ROBERT SHEPPARD November 23 1998


ROBERT SHEPPARD November 23 1998




It is nearly showtime. On a catwalk five feet above the auditorium floor, psych prof “Dr. Mike” Atkinson is pumped and ready to roll. Behind him, sharp bursts of computer-generated images fill a large screen. Hip-hop pours soothingly out of the overhead speakers as 1,200 University of Western Ontario students climb to their seats. Atkinson’s pre-Halloween lecture, a trip into subconscious fears, had included a smoke machine. Today’s, “the

mysterious world of our dreams,” is more modest. But it still requires 20 hours of preparation, a technical producer and five teaching assistants—one solely to monitor the Internet sites that back up the course work—to pull it off. Welcome to Psychology Superclass, an innovation that is either going to shake your faith in higher learning or restore the Ivory Tower to its pinnacle as a happening place.

For the next 75 minutes, Atkinson will stroll the makeshift stage and the cramped aisles of the campus’s largest auditorium. His main tools: a clipboard, an electronic signaller and a Madonna-like microphone on a headset. With his long hair and moustache, he has the air of a Sixties rock star, but he works the crowd more like Oprah, ac-

knowledging the birthdays of two class members, then launching into a six-minute video to introduce the lesson.

Research shows that student attention spans drop dramatically after 10 minutes on any one subject, and the Superclass crackles along with the pacing of a MuchMusic video: a short discussion about sleep disorders, some questions from the floor, consumer tips on how to get a better night’s sleep, a survey of what students dream about, a three-minute overview of Sigmund Freud—to be followed up, Atkinson assures, by a full lecture on the father of psychoanalysis in the weeks ahead—and a Superclass Web site that directs students to other Internet sources of information. “I call it educational theatre,” says Atkinson. “Unless you perform, you don’t get their attention. And I want their attention. I want these students to know somebody gives a damn.”

A born showman? Sure. But the Superclass is more than a stage for an outgoing personality, more than an excuse for a cashstrapped university to cut corners with ever-larger classes. It is part of a re-emphasis on teaching that is sweeping the ranks of Canadian

universities. Fighting to keep the attention of a generation that has been brought up on visual stimulation and the touch-tone ease of the Information Age, university professors are desperately trying to ride the waves of new technology and reinvent the lecture—and maybe even their own roles in the bargain.

The stakes are high. For 2,500 years, universities have withstood by sheltering the high priests of knowledge. But the genial anarchy of the Internet in particular is now threatening to topple their most precious towers. “Learning in a research university is a contact sport,” declares University of Toronto president Robert Prichard. “It comes from the synergy of putting together

very talented people, active in research, active with students in a research seminar.” Maybe so. But other thinkers, like Larry Ellison, chief executive of softwaremaker Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif., are positing a future where

course work will be individually tailored on demand over the Internet and taught by a handful of academic superstars from the Harvards or the MITs of the world. Who would not want to take a linguistics course from Noam Chomsky or somehow participate in an economics seminar with Stanford’s Paul Romer without leaving the comfort of home? Unanswered, for the moment, is whether such developments would undermine the role of more ordinary universities and teachers—or augment them with one of modern technology’s most powerful tools.

According to an unreleased report to Canada’s provincial ministers of education in August, obtained by Maclean’s, Internet courses, aimed primarily at an undergraduate market and being delivered increasingly by virtual consor-


tiums of American universities, are growing at a rate of 20 to 30 per cent a year. These new techniques are two-way, interdisciplinary and, above all else, “big business.” If Canadian universities cannot rise to the challenge of “education on demand,” warns the report by TeleEducation New Brunswick, a provincial agency, and a team of researchers at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., they might find themselves stuck with the less-profitable, traditional undergraduate schooling and declining public budgets.

What is more, the Internet may not be the only revolution in the making. A survey of 821 Canadians, conducted for Maclean’s between Oct. 22

and Nov. 1 by Northstar Research Partners of Toronto, shows startlingly different interpretations of the role and value of university education between today’s young people and their parents’ generation. Only 44 per cent of Canadians be-

tween 18 and 29 feel that a university education is the best way to get ahead in life, compared with 52 per cent of those over 45. Also, the younger group would be more likely to study in the United States if they had the chance, a sentiment most strongly held in British Columbia where postsecondary enrolment generally is booming.

Sharper divisions exist on the purpose of the university. Significant numbers of young people—especially in Quebec—believe the university’s primary roles are to train for jobs, to perform groundbreaking research and, generally, to keep Canada competitive. Their parents’ generation does not share these values to anywhere near the same extent. Older Canadians appear to see the university more as the wellspring of a broad intel-

lectual experience. Their fear of the future, of where the next job will be, is not as palpable.

