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U of O online courses raise concerns about whether student needs are being met

Originally published on March 4, 1999

As the University of Ottawa joins other schools across North America in developing Internet-based courses, the increasing use of information technology is causing excitement and raising concerns. 

There are now over a hundred courses at the U of O that use Internet-based materials in some way, whether it be a World Wide Web site, online discussion groups and professor interviews, or posting of assignment information. The technology is found in all faculties, including arts and social sciences.

This year, half of the students in the U of O’s first-year micro-economics course are using a new Internet-based course. Economics professor Victoria Barham, who designed the course, predicts that all first-year economics courses could be using the technology as early as next year.

The program the course uses is a “virtual classroom” that functions much like an e-mail listserv – it allows students and professors to post messages in a common online forum asking questions, discussing homework, or even complaining about problems in the course. 

“One of the things that is wonderful about this new technology is that it really facilitates cooperation between students,” said Barham. “Collectively, they’re a lot smarter than they are individually.”

The advantage to what Barham calls “the new pedagogy” is that students work when it’s convenient for them. Barham noted that students tend to log on late at night, and that students who are quiet in class find it easier to ask questions online.

Jack Houseman, director of the U of O’s Teaching Technologies Services – the department that deals with all Web or Internet based-courses at the University – says that the oft-raised concern of equal computer access doesn’t seem to be a problem so far. Whereas most students in Internet-based courses logged on from campus last year, this year 76 per cent log on from elsewhere.

“The kinds of problems we’re going to have are different levels of access [depending on the capabilities of different computers and servers],’” said Houseman. “There’s always a potential problem, but I think we’re doing pretty well.”

Ease of access is not the only issue raised by the new technology.

“One of the biggest fears out there is that it’s what I call ‘extreme-distance education’, where the student never sees the professor,” said Houseman. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. What is going to change is what’s done in the structured classroom time. I think it’s a positive change, but it would be negative if it went to the extreme.”

Barham does not think that the human side of education is in danger, since students quickly became accustomed to close contact with their professor.

“The students in sections [that use this technology] have a far more personal relationship with their professors. There’s so much more contact, with both professors and teaching assistants,” she said.

She added that there was an obvious difference in the students’ perception of how well they should know the teaching staff in a course.

“When we got the evaluations back [in December], students complained that they didn’t get to know their teaching assistants (T.A.) [personally]. That’s amusing because in a traditional class, they don’t even know their T.A.’s names,” she said.

However, it is possible that technology will allow universities to enroll more students in each section, since, according to Barham, the impetus behind these changes is that the growing size of classes makes them difficult to teach.

Pat McCurdy, v.p. of internal operations of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, said the students of the future could take a course without going to class, seeing the professor, or even living in Ottawa, but says this would be going too far.

“I still think that the didactic relationship with the professor is important. I still like learning in the classroom setting,” he said. “The relationship between student and professor is important and I wouldn’t want to see this technology separate it.”

Fun Facts about this Article:

  • Published March 4, 1999 – almost 21 years before COVID-19 struck Canada
  • Kate Heartfield graduated from the U of O in political science, and got a Master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University
  • Heartfield is now a published author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction
  • Heartfield is a professor of journalism at Carleton University