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RRU's Response to: A three-year degree will shortchange students.

March 27, 2012
Jennifer Walinga

RRU’s response to: A three-year degree will shortchange students (STEPHEN HENIGHAN Special to Globe and Mail Update, published Thursday, Mar. 01, 2012 2:00AM EST )

While Stephen Henighan in his recent article above makes some points worth considering, I find it interesting that he applies a very polarized and therefore limited perspective on education as a whole. By representing educational models as either ‘online’ or ‘face to face’, as either 3 years or 4 years, he places undue constraints on education in general. I found the article an excellent illustration of the lack of creativity and complex thinking currently dominating and paralyzing our educational systems in Canada and, for that matter, worldwide.

Rather than debating what is the ‘right’ way to educate, why not explore the infinite educational possibilities available to us with the diverse learning needs and styles of human beings guiding our exploration? At Royal Roads University, such open thinking is central to our founding mission of offering flexible education for individuals striving to balance work, social, and personal development goals. We view constraints and barriers as opportunities and pathways to creative solutions. 

More than ever perhaps it is apparent that we need to think and learn creatively in order to solve the systemic challenges we face in the world. At Royal Roads, we know that people tend to resist change for fear of losing what they hold dear. Therefore, we realize that change is only possible when that which we hold dear is not lost, but rather carried forth in new and creative ways amidst the change that is required. The 3 year and online programs at RRU creatively retain the pedagogical quality rigour we hold dear, while addressing the changing needs and nature of society by capitalizing on the principles of flexibility, collaboration, and diversity.

The rest of North America has four years of high school and four years of university. Three-year degrees would make Ontarians stand out as intellectually malnourished.

At RRU we are and strive to be different. Four year degrees may not be possible for some – and limited time is a reality for most. We do not believe that reducing the length of a degree automatically leads to a reduction in quality or content. Instead, we build degrees that recognize and leverage the strengths and professional experiences of our students. We recognize 2 years of an applied diploma as the first two years of a BA, and 5-7 years of professional experience in the field as the first two years of a BA; we then offer the final two years in a 2 year online format or a 12 month on campus format. The key insight being that a 3 year degree does not necessarily mean lopping off a year of content or quality. Our 3 year degrees are likely more nourishing because they reflect a personally constructed program of purpose, self direction, practical application, and cohesion.

University administrations, which would face intractable opposition if they tried to implement year-round teaching, and a potential decline in faculty research productivity if they succeeded.

At RRU, we have year round intakes with some programs beginning in the winter, some in the spring, summer or fall. Professors at RRU follow the traditional workload model that balances teaching, research, and administrative service but in a flexible and personalized manner, constructing individual workplans collaboratively with their co faculty, director and dean and having the freedom to schedule their work according to their professional goals.

The most unrealistic recommendation in the Ontario report is that students take more than half of their courses online. This would radically curtail the shared study that builds lifelong friendships – and the web of personal contacts that supports a successful career. Ontario universities are already experimenting with online courses; the results are sobering. Not even the most sophisticated software can replicate human interaction or foster the depth of learning generated by the classroom experience.

At RRU we see the online environment as an opportunity. We build community in short, on campus, intensive residencies and then carry that cohesion into the online environment where many students remark that their ‘cohort’ carries them through. The online environment at RRU is filled with creative technologies that capitalize on both the flexibility of the synchronous work and the connection and responsiveness of the synchronous environment. We believe that the blend of online, face to face, and virtual effectively mirrors and responds to the demands of current work environments where more and more, people are working virtually or across multiple new media.

In fact, our online courses and the environments created within them could be considered improvements on the overfilled classrooms of the traditional university where classrooms are too full to accommodate the 300+ students forcing the overflow to go to another room and watch the lecture on a monitor. Our online courses also address the diverse learning styles of human beings offering textual (readings, moodle platform, discussion forums, wikis, class notes), visual (blackboard collaborate sessions, powerpoints, prezis, tedtalks, videos, links), aural (podcasts, tutorials, and videos), and experiential learning opportunities (organizational service projects, leadership challenges, professional portfolios, case studies).

The most important guiding principle at Royal Roads University is the common understanding that we are developing critical thinkers in professional contexts who are challenged relentlessly to question assumptions and see barriers and complexities as opportunities for creative thought. The first place where we practice critical thinking is concerning our educational model. We believe the world could learn from us in more ways than one!