The Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics at Trent University

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

The future of Trent: More than half our credits online?

I sat down to my breakfast and opened my paper to this:
Ontario universities need to cut undergraduate degrees from four to three years, offer classes year-round and allow students to earn more than half their credits online, says a government paper obtained by the Star.
The report is written by staff in the office of Colleges and Universities Minister Glen Murray, who is quoted as saying work on the report continues before its planned release for public discussion in March.  But I cannot wait until March to say that I think it a disservice to Trent students to move to earning more than half of a B.A. online.

I am not averse to change.  (Okay, sometimes I am, but it's not always rational.)  I am receptive to the possibility that even changes which sound bad will turn out to be good, or at least the norm.  Intuitions can be wrong, misleading, and reflective of mere fear of uncertainty.  So I will likely discuss with my department the positive aspects of offering one or two philosophy courses online, especially practice-based courses like Critical Thinking.  But the statement that it is important we respond to technological advance in order that our degrees "hold their value" is undermined by doing something the very best universities do not seem at all inclined to do.  Are Oxford and Harvard hastening to see that their students earn more than half their degree credits online?  Trent's not Oxford or Harvard, but what becomes of my students when they graduate from here with a largely online degree, and compete for jobs, internships, or placement in graduate and professional school alongside students from excellent institutions?  In the past, my students couldn't claim to be alums of a school with a halo of prestige, but they could demonstrate that their skills and experiences were not vastly different from those of graduates from elite universities.  Will they still be able to do so when earning over half of their degrees online, while prestigious institutions meet in person, and interactively develop all the skills of their students?

And what happens to Trent if the professors who value interpersonal development look elsewhere, or don't apply here because they hope for better?  It seems like a recipe for the opposite of recruitment of the best scholars and professors.  It's so, so far from the Trent I heard about, the one with tutorials, intensive discussion, unforgettable seminars by the river.  Where are we going?

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