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May 10, 2001 Concordia's Web-based courses serve markets at home and abroad




by Jane Shulman

Distance-learning courses are becoming more common at Concordia as the university expands its integration of the Internet into the curriculum. The number of Web-based sections of courses that used to be taught only in classrooms is growing steadily.

While many courses have Web sites that complement classroom lectures and discussions, distance-learning courses have no class time, and rely solely on video and online resources.

“Concordia’s mandate is not just 18- to 24-year-olds. Distance learning makes the institution more accessible,” said Andrew McAusland, Director of Academic Technology in the Faculty of Arts and Science and Executive Director of IITS, the university’s computer department.

Reeta Tremblay, chair of Concordia’s Political Science Department, agrees. “We find that a lot of people who work, seniors, stay-at-home moms, women who are pregnant, and students who want to take a fifth class but don’t have any more time during school hours, take these courses. They like it because time is not a constraint,” she said.

Political Science has a few distance-learning courses at the moment, and there are plans for others to come.

Tremblay explained that only 200-level courses are part of this initial phase of the project. The department tries to choose courses of interest to students across disciplines, in the hopes of attracting students who might not otherwise take a political science course.

Tremblay noted that 60 per cent of the students in Web-based courses were not majoring in political science. “The students are more diverse online than in classrooms.”

In the human rights course she taught online last year, Tremblay was not surprised to find that there are many differences between classroom-based and Web-based courses.

The class readings are all online, and a portion of the grade is for students’ participation in online message boards. Students are required to participate in eight discussion periods, where they answer questions about the readings. However, the exams, worth 50 per cent of the final grade, are held on campus to maintain academic integrity.

“It’s a strange feeling not to see students’ faces,” Tremblay said, “but in some ways, there are many similarities.”

“There are people who speak a great deal in class, and there are some students online who write more than the others. In classroom settings, people sometimes feel like the odd one out. They feel they won’t fit in. Distance learning courses help take away people’s inhibitions.”

Tremblay realizes that many students take distance learning courses because they think the courses will be easier. Not true, she said.

“It tests what people read, which makes it challenging. Students tend to find that these courses are more difficult because they know they have to discipline themselves.”

Web courses abroad

The future of Web-based learning at Concordia extends far beyond Montreal. Martin Singer, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and a Sinologist for 35 years, is working on exchanging resources with institutions in China.

“Most of the agreements that we have just signed in China are general agreements of academic co-operation, typically in a specific field,” he said in an interview.

“Several deal in a preliminary way with the possibility of co-operation in educational or academic technology. This is an emerging field in China, and one in which Concordia is playing a leading role in Canada.”

Singer outlined four ways that these agreements will benefit Concordia: in research, exchanges, recruitment and raising Concordia’s international profile. The long-term plan would allow Concordia faculty and students (undergraduate and graduate) to participate in exchanges and internships in China.

“[Such agreements also] provide us with a means of recruiting outstanding Chinese students for selected Concordia undergraduate and graduate programs, of bringing other Chinese students to our campuses for study abroad experiences, and of providing virtual-study-abroad experiences for others,” he said.