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Keeping Pace with the World: the U of A Should Join the World of Open Access Education | By Emerson Csorba

When I think of the University of Alberta, one of the first phrases that comes to mind is the “uplifting of the whole people.” These words, uttered by Henry Marshall Tory, are repeated in numerous speeches by President Dr. Indira Samarasekera and many of her colleagues across the institution. They’re powerful words, encouraging members of the university academy to impact not only their own university, but the city, province and nation.

Last week, Michael Ross wrote about the rapidly-evolving online model of education, which sees organizations such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare, the Khan Academy and Coursera gaining steam. In each of these cases, educators work together to provide their course materials to students across the world – for free. There are certainly criticisms against open access to education, but the advantages are clear. Institutions that were once closed-off to large segments of the world, such as MIT, now post thousands of their courses online, for anyone to see.

So far, Canadian universities seem less involved in the open course movement than many of their American counterparts. Though the University of Toronto is a member of Coursera, it is surrounded by universities such as Caltech, Michigan, San Francisco, Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Illinois, Penn and Rice. Currently, just sixteen schools contribute to Coursera.

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The University of Alberta is a remarkable institution, with outstanding professors and a unique geographical setting. To our north, aboriginal communities and the much-discussed and highly-contentious oil sands. Several hundred kilometres to our west tower the Rocky Mountains, and to our south, endless miles of prairies. Obviously, this short description doesn’t do our province justice, but I hope that it is still clear that the U of A is set in a physical environment unlike many of its counterparts.

Because of this diversity, the University of Alberta would be a strong addition to the sixteen institutions of higher education currently part of Coursera. The website currently features courses on “Securing Digital Democracy,” “Gamification” and “A History of the World Since 1300.” However, imagine seeing courses such as “Wetlands Preservation in Industrialized Areas,” “Introduction to the Oil Sands,” and “Print-making and design” from our nationally-acclaimed Fine Arts Department. The University of Alberta is in a strong position to educate the world on these issues, since they take place in our own backyard.

If the U of A truly wants to “uplift the whole people,” then what better way to connect with high school students, university community members and adults (many of which do not possess a degree) than through open access to our courses? If you scroll through the university’s current course offerings in the Faculty of Extension, most courses cost over $500. If you’re an adult short on money but with a thirst for knowledge, then EXCACE 7132 Tools and Technologies for E-Learning is out of question. Why would you choose a $575 online course over, say, “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” taught by several professors at the University of Edinburgh? Taking the U of A course would be no different than paying $575 to see a flimsy division two English soccer team play when you have free tickets to Manchester United versus Chelsea at Old Trafford.

Implementing open courses at the U of A would take several million dollars. The university would need to fund several staff to coordinate the publishing of courses. The professors that agree to participate would probably spend less time in a physical classroom at the U of A. MIT states that each course costs about $10,000-15,000 to put online and then broadcast to a worldwide community. However, there are universities in much worse financial situations, such as Cal-Berkeley, that are already championing this movement.

The advantages to open education at the U of A, however, would be phenomenal. Imagine seeing the university educate not only students in the traditional 18-25 year-old range, but high school students and adult learners across the province. Moreover, imagine being a U of A student in science that can finally take that design course from human ecology that your friends have been telling you about! And how much would this cost in dollars for learners in each class? That’s right, nothing.

It’s about time that the University of Alberta seriously considers this route. The world’s forging ahead at a breakneck pace, and I hope that we keep up.

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