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On-line education here we come
With a rash of high profile dot com failures in the last few months, signing on to a commercial on-line university venture would seem to run counter to common sense.
That is just what McGill, as a partner in Universitas 21, has agreed to do with Thomson Learning, forming a new company called U21 Global.
It is a decision not without controversy -- former Universitas 21 member University of Toronto has backed out, raising eyebrows amongst faculty concerned about the deal's implications on their work. And McGill might well be investing $500,000 in a venture that doesn't take off.
"This is a risk that we're taking," concedes Principal Bernard Shapiro. "We think the benefits -- if they come -- will be valuable to us. We believe the investment is worth it."
This is an area of education that McGill needs to learn more about, reasons Shapiro. By partnering with institutions that have more experience in putting together distance education programs, McGill hopes to develop its own expertise.
It's one of the reasons why McGill joined Universitas 21 in the first place. The organization -- which has member universities in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia and Asia -- was founded in the hopes that working together, they could establish a viable virtual university that would be prohibitively expensive for any one institution to establish on its own.
McGill's share of the project's start up cost is relatively small -- Universitas 21 is making a $25 million contribution in total. Thomson Learning is contributing another $25 million. U21 Global will initially target Asia as a market, and later possibly South America. Many parts of the project are undecided, but early plans may include offering an MBA degree.
While Shapiro says that he hopes that McGill will be able to learn from the project, the University of Toronto has said no thanks.
"I don't think you're going to see the University of Toronto in consortia very easily," says University of Toronto vice-president, government and institutional relations Sheldon Levy.
According to Levy, U of T pulled out over concerns about use of their name in U21 initiatives and also over the amount of time and effort these sorts of consortia can demand of their members. Furthermore, Levy says that their own internal reports have indicated that distance education applications should be used to improve existing programs, not for commercial purposes.
"It's not a comment on whether U21 is good or bad... we're not making a qualitative judgement on U21," says Levy.
However, their pullout is being pointed to on campus by professors who are worried about what the implications of the initiative are for McGill.
"I don't think that this has been thought through enough, if this is the right approach for McGill," says Professor Roger Prichard, who is head of the McGill Association of University Teachers as well as the director of the Institute of Parasitology.
Prichard says that there are concerns about intellectual property and compensation for work done for U21, as well as concerns about academic standards.
"The fact is that we're not being given enough information about this by the administration," says Prichard.
Shapiro insists that no professor will be forced to work for U21 -- the new corporation will accept proposals from professors. Those whose proposals are accepted will have a separate relationship with the new company on a consultancy basis. Academic quality will be monitored by another committee -- on which McGill representatives will sit -- called Universitas Pedagogica.