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David Naylor. Photo by Gustavo Toledo Photography

Online and In Person

Digital synergy for higher education

In less than two decades, the digital revolution has transformed entire sectors of the economy and our culture – from music to movies to journalism. Many observers believe a similarly radical change is in store for higher education.

Exhibit A is the advent of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs. The typical MOOC is free of charge, open to anyone around the world through the Internet and capped by a certificate of completion rather than a formal university credit. Faculty who teach MOOCs are motivated not just by the ideal of enhanced access to higher education. They report that developing MOOCs has given them new insights about learning and teaching in our digital age.

Moreover, the field is evolving fast. Just a few weeks ago, Georgia Tech broke the no-charge/no-credit mould for MOOCs by launching an online master’s degree in computer science for US$7,000. Skeptics argue that Georgia Tech is creating a two-tiered system for its students and credentials. But few observers doubt that a revolution of some type is brewing – and U of T is part of it.

Your alma mater was the first Canadian partner in Coursera, a leading platform for MOOCs that now includes many of North America’s finest universities. Our first five courses have attracted more than 400,000 students in computer science, social work, psychology, statistics and education – a number equalling almost 80 per cent of U of T’s entire living alumni. We have since joined a second platform, EDx, created by Harvard and MIT.

U of T has yet to launch any full-credit MOOCs. But consistent with experience elsewhere, MOOCs are changing the way our professors teach “traditional” classes. For example, Jennifer Campbell and Paul Gries teach “Learning to Program” as an entry-level computer science course. It’s also a very popular MOOC. Using videos created for the MOOC, Gries and Campbell “inverted” the classroom experience for their 500 U of T students. Students watch the lectures whenever they like, repeatedly or in segments if it helps them absorb the material. In class, they focus on assignments and interactive activities, where their instructors can address selected material in depth, according to the students’ needs.

Charmaine Williams, from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, teaches a MOOC on the social context of mental health. She points to the benefit online students gain through interaction with global peers. Students in her MOOC, representing 90 different nations, have exchanged information – and opinions – about their health-care systems and how mental illnesses are handled in their countries. This type of transcultural learning is priceless.

In brief, we already have lots of evidence that digital tools will greatly enrich higher education and rapidly widen access to its opportunities and challenges. And it may also be possible for students to acquire many skills faster and better with digitally assisted learning methods.

Now, the caveats. Many educators are asking hard questions about the consequences of a too-narrow focus on technical skills that can rapidly become obsolete. At U of T, recent curriculum reforms have deliberately leavened academic and technical skills with what one might call “renewable competencies,” such as critical thinking, effective writing and communications, problem-solving, teamwork, and ethical and social reasoning. These are competencies for a lifetime, for any job and for every citizen. (They also figured strongly in Arts and Science on the decanal watch of my esteemed successor, Meric Gertler, and have drawn close attention in many other divisions.)

It’s hard to imagine nurturing such attributes effectively without some in-person interactions. It’s even harder to imagine how traits such as resilience or emotional selfawareness can be developed in an online cocoon with its pseudo-socialization. In contrast, if student A debates student B in a seminar, neither can reboot as their pet arguments get shredded. And the good news is that they might thereafter engage in civil discourse and discover the most important piece of human geography: common ground.

Please don’t take this as a Luddite turn. I firmly believe that digital tools will make a hugely positive difference to higher education in the decades ahead. But I also believe that in-person education – and the competencies fostered by interpersonal exchanges – will be irreplaceable on our hot and crowded planet for a very long time.


David Naylor

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