We spend a great deal of our lives online, shopping or banking, watching movies, playing and communicating. But should we also learn online? Are technologies a means of educational enrichment? Or do they announce the emergence of anonymous universities where several thousand students never meet their professors?
Let’s first set the scene: technologies in education represent a spectrum of possibilities ranging from the use of PowerPoint to virtual immersion.
Are online courses effective? A meta-analysis of 50 studies conducted in 2010 by the US Department of Education found that university students and adult learners who took courses “on average obtained slightly better results than students doing the Learning in a traditional way. ”
Do online courses promote isolation? The most common complaint of our professors concerns the too large participation of their students in blogs, discussions and exchanges of emails!
Do students like this type of course? Close to 30,000 are registered at Concordia this year, and more than 36,000 were enrolled at Université Laval in 2010-2011. More than 200 online university programs are now available in Canada.
That said, let’s be clear: technologies are not an end, but a means. Online courses offer greater accessibility to working students who are parents or who live in the regions and allow for greater coherence in multi-section courses. Why is this accessibility necessary? A study conducted in 2012 for the US Department of Education shows that 73% of undergraduate university students can be classified as atypical. In Quebec, for example, over 70% of Quebec university students work while studying (40% in Canada). A complex world requires diverse and multiple educational access routes.
But several questions remain. Do technologies improve the transmission and acquisition of knowledge? Do they offer an enriching academic experience for both the student and the teacher?
At Concordia University, we are studying the impact of technologies to provide answers. The use of technology in university education forces us to evaluate and question our current teaching methods. What is the added value of an online course? How is such a course more appropriate to certain methods and disciplines? How can a teacher use social media to encourage students to better write, think and understand? By raising the question of the interest and participation of our students, technologies invite us to make our teaching an object of study, reflection and positioning.
The ultimate goal of university education is the improvement of society. We are part of the human drive to a world that strives to be fairer, more humane and more respectful of its environment by training women and men who will have the most effective and sophisticated methods, tools and cognitive structures to succeed. Technologies can help us achieve this goal.
But none of us forgets that at the heart of this formation resides the professor and the student. For a course to be successful, both must be comfortable in the dynamics created. Some will promote extreme use of technology. Others will prefer the lecture and the blackboard. Some teachers will apply the concept of the reverse course, where the classroom is used to discuss information previously put online. Others will twitter with their students during the counting of a provincial or federal vote.
We encourage and celebrate this wealth of approaches. The teacher and his students choose what makes the course more exciting to stimulate the development of critical thinking and creativity. The application of technology to teaching can go far beyond e-learning.
At Concordia, for example, Jason Lewis, a professor and co-director of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace research network, helped develop the critical, mathematical and linguistic skills of young members of the Kahnawake community through Helping to develop a video game inspired by their legends.