Universities are aware of the generational insecurities and are trying to respond in a number of ways—by creative partnering with community colleges and private technical schools, by developing more co-op and job-placement courses in areas of applied study, even in the fine arts, and by incorporating more incidental computer training into intellectual pursuits. But they are unwilling to give up on themselves as the primary theatre of contact learning— the place to meet, to discuss and to debate. As a result, the focus has been on reinventing the classroom. In the past couple of years, a growing number of Canadian institutions have reinvigorated their internal instruction programs to help professors learn how to teach a generation that has grown up with technology at its fingertips. More important, some have begun to give communication skills equal weighting to published research when it comes to promotion and tenure, thereby opening the debate on how the learning ex-

perience is to unfold: through the wizardry of communications technology or through the simple intimacy of being engaged in common pursuits.

At the University of Alberta, for example, chemistry professor John Vederas, a frustrated sculptor, won that university’s highest teaching award this year for, among other things, what he likes to call his “moral tales”: little personalized sermons he uses to challenge his students as they make their way through that day’s lesson. Across campus, anatomy professor Dr. Anil Walji, another awardwinner and a devout meditator, tells his students to “chill out,” to not let the study of medicine and exams be the overriding force in their lives. He also has his first-year students treat cadavers as if they were living patients, hoping to make these students better physicians. Walji and Western’s Atkinson are two of this year’s winners of the coveted

3M Canada award for university instruction. So is Delsworth Harnish, a cell biologist at McMaster University in Hamilton. “I lecture well—I love to lecture, and my students complain about not having enough,” says the soft-spoken Harnish. “But in the university factory, I think we’ve had it all wrong.” His solution: he lectures for five of the 13 weeks of the semester and breaks his large classes up into small groups for the remainder to solve problems on their own and communicate with him by e-mail when they need help. Their main course material is a computer-simulated biology lab developed by Bioquest Curriculum Consortium at Beloit

College in Wisconsin. Its greatest attribute, apart from being leased at the relatively cheap rate of 25 cents per student, per year, is that there are no “correct” answers provided for students or instructor: students are forced to work through a variety of random introductory-level problems themselves with the instructor grading them on the validity of their approach and their ability to formulate questions.

In large lecture halls, students can lurk in the shadows and just regurgitate the facts they have absorbed on an exam, says Harnish. The problem is more pronounced in science because it is viewed as being ruled by facts. But the medical schools are complaining that they are not getting enough entrants who have learned how to learn.

So Harnish’s problem-solving approach, especially when it is conducted through a computer network of e-mails and student “chat rooms,” enables him to lurk, to occasionally guide the discussions

as an unidentified participant and not the voice of professorial authority. “A good teacher,” says Harnish, quoting another, “is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.”

Is the role of the university professor changing? “Unquestionably,” says Gary Griffin, director of teaching resources at the University of Waterloo. ‘We are known as a research university. But more and more, we are hiring people for their ability to teach in the classroom.” At the same time, business thinkers such as Claudine Simson, director of external research at Nortel in Saint John, N.B., argue that the instructors of tomorrow will become more vital as “guides and interpreters to the cross-disciplinary knowledge students will need to ride the networks of the future”—a view that has some adherents in academia. But as Dr. Lome Tyrrell, dean of medicine at the University of Alberta, argues: “Universities have to do research. And good researchers make good teachers because they

can speak with authority and a sense of excitement—and we need that excitement. But we are also moving to that new paradigm— problem-based learning where we realize that students are going to have to learn to mine information on their own.”

So what do students think about the changes in the learning environment? At first blush, it is the personal contact that gives the university experience its cachet. One of the reasons Vederas is so popular with undergraduates at the University of Alberta is because “he actually asks us questions,” says first-year student Erin Chernick. “He also tells us childhood stories about flushing chlo-

rine down the toilet to see what the reaction would be.” (It made a gas that hung in the air and forced his family to evacuate the house.) At Dalhousie in Halifax, 27-year-old Edward de Zeeuw, a part-time graduate student, changed disciplines from physics to computer science largely because of one teacher, Prof. Sampalli Srinivas. ‘This was a person at the front of the class with a piece of chalk and the blackboard,” says de Zeeuw. “But he radiated such sincerity. He would stop the lectures and ask us how we were doing. Or make suggestions about what he does to motivate himself. It got to a point where I would just look up his name on the course list and sign up.”

On the other hand, students who are taking degrees online from a distant university speak of a different kind of intimacy that keeps them motivated. “This works for me because I don’t have to be in the same place as everyone else and I can work in my pyjamas if I want,” says Simonne

Dickie, who is pursuing a master’s degree in distance education from Athabasca University in northern Alberta from her home near Kelowna in southern British Columbia. Lacking the peer pressures of classmates means “you have to take a lot more responsibility yourself,” says Dickie, which explains why online students tend to be in their mid-20s or older. In the United States, four of five online undergraduates also had jobs, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics in Washington. But the distance may even help the learning process because of the “netiquette” of electronic communication: “You have to be more thoughtful about what you are saying because it is going down in text, being archived somewhere for others to see,” says Dickie. “It is not like just spouting off in class.”

