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A vision of McGill’s future as an online classroom

8:30 a.m., February 14, 2043
My twenty-something-year-old daughter, Amina, grabs her iEverything at the breakfast table while impatiently waiting for our kitchen management system to fry two over-easy eggs, toast a couple slices of wholewheat bread, and brew a strong Arabica coffee (one milk, three sugars).

Amina is a third year Arts student at McGill, lives at home in Brossard, actively participates in rallies organized by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) against increasing tuition hikes, and has high aspirations to change the world.

It’s a school day and her first class starts in five minutes – leaving her with ample time to make her morning commute of fifty feet.
8:35 a.m., Amina’s iEverything projects her professor in 3D as my daughter sits back comfortably on the sofa, eager to start her favourite class, ISLA 385 Politics and Poetics in Arabic Literature (a McGill Arts class that was apparently threatened to be cut thirty years ago). The class has been prerecorded, yet is still interactive and free to access by anyone with an internet connection. In addition to the McGill students, registered pupils from around the world are also signing in. To Amina’s surprise, there’s a pop quiz today.

After the lecture, tuition-paying students are separated into online groups supervised by professors or teaching assistants (TAs). In these smaller groups, students have the chance to pose questions, discuss problems, and share ideas. Midterms and final exams are administered to registered, fee-paying, students during these meetings; meanwhile, GPS coordinates are recorded to avoid group work on exams. Course feedback can be given by anyone registered to the course – student or instructor. The University collects and processes all the feedback in order to keep the course up-to-date, accommodating changing ideas and events while also making any necessary corrections.

The beauty here is that Amina can go back and review anything from the lecture that she had trouble understanding. She can ask a supervisor for help during discussion periods, discuss issues in depth on the class’s online TA-monitored forum, or send an email to a professor.

At the end of a semester, university credit is given to those who pay for the online course, while the nonpaying students receive only a certificate of completion. Furthermore, students that pay tuition are eligible to attend workshops, tutorials, and conferences and are evaluated by sitting for exams.
Before making the big step forward and deciding to pay for Amina’s degree at McGill, we had a serious talk about the pros of having a degree versus the money saved upon completing a certificate.
A lot of things have changed around McGill since 2012.

It is unfortunate that McGill’s campus has been reduced to the iconic Arts building, Leacock, and the Redpath Museum. However, it is understandable, since McGill doesn’t require as many classrooms or libraries, due to an increasing demand towards online services. The once bustling hallways of the engineering and science departments are now occupied by overly qualified scientists that once held teaching positions. Under the banner of the McGill Research Corporation, these technical gurus are pushed to their limits to produce scientific results as efficiently as humanly possible.

The popular MOOCs (massive open online courses) movement of the early 21st century consequently separated the idea of learning from research, formerly under the same umbrella definition of education. Elite universities began by posting several lectures online with an open invitation to anyone with an internet connection. Following the popular trend, many other institutions did the same. This deviation from conventional attitudes forced universities to revisit, and in many cases, revise their statement of purpose, stressing their focus on quality of teaching and their students’ needs more than ever before.

Initially, the MOOCs movement had been dominated by big name schools – championing their brand name around the world. Their efforts granted millions of people free universal access to quality education, while erasing the limitation of physical location or financial constraints. The price of information – and arguably education – drastically fell.

While this had a positive effect on the level of global education, it forced lower-tier and mediocre universities to compete with elite institutions over the same crop of students. The enticement of attending a Harvard philosophy course was too much for local and state universities to contend with.
Large campus schools were faced with tough decisions and found it harder and harder to defend their vastly built campuses and expensive infrastructure in lieu of these lower cost alternatives. In fact, MOOCs became so popular that only a few elite universities survived as learning institutions, forcing others to specialize in specific hands-on professions that require in-class instruction.

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MOOCs have recently been the subject of much debate on many university campuses, including our own. The name MOOCs originates from the University of Manitoba, where the first university-level course was offered free of charge to 2,300 online students. This small Canadian success story has blossomed into a global movement, gaining momentum as more and more universities jump on the MOOCs bandwagon.

This may come as no surprise.Statistics Canada puts the in-province tuition increase for Quebec at 110 per cent and Ontario at 210 per cent since 1990. While these numbers are high, they are profoundly dwarfed by the American tuition surge of 360 per cent since 1986. This resulted in a high interest in MOOCs by U.S. universities.

In late December 2011, academic faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to experiment with a MOOC-style pilot program by offering an engineering circuits and electronics course online, for free. A couple months later, the course opened to a colossal audience of 155,000 registered students. If each lecture hall held 200 students and five classes were offered each semester during the fall and winter terms, that would be equivalent to the total class participation realized over 77 and a half years!

At Princeton, longtime professor of Sociology Mitchell Duneier offered an online course after thirty years of routine classroom- style lectures. 40,000 students enrolled. Stanford, too, experienced similar success with its Artificial Intelligence course, recording over 160,000 registrations, according to the New York Times.

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Today, McGill is continuously ranked amongst the top twenty universities around the world – as ranked in a Times Higher Education poll in Macleans – year after year. However, according to Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, we have been recently hit by an estimated $19-million budget cut from the Quebec government that may have tarnishing repercussions on the McGill’s reputation. As the University’s figures out how to deal with a smaller financial endowment, students face mounting tuition fees.

Will the MOOCs movement spark a drastic change in our education system? Will prospective students consider MOOCs as an alternative to a traditional education? How will universities bring in revenue from free online courses? How does all this affect McGill?

The Daily asked Professor James Clark, the former associate dean of academics of McGill’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, about the MOOCs movement at McGill. Clark asserted that online course offerings are a natural extension of McGill’s educational outreach and that “online lectures have a number of advantages over classroom lectures, such as flexibility in scheduling, and allowing students to review the lecture many times if needed. Students will have to be self-disciplined to make sure they keep up with all of the lectures.”

Clark also expressed positivity when asked about the financial returns of such a program, believing that such an offering could bring in additional revenue. McGill would be able to expand its reach into new markets, while also reducing on-campus costs by more efficient use of classrooms.
As this debate continues to mature on McGill’s campus, the right question may not be whether we can afford to give free classes online, but rather, can we afford not to.