A bold new world?

Editor’s Notebook
Photo by Owen Egan

Photo by Owen Egan

If you’re flipping through the pages of this magazine right now, chances are you’ve mused once or twice over the years about what it might be like to be a McGill student again. That wistful daydreaming probably doesn’t last for long. You’ve got bills to pay, a job to hold down and a lot of you are living a long way from campus at this point in your lives.

Well, regardless of whether you’re in Abu Dhabi or Albuquerque, the notion of taking a McGill course might not be so crazy after all.

McGill will launch its first-ever MOOC in January. Massive open online courses are among the hottest of topics at universities right now. The wave of
the future, claim some. A fad doomed to fail, mutter others. Provost Anthony Masi is more nuanced in his appraisal. In a recent, thoughtful piece in the Literary Review of Canada, Masi acknowledges that most experiments in distance education have offered little more than a “somewhat pale imitation of the campus-based experience.” Still, he sees much potential in the more sophisticated MOOC model — though he warrants there are plenty of kinks that universities will need to work out.

Student retention is a big one. Plenty of people sign up for MOOCs, but most of them don’t stick it out. Frustrated by drop-out rates as high as 90 per cent, one of the major players in the MOOC world, Udacity, recently declared that it would shift its focus to more vocational and industry-specific offerings.

Masi is aware of the problems, but he’d rather experiment than run the risk of falling behind. “If universities were traded on the futures market, I would only buy stock in those that are seriously addressing the key educational challenges of shifts in digital technology.”

McGill’s first MOOC looks like a winner. Based on a popular course organized by a trio of award-winning McGill teachers, “Food for Thought,” a user-friendly examination of the science behind what we eat, had almost 9,000 students signed up with seven weeks still to go before registration ended. According to David Harpp, one of the teachers, the average age of these students is 34 and they hail from 150 different countries.

Harpp insists that the MOOC isn’t just about taking a McGill course that’s already good and offering it to the world. He and his colleagues — Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster — are old hands at putting together entertaining content, but they’ve still learned a thing or two in the process of preparing their MOOC. He likens some of the editing and production techniques brought to bear by McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services team to a slick Ken Burns-type documentary — and promises that he’ll incorporate some of those methods into his future McGill courses.

Intrigued? You can find out more in Patrick McDonagh’s feature story in this issue. To register for “Food for Thought,” visit here.

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it’s exciting. And sometimes, it’s bittersweet.

This will be the last issue in which Diana Grier Ayton’s name appears in our masthead. Longtime readers will recall that Diana edited the McGill News from 1998 to 2007, leading the publication to 11 national awards.

She was a marvellous mentor and a maddeningly tough act to follow. We all wish her a wonderful retirement. And we’ll miss her like crazy.

Daniel McCabe, BA’89

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