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Using the BlueJeans networking software, developed by the Technology Integration and Evaluation (TIE) Lab, and a high definition video conferencing camera students in the Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies class at the University of Victoria are able to learn from home in BC, Alberta and the Yukon with students locally from the MacLaurin Building at the University of Victoria, in Victoria,BC Friday September 28, 2012 .CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Among the tens of thousands of people signed up for the University of Toronto's online computer science course Learn to Program: The Fundamentals, there are a lot of unconventional students. There are 30-somethings who never went to university and never earned a degree, and are searching for skills that might lead to a job. There is an octogenarian with a curious streak and a stable of retirees looking for a chance to buck the stereotypes of a generation that grew up without computers. And there is a student from Malaysia.

Paul Gries, one of the course's two instructors, does not know if that student is male or female, but he knows it is someone whose education stopped at high school, and who badly wanted to learn programming but couldn't find a viable local option.

"These are people I'd never, ever have imagined teaching," Prof. Gries said. "This is a big rush."

These students are online learners, a few of the 100,000 who have enrolled so far in three courses the Toronto school just launched. They hail from Indonesia and Tunisia, Lithuania, Sudan and Kyrgyzstan – and the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Canada too.

The classes are the University of Toronto's first through U.S.-based Coursera, one of several new ventures in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the not-for-credit courses available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. (The University of B.C. is also offering a small slate of courses.)

Of late, MOOCs have dominated the conversation around online learning. They drastically change distance learning, breaking down the barriers of geography and fees, while connecting students across the globe with each other and with some of the world's top teaching talents. Through Coursera, Princeton is offering Spanish civilization professor Jeremy Adelman's A History of the World since 1300, while Wesleyan has its president, Michael S. Roth, teaching The Modern and the Postmodern.

Armed with millions of dollars from venture capitalists and university coffers, and fuelled by universities eager to brand themselves as innovators, three American MOOC providers – Coursera, edX and Udacity – have launched in the last nine months alone. Yet despite excitement over this apparent democratization of higher learning, skeptics are multiplying. They argue the medium hasn't fixed the message: Many MOOCs simply take traditional classes that were small, closed and expensive, and amplify them to be huge, open and free. The learning may be multiplied, but so are the classroom's existing limitations.

"These ways of teaching don't adapt to diversity, to different learning styles," said Sara Diamond, president of OCAD University in Toronto. "The learning experience is absolutely uniform."

The Canadian answer to how much MOOCs can contribute to learning will have to rely largely on the American experience. But it didn't have to be this way – Canada had a chance to lead.

In 2008, two University of Manitoba teachers prepared a course for 25 paying students exploring ways to make learning more social and less hierarchical. In a nod to the subject matter, UManitoba's George Siemens and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council decided to throw open the virtual doors and let anyone join in for free.

"We just said, it costs us nothing to do what we do in a regular classroom and reduce the walls and open it up," said Dr. Siemens, who now teaches at Alberta's fully-online Athabasca University.

They expected a couple of hundred responses at best. But soon 2,300 people from 60 countries delved digitally into blogging assignments, discussion forums and "synchronous" online get-togethers, unconcerned that they would receive no credit – not even the certificates of completion offered in some newer MOOCs.

The UManitoba course, widely acknowledged as the first MOOC, took early inspiration from an idea that is only now gaining momentum in the U.K., Finland and Spain: that universities should be less protective of their newest ideas and brightest minds, allowing them to mingle more freely online.

"We used to think that when you hold on tightly to your ideas, you're going to get better recognition, but the reverse [is now true]: If you put things out there, people look at you," said Alec Couros, an educational technology professor at the University of Regina who has similarly experimented with opening for-credit online courses to a wider community.

Looking back on the UManitoba course, Dr. Siemens wishes Canadian schools would band together and build their own open learning platform.

MOOCs are not a cure-all for higher education's challenges, he says. Even fervent e-advocates caution online classes are not a substitute for in-person instruction. But they offer a low-risk testing ground for ways to engage students in remote locations using video, new learning software and social media.

"It would give Canadian university leaders an opportunity to experiment and to really have their finger on the pulse," he said.

Rather than investing in their own technological platforms, however, Canadian and U.S. administrators have felt it "safer to contract out," said American instructional technologist Jim Groom, of the University of Mary Washington. Universities settled into secure but limited learning-management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle, creating "a decade of lost innovation."

For Canadian innovators, spreading change is difficult in a university system that that has been averse to taking risks. The collaborative, egalitarian spirit of the online world demands a different style of teaching than a professor delivering a lecture. Students say professors in good online courses have allowed them to alter the course outline by adding their own sources and materials.

"[Universities] don't want to fail. They don't want to get a black eye," Dr. Siemens said.

A few schools have created administrative roles dedicated to teaching innovation, but most are "not really pushing limits," said Valerie Irvine, a professor of educational technology and co-director of the University of Victoria's Technology Integration and Evaluation (TIE) Lab.

At UVic, Dr. Irvine has piloted a teacher-education course that joined 10 students in a classroom with 17 tuned in from afar by live video stream, which she now calls "multi-access learning." She also applied to a corporate foundation for a $1.75-million grant, hoping to develop a pan-Canadian open online program that faculty from numerous universities could join. Despite the huge enrolment in MOOCs, Canadian and U.S. surveys show students and educators are still lukewarm toward online learning, though research also suggests the more exposure they have to online classes, the more positively they react to them.

Alison Seaman is a convert. At age 34, she has two bachelor's degrees, a college certificate, and will soon finish a master's – and until last fall, she hadn't taken a single online course. She was dubious of e-learning after hearing tales of heavy readings, scarce support from professors, and superficial message-board discussions.

But a friend prodded her to sign up as one of 20 paying students in Social Media and Open Education, a URegina online course taught by Dr. Couros, who invited another 200 people from several countries – many of them professors and experts – to join less formally as participants and mentors. They blogged assignments, met once a week through a live video stream, and traded ideas on Twitter at all hours, across continents, and even after the course ended.

It was a "transformative experience" Ms. Seaman said. "The structure of the class really lends itself to collaboration."

As digital prophets and classroom traditionalists polarize the debate over online education's future, Dr. Couros's mini-MOOC hints at the potential to harness the technology's unlimited reach to enrich more traditional, for-credit classes. "Instead of the ratio being one instructor to 20 students, it ended up being 10 mentors to every student, which was sort of amazing," he said.

But more broadly, it may signal the start of a new, more open university culture that could change the way Canadian knowledge moves and grows around the world.

"When you take those Nobel Prize winners, those Canada Research Chairs, those excellent minds from a research angle, and you actually open access to them, I think that's where we can really blow the future of higher-ed in a different way," Dr. Irvine said. "I think a lot of these bricks-and-mortar institutions are kind of like sleeping giants. And I think they're about to wake up."


There are some wide variations in the amount of time a student spends each time they visit the website for the University of Toronto's Learn to Program: Crafting Quality Code course, offered through Coursera. The course instructors don't know why some students spend almost an hour while Canadians average 20 minutes. It could be language difficulties - or perhaps dedication. Regardless, the online format allows them to learn when they want to.

20:23 – Canada

23:06 – United States

29:28 – Poland

36:41 – Phillipines

40:13 – Argentina

55:28 – Vietnam

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