Online education a ‘tsunami’ of change

Stanford University president John Hennessy was invited to the University of Waterloo (UW) on Oct. 19 to share his perspective on online education.

At the request of UW president and vice-chancellor Feridun Hamdullahpur, Hennessy not only spoke to the students and faculty members about the rise of online education, but he was also granted an honorary doctor of mathematics degree to recognize his contributions to modern computer architecture and to post-secondary education.

Hennessy’s interest in studying online education came from an initiative that originated from his colleagues coming together and discussing the possibility of online education being an experiment to work on.

“What initially got me interested was a group of my colleagues who wanted to do this experiment … so I gave her the money to do that experiment and one of our colleagues decided to put that online,” he explained.

“And all of sudden I said ‘this is going to change how we think about education.’ That is where it all really began.”

When sharing his perspective on online education,  Hennessy spoke of online teaching being a metaphorical “tsunami.”

He explained that this is an accurate metaphor, as tsunamis have the potential to destroy or create the area they hit.

“A tsunami comes and remakes the coastline and changes things dramatically. It both destroys some things, but it also creates new things,” Hennessy said.

“I think for higher education, the question is how is it going to respond to the tsunami? Is it going to embrace it or surf it and create something that’s new and better? Or is it going to let itself be disrupted and perhaps lose something in higher education?”

According to Hennessy, some of the things that could be created by the tsunami are alternative ways of thinking for students as not all students learn the same in a classroom, with some learning more effectively with textbook and individual coursework.

Online education would be another approach and paradigm for learning.

However, he also spoke about the downsides that will come with online education.

“It can lead to some lack of contact between faculty and students, there’s a lack of motivation, so I think there are things to be aware of. But this is not a replacement, you don’t want this to replace everything,” Hennessy reasoned.

“Those seminars with fifteen people sitting around one faculty member, that is a unique learning experience. We cannot afford to have that as the only learning mechanism, but we don’t want to get rid of it either. The challenge is to not throw out the baby with the bath water, keep some of the things that are special about university education.”

Hennessy concluded that the future of online education still has some assessments to be done, but that university students and faculty members should view this as an alternative way to revolutionize thinking and learning.

“I think online is going to be an alternative way for students to get an education and a way for universities to extend their reach to students who might not be able to be physically present, and a way to support their students.  I think all of those things will be good for students and they will be good for the university as well,” Hennessy said.

“I think this has characteristics which bring new advantages to the table.”

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