Recently, University of Toronto President Meric Gertler announced several appointments to his senior administration team. The appointment of Professor Vivek Goel as U of T’s new vice-president, research and innovation — effective February 1, 2015 — could have significant implications for how U of T adapts to the growing strength of online education in Canadian universities.

Professor Goel is a very accomplished academic and administrator; but what makes his appointment especially interesting is that he currently serves as the chief academic strategist with Coursera, a popular online learning platform connecting universities and learners across the globe with massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The use of technology for online learning has been widely debated over the past few years for its capacity to disrupt current university teaching models that have been largely unchanged since higher education’s beginning.

While online learning and distance education are not new, the rise of websites offering massive enrolment courses complete with lecturers, assignments, and certification is new and catching on. These platforms allow anyone to view and participate in university-style courses, often for free, while allowing universities to augment their current offerings with MOOC courses or elements thereof.

Coursera’s enrollment numbers are in the millions, with more than 100 universities as partners.

U of T has been a Coursera partner since 2012, allowing the university to offer several programs on the platform, including an introduction to programming, bioinformatics, and aboriginal world-views.

Coursera, however, is not alone: Harvard and MIT have launched their own platform called EdX, one of the more widely recognized options in a growing list of online educational tools. These courses do not just affect students; they can commodify universities and their teaching in massively scalable ways.

U of T has a lot of room to grow in the online realm. It currently offers 10 public Coursera courses and its online courses for undergraduate students top out at 18.

It is almost guaranteed that Goel’s nomination will lead to better infrastructure to create these courses and more U of T-specific offerings to the public via Coursera, which will have potentially enormous ramifications for U of T’s prestige and revenue streams in the future.

More public offerings will not necessarily benefit the student body directly; we should look out for how Professor Goel is able to help innovate U of T classrooms and learning experiences for students during his five-year tenure.

We are likely to see a greater integration of technology such as online available lecture recordings into courses. If done properly, lectures could be watched at home and lecture time can be freed up for much needed face-to-face interaction and seminar style discussion.

Online courses also have concurrent online grading. Perhaps lectures will incorporate parallel quizzes and tests that exist in MOOCs. The I-Clicker has already shown this style of learning can improve knowledge retention and participation. Why not expand these capabilities in a more comprehensive and cost effective manner?

The breadth, depth, and quality of pure-online courses should also expand. Commuting students, those with large class sizes, and those switching between subject POSts can benefit greatly from these online options.

Many interesting questions remain on how current classes can integrate existing MOOCs. Will the university feel it has to directly compete with online offerings to students? How will regulation accept or reject increasingly sophisticated online offerings? Will some of our courses defer to recordings from Harvard lecturers? Or, will other Canadian universities, low on staff in certain faculties, draw from our online offerings?

Christian Medeiros is a third-year student at Trinity College specializing in international relations.

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