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Provost Masi explores effect of course digitization on university learning

The effect that new technologies such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have on the way universities operate was the subject of a lecture by Provost Anthony Masi on Nov. 14.

MOOCs are free, online courses, which provide traditional class content and are open to the public. In addition, individual MOOCs feature online forums, which allow for discussion between students, teaching assistants, and professors.

Although MOOCs are not graded and do not count for credit towards a degree at the host university, participants receive a certificate of completion if they finish the program and any activities that accompany it.

According to Masi, MOOCs are one indication that students are changing their expectations for education due to a digitization of resources; MOOCs have begun to alter the mechanisms for the delivery of information in higher education.

“The generation of students now coming to university are the first generation growing up as digital owners,” Masi said. “They have expectations about the ways these [devices] will be used in their education, but we as educators have not prepared our own professors to think about structures to accommodate this new generation of students.”

On Nov. 3, McGill announced plans to unveil its first MOOC using non-profit website edX.org. Founded by MIT and Harvard last May, edX.org provides university-level courses online for free to a global audience.

Since its announcement, over 5,000 students from across the world have enrolled in the course. Named “Food for Thought” and indexed as CHEM181x, the course will be formally available on Jan. 22 2014 and will be instructed by McGill Professors Ariel Fenster, David Harpp, and Joe Schwarcz.

Masi spoke further on the potential growth and accessibility that MOOCs can offer, citing the example of an introductory engineering course, named Circuits, which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently ran.

“10,000 students were able to complete the course,” Masi said. “That’s more than a professor at MIT can teach over his or her whole lifetime.”

Masi said one of the criticisms against MOOCs is the cost of production, which ranges between $100,000 to $200,000 per MOOC. Masi pointed out that MOOCs are not simply re-creations of traditional classroom teaching.

“The very first MOOCs are extremely expensive to make because they are really not just lecture recordings, they are courses redesigned to fit this mode of delivery and interaction with students,” Masi said. “You can’t just do 50 minutes of lecture; each hour of a MOOC has 10 to 20 additional hours of labour before you get to see it, so there certainly a cost to produce it.”

Helen Walsh, president and co-founder of the Literary Review of Canada, spoke on the necessity for student engagement in the conversation about MOOC development.

“Continual innovation of education is not just important to professors but students as well,” Walsh said. “[MOOCs] don’t necessarily need to replace how you’re studying now, but they do have the potential to complement how you’re studying […] and to impact the learning outcomes for the physical course that you’re taking as well.”

Marianne Chervier, a second-year masters student in the Faculty of Education who attended the event, said she is optimistic about the possibility of a greater integration of technology at McGill.

“Professors think quality assurance is their business, and they have a lot of forces pulling at them,” Chervier said. “I think [Masi] is doing a great job at understanding them and integrating them and I hope we will see some exciting changes and progressive technologies at McGill.”

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