Online courses are not cheap. Individual Canadian courses average about $440 and spike up into the $1,000 range for computer

programs. A fully accredited Webbased MBA such as the one Ontario’s University of Guelph and Athabasca offer jointly in agriculture, comes with a price tag of $21,000. And though these are home-based courses, they can involve considerable travel. Lelita and Rod Bailey from Sydney, N.S., have each just completed a three-year MBA from Athabasca,

Canada’s leading purveyor of online education with 51 Internet courses and more than 400 others available through e-mail, computer or videoconferencing. Part of the extra cost for the Baileys was the mandatory weeklong seminars with their instructors and classmates that were only available at sites in Ontario or Western Canada. ‘We used up a lot of airmile points,” laughs Lelita. “But with 5 e-mail, you don’t get the feel for the | other person in the group. The semi^ nars were a nice balance.” x

Online learning, still in its infancy, is g growing by leaps and bounds. In the I United States, an estimated one million undergrads are plugged into the “virtual classroom,” compared with about 13 million attending traditional campuses. The 1993 Peterson college guide listed 93 “cyber schools”; the 1997 version has 762. In Canada, the most recent tally lists 99 postsecondary institutions offering nearly

1,300 online or “technology-mediated” courses, 46 per cent at the undergraduate level, most of them introductory.

The report by TeleEducation New Brunswick and the team at Simon Fraser says that, while Canada is doing well in connecting classrooms and developing computerized learning materials at the high-school level, there are problems at the postsecondary level because of stop-and-go funding, institutional inertia and an influx of American programs. New players include the California Virtual University, the Western Governors University (a consortium of universities in 16 states, China and the University of British Columbia), and the Open University of Britain, which has been known to invest up to $250,000 to develop a single course that might be delivered all over the world.

Many of these institutions hire freelance tutors to design the courses and run them, a sore point with tenured faculty. The University of Phoenix, in Arizona, a private, profit-oriented institution with a decade of online instruction under its belt, set up shop recently in Vancouver. The courses, to begin in January, are six weeks long with weekly assignments and one instructor for the 25 students in each course. But while its arrival has generated plenty of media interest, online students account for less than seven per cent of Phoenix’s student population, an indicator that they are not for everyone.

Internet courses are too new on the scene for their achievements to be measured against their traditional counterparts. But Roger Boshier, an education studies professor at the University of British Columbia, warns that many of them should come with consumerbeware labels. Boshier, 56, and a team of five researchers analyzed 127 online courses. His conclusion: “Some are an unmitigated bore,” while others are “laced with links, animation and more than enough glitter and glam to make Liberace wince.” Of the 127, four were found to be “a complete blast,” and 19 were very enjoyable. The most damning indictment: courses, or the Internet sites they relied upon for content, would be available one week but not the


next. Boshier’s biggest surprise: “It was mostly the old codgers like me who are putting on these courses; the young turks are too preoccupied trying to earn tenure.”

Old codgers, indeed. At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., George Perlin has been teaching political science to the budding Canadian Establishment for 28 years. A bit of

an Establishment figure himself, he is giving this year’s version without books or printed material of any sort: his entire introductory course on Canadian politics is on three computer CDs and contains, among other things, 160 video clips, culled from the CBC archives by a Newsworld producer. With a click of the mouse, students who were nine years old when John Turner waged his battle with Brian Mulroney over free trade can watch the key moments in that 1988 electoral debate and then discuss it in class. “This is a generation much more used to getting its information visually,” says Perlin. “When you think how technology has changed everything in our environment over the past 25 years—we watched the Gulf War on our TV sets, for heaven’s sakes—we should be doing so much more of this with education.”

Perlin still lectures to his classes. The CDs are meant to complement what he has to say. They are a distillation of his lecture notes over the years, designed to draw students deeper into topics through the videos, Internet-links, computer “chat rooms” and references to electronic versions of traditional printed materials found on the course Web site. They are not his ode to posterity. Says Perlin: “It is just a new way of presenting knowledge—not linear but layered.” Surprisingly cheap to update, it is not meant to launch Perlin Inc., or Queen’s Poli Sci 101 into an unsuspecting undergraduate class in another university. But a few smaller universities have been sniffing around for the CD, and Perlin is clearly intrigued by the possibility of a broader audience. Merely exporting the electronic course to other schools “wouldn’t be the best use of the technology or the learning experience,” Perlin says. In the academic world, it is the cat’s pyjamas to be published in whatever form—and all the more of a triumph to be technologically relevant. But universities seem to be betting their future on the notion that teaching is, above all else, an intimate act, an act of dialogue and inspiration. Even if communications technology can be used to mediate this act, to make it work with larger groups, it still only works best when it is face-to-face. □