During my recent interview with Trent University’s new President, Dr. Leo Groake (published in our last issue), he discussed at length the arrival of the digital age and how he believes it will transform higher education around the world.

“Digital education is going to become a key component of higher education in the future,” he said, before remarking that the provincial government is already pressing Ontario’s post-secondary institutions “very strongly” to add more online courses to their programming.

Later in the same interview, Dr. Groarke also talked about how universities across Ontario are facing similarly strong pressure from the provincial government to cut costs as the government hopes to reduce its operating operating budget by a whopping $12 billion over the next three years.

I, for one, find it difficult to believe that these come unrelated.

Online courses cost less money to run since they do not require lecture space or seminar rooms, and are attractive to penny-pinching administrators (both government and university) since they are not constrained geographically and can thus be marketed to students across Canada and even around the world.

For Trent, a university that has for years been forced to cut back its program offerings in the face of budget challenges and stagnant enrollment, offering cost-effective online learning at the same price as traditional, classroom-based learning can be an effective way to inject much needed revenue into the budget.

However, as someone who has taken several of these courses in my time at Trent, I can safely say that online courses as they are currently constructed offer a second-rate education that is absolutely incomparable with the highly personal tutorial learning that this university prides itself on.

The courses (at least the one’s I have taken) operate as extensions of the online Blackboard software, which means that they are little more than incredibly expensive online forums. These courses offer little room for important faculty-student engagement, academic debate is virtually non-existent, and it is impossible to develop any sort of meaningful rapport with your peers.

It should not be this way. If Trent University is committed and serious about offering a range digital programming in the future (and there is no reason to think that this should not be up for debate), then the university needs to act on Dr. Groarke’s words, that Trent should “expand in the direction of digital learning… in a way that’s keeping with what our core identity is.”

Accomplishing this, however, would mean bucking the current trends of discount education and building a unique approach to online learning that puts student experience ahead of cost-effectiveness and the bottom line.

It would mean pioneering new pedagogical practices and tools that combine the best aspects of our traditional tutorial approach with the accessibility, connectivity, and mobility of the Internet.

It would necessitate a meaningful, community-wide approach that ensures that the system is offering both professors and students the best possible avenues for engagement and accountability.

While its true that communications and human interaction are increasingly shifting to digital platforms, it is crucial that Trent enter this brave new “digital age” of education with the right priorities and for the right reasons.