AIDS.

At sundown, the bells of Soldiers’ Tower will toll in honour of those battling the epidemic, as a slideshow projects faces of people affected by AIDS onto the walls of Hart House. The event’s main ceremony is at Hart House, organized by the Centre for International Health. The ceremony, which starts at 4:30pm, will include a speech by world-renowned HIV prevention expert Dr. Solomon Benatar, and a number of artistic performances including an African dance and a classical music concerto.

The Med Sci building hosts a number of information tables staffed by U of T student groups. Other events at Med Sci include a screening of A Closer Walk, a film about AIDS’ impact throughout the world. The Leslie Dan Pharmacy building hosts a seminar in which U of T students who took part in overseas humanitarian projects this summer will promote further student engagement in humanitarian projects. The Pharmacy building will also hold an NGO fair.

“The program reflects the strength and commitment of our university in addressing this pandemic,” said Ms. Kopelow. “What we are trying to do is come together, have a voice, raise awareness, and let students know that they can make an impact.”

Where great minds study the New Biology

Night has fallen on St. George campus. The exodus from the last Convocation Hall lecture swamps the darkened street with students. As they pace past College Street’s historic buildings, they encounter one striking anomaly: the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. The Donnelly CCBR is a glowing vision in glass and steel, a Rubik’s Cube for the gods. It’s hard to believe this towering structure was once a parking lot. But what goes on inside?

As one of Canada’s leading genomics research centres, the DCCBR brings together investigators from a wide range of disciplines. It was established to foster collaborations among the Faculties of Medicine, Pharmacy, Applied Science & Engineering and Arts & Science at U of T. From its vantage point overlooking College Street, the DCCBR is a scientific and architectural landmark, and according to Director of Communications, Cynthia Colby, “The open concept was literally designed so that the best and brightest will bump into each other in the hallways.”

The centre is the brainchild of professors Cecil Yip and James Freisen from the Faculty of Medicine, and the DCCBR’s first director Brenda Andrews, a leading yeast genomics researcher. Completed in November 2005 at the cost of $105 million dollars, the center has received architectural acclaim from the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 2008 NOW Magazine named it the “best new building to render science visible to the world”—and for good reason. Always abuzz with students and staff, this is the kind of place where even the bathrooms are inspiring.

So far, the DCCBR has attracted 40 world-renowned Principal Investigators and approximately 600 students, postdoctoral fellows, and research technicians. With a broad mandate, the centre focuses its research on three platforms: integrative biology, bioengineering and functional imaging, and models of disease.

“It’s amazing to think that a single-celled organism could unlock the secrets to the complexity of human health and disease,” says Colby. “If we can understand how viruses, bacteria, and our bodies are programmed and how they can be re-programmed, the treatment of disease will shift from emergency interventions to deliberate and personalized prevention. Our impact on the average person is largely indirect; however, the research is tightly linked to science education, and it is medically relevant with the potential to discover therapeutic targets and drug leads.”

The DCCBR collaborates with its neighbouring teaching hospitals, government, and industry, and has joined forces with MaRS and the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. It also plans to launch public outreach programs, giving high school students and interested members of the public the chance to witness the cutting edge biomedical research done at the centre.

With such a stimulating approach to scientific research, it seems that the key to the DCCBR is its interdisciplinary focus.

“Consider that the cost of sequencing a single genome has collapsed from $150,000,000 to $1,000,” says Colby. “To accelerate scientific progress, the DCCBR fosters the development of bold, cutting-edge research by uniting diverse areas of expertise. Combining multiple disciplines (cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, bioinformatics and engineering) expands research speed, capacity and sparks technological innovation.”

One of the goals of the DCCBR is to shape and define the “New Biology,” a science that thrives on multi-discipline collaboration in a communal setting. With its exciting new attitude toward research and interdisciplinary interaction, it seems they are well on the way to heralding a new age of scientific development. Will kids of the future stop dreaming of being astronauts, in favour of careers in biomolecular research? Only time will tell.