Online University Courses

Are online courses changing the teaching structures of the traditional university?

The traditional university instruction model is perhaps best represented by Cambridge and Oxford in the UK. There, the teaching involves a mixture of lectures and tutorials (or supervisions). Typically the tutorials are hour long sessions in which the students meet weekly with a member of the teaching staff. The relative importance of these methods varies according to the needs of the subject.

It is intellectually enriching for most students to be in the same room with a stimulating teacher. And it is equally important for most students to be in the same room with fellow students with whom ideas may be exchanged. The desirability of this type of interaction is unlikely to be replaced by the Internet.

But lectures may be a different matter.

Lectures should be given by a competent and inspiring professor. It is undeniable that some teachers perform better than others. The best teaching professors that I had at law school were able to communicate their ideas to all the students and not just to the bright students. Universities offering online lectures will surely choose the best teaching professors for online lectures.

Online teaching at the university level is not new. The University of Phoenix was founded in 1976 to provide working adults with higher education options including online programs. The University of Phoenix has over 200 locations worldwide. The University of Phoenix has a student enrolment of over 350,000.

Some small colleges in the USA are turning to online instruction due to financial pressures. For example, the University of Southern New Hampshire, founded 80 years ago, has 14,000 students and states on its website “Earn your Masters degree in Environmental Education completely online”.

Prof. Clay Christensen of Harvard University’s Business School advocates changes to the traditional university model that involve, inter alia, online teaching. The University of Phoenix recorded one of his lectures and sent it to 130,000 business students. Prof. Christensen has published books on innovation in commercial enterprises.

Some university professors are now following the Cambridge/Oxford model by having students do an online session first and then come to class for help in problem areas and for interactive projects.

On July 17, 2012 a Toronto Star headline read: “University of Toronto partners Coursera to offer free online courses”. U. of T. and eleven USA universities are partnering with Coursera. Coursera, a for-profit company, was launched in January 2012 by two professors at Stanford University and has currently enrolled 700,000 students. Coursera and the participating schools each meet their own expenses and the schools receive 20% of any future gross profits. To date all courses are open and not for credit. One of the Stanford professors states: “The question is no longer whether or not universities should be doing online education, but only a question of how”.

The evidence to date is that online teaching exists at some universities and is likely to increase.


  1. Of interest: findings by the Pew Research Center, Pew Social and Demographic Trends regarding digital information and higher education conducted in August 2011: