U of T remains hesitant about joining the Centre of Excellence for Online Learning (Ontario Online). The new course hub was announced in January.



Ontario Online is a system planned by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that will serve as a repository of online courses and a database that details to students which of their credits are transferable between institutions.

U of T already has structures that facilitate online learning, including Blackboard, a content management system, and is watching to see how Ontario Online unfolds before committing. “As this is a three-year project for the ministry that has just begun, we’re looking to see what happens,” said Sioban Nelson, U of T’s  vice-provost, academic programs, adding: “We are involved in online courses, we just have a concern about quality of education.”

In September 2012, U of T was also the first Canadian institution to affiliate with Coursera, a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) platform created by Stanford University. Unlike Ontario Online, Coursera is designed to accommodate unlimited enrolment worldwide.

Paul Gries, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, faced the challenge of adapting lecture material into a video format.
“One minute of video required at least one hour of work as we had to figure out how to condense three hours of lecture material into a 15-minute video and still present the material in a precise and clear manner that made it easy for students to follow,” he said. Although 70,000 students enrolled at the start of the course, only 8,300 actually completed it.

Gries cited the time-consuming nature of an online course and personal circumstances as reasons why students did not finish the course. “The lower completion numbers don’t necessarily mean that there aren’t people watching the videos. If 10 per cent of those enrolled complete the online course, then the course is a success,” he added.

In addition to involvement with MOOCs, U of T has its own internal program, the Online Undergraduate Course Initiative (OUCI) for developing undergraduate courses online. This initiative pre-dates the announcement from the ministry by three years. The goal of this program is to develop 10 online courses each year at the initiative of willing faculty members who have the support of their department and the dean. The OUCI then funds the course plan, with $12,000 allocated to each redesigned course. Educational technology professionals, librarians, and the instructor are all involved in the course-planning process. The OUCI reports that 15 new undergraduate online courses have either come online in the past two years or will come online in the next few months.

Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at UTSC, is one U of T professor who uses online learning as a core component of the course. Joordens’ introductory psychology course has a web option, which allows students in the course to decide between attending lectures, watching them online, or both. In addition to this flexibility, the course includes a series of online tests, designed as an alternative to multiple-choice midterms.

Although Joordens said the program was largely successful, he has experienced issues with academic integrity. “I had the challenge of deterring people who cheat; I noticed that there was a group of students who did the tests sitting in the same room. They were getting marks of 90 or more on the online tests, but were failing the final, getting around a 30. That averages to about 60 per cent, so they passed the course, but didn’t learn anything,” Joordens recalled. To avoid this trend, Joordens ruled that in order to pass the course, students must also pass the final examination.

Monika Havelka, senior lecturer of geography at UTM, has taught a 100-level environmental studies course online for the past four years. “I’m really fond of the format because it provides an enhanced learning experience,” Havelka said. Like Joordens’s course, Havelka’s lectures are recorded and posted online.

Havelka believes that the format allows for more interaction between herself and her students, as well as between the students themselves; she interacts with more students online over web chats and discussion threads than in office hours. Havelka praised the format. “I really am a convert. I was skeptical at first, but then I had students who said to me, ‘I had to watch this three times before I got it,’ but the point is that they got it in the end. The opportunity to rewind and review material leads to a greater depth of understanding,” she said.

Although U of T takes pride in its provision of learning opportunities online, the current lack of participation in Ontario Online could affect course transfers. “There is [a] core of courses that are transferred automatically; others we do on a case-by-case basis,” said Nelson. She added: “We are very supportive of course transfers, and we’re watching to see how [the course transfer hub] unfolds.”


With files from Devika Desai