Having faced a lot of personal challenges myself, I have always been a strong proponent of increased access to higher education. Thanks to my graduate diploma in multimedia instructional design and master’s degree in distance education and having spent the last four years working on my Ph.D. in educational technology (hoping to defend in June-July), access has always been a core value in my work and the force behind my creativity. I have worked hard to provide value, service and increased opportunities to online students and will continue to do so in any capacity after I graduate.
Having said that, higher education institutions want online students’ business and I feel they tend to paint lifelong learning in glowing colors: you can study from home, in your pyjamas, with a good cup of coffee and the dog on your lap. Well, you know what? Life happens. There are work deadlines, sick kids, aging parents, dentist appointments, tax income reports to be filled, and garbage to be taken out. I am not talking about me personally as I have been extremely privileged in terms of emotional support from my loved ones and financial assistance from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. But prospective students need to know that in spite of all its charm, their online graduate program will be very demanding both effort- and time-wise.
I do not believe that online graduate studies should be marketed for their convenience and “user-friendliness”. They are, after all, graduate studies and one needs to be prepared to be challenged, challenge other people’s thoughts and materials, explore their own values, create new content and determine how this new content can best be adapted to their own circumstances, with the goal of making a significant contribution to society.
I have worked with instructors and students from about 15 North American universities over the last few years. I have seen the best and the worst. When students remain at the exploration stage throughout their master’s degree, I am sorry but I do not think that this serves the goals of higher education. Their lifelong learning efforts would be better spent on learning a new language or learning to code, not attending a graduate program. When good reputation universities start offering under-par online programs aimed at a clientele that is not knowledgeable, motivated, autonomous nor technology-savvy, it spells trouble and this leveling down has nothing to do with increased access.