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Back in Academic-Land.

As I progress further into my Master’s studies, I sometimes feel as though I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. It’s as if I’ve come up in a vaguely familiar place but in a vastly different time and head space, informed by considerable life experience and professional training.

When I completed my undergraduate degree in 2001, the educational landscape was quite different. The internet was arguably still in its infancy and if there were correspondence courses available at the undergraduate level, I certainly wasn’t aware of them. The commonly-held belief among my friends, family, and teachers was that one should attend a post-secondary educational institution and further one’s knowledge and training. At the time, I knew I wanted specialized training in media. Cost of education was a factor and though I was pursuing studies in a field where training was also available through colleges, I opted for the university program in mainly because I equated that to a more balanced, technical-meets-theoretical education versus the more technical focus that I believed the colleges would offer. Interestingly enough, my classmates and I were all given the option to “upgrade” our B.A.A. degree to a B.A. a few years back when Ryerson removed the “polytechnic” from its name. Perhaps the Arts versus the Applied Arts designation was intended to be an upgrade? At the time, I didn’t see the relevance, however, somewhat ironically, as I began applying to graduate school a few years ago, many programs insisted applicants have an academic background rooted in theory; on paper, my B.A.A. wouldn’t immediately reveal I had both theoretical and practical training.

During the early 2000s, the ‘centres’ of formal higher education were our instructors, teaching in traditional classroom or lecture hall settings. The periphery was a mix of formats: large ‘foundations’ lectures attended by the entire undergraduate class of 100 students and specific elective courses made up of smaller groups of students and information delivered through a mix of lecture, seminar, and hands-on projects. Despite the current push towards a ‘massification of education’, for all intents and purposes, this current stage of my Master’s education is not that different in format from my undergrad. To me, this indicates the social inertia of the long-standing tradition in academia towards this type of learning. Certainly, the EduTech course offered by Professor Jenson is a departure from this and offers a contrast to my other classes; it reflects one instructor’s iteration of an open learning curriculum.

As a brief anecdote, prior to enrolling in my Masters and in this ‘blended’ format EduTech course, I had only completed one ‘online’ course. It was a continuing education course and with all of my interest in digital technologies and evolving platforms, I found the experience greatly underwhelming and disappointing. I had anticipated a course involving video lectures at assigned times with student participation via chat rooms. Instead, I would log in and complete ‘modules’ which consisted of lengthy slide-show-type presentations that failed to incorporate much multimedia. Also, class participation consisted of required posting on a group message board and responding to posts from other classmates. It was a small group of students (less than 10) and I found that I never seemed to be online at a similar time so I was either posting solo or logging on to find myself trying to catch up on lengthy discussions that had gone on at another time. Now, understanding the greater challenges institutions face with integrating online, open-learning courses, I have better perspective and have made peace with this experience, though it left much to be desired.

My reasons for pursuing a Masters in Arts aren’t entirely defined and represent the result of a combination of factors. I wanted to expose myself to academic scholarship in the areas where I had developed strong interest (education, storytelling, media, and children’s cultures). Though it was highly unlikely that an MA would catapult me into senior roles in my industry or garner me higher pay, I also saw this as a way to build on my professional training and differentiate myself from the hordes of ‘producers’ in my field. I also needed to be strategic and choose a program that would build on my existing knowledge and not depart too far from it so as to ensure I could complete my education with a substantial level of funding. As a result, location of the institution was of the utmost importance; I needed to stay local. As much as these make up my periphery, I do feel that several of these reflect border resources: the tradition of Masters of Arts education as teacher-driven, on-campus, body-to-body pedagogy.

I find it challenging to indicate whether my own challenges are in fact felt by the majority of my classmates so as to indicate ‘borderline issues’, however, I will attempt to detail a few potential ones. A multi-disciplinary program does not inherently create that ‘community of scholars’ as most of my classmates have incredibly varied research areas of interest and academic backgrounds. So, while classroom discussions can be interesting, it can be frustrating when it comes to group work or creating a support network of peers doing similar research and exchanging knowledge. Also, as much as I am enjoying my blended class experience, as someone who has been out of the higher institution education system for some time, I find I greatly benefit from the traditional social conventions of attending lectures and seminars and experiencing my professors’ expertise on the subject matter. Perhaps partly attributed to many years in the workforce, I do respond well to self-directed learning however I do also find that professors via the lecture hall or seminar format allow me a deeper understanding of the concepts we are studying. I would not say this format does create borderline issues for students who already have clear ideas on their research paths and seeking a more independent, student-centred experience. Perhaps the borderline issues is that we all have different preferred methods of study and learning that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot address?

Therefore, I do believe that the massification of education through open-learning has valid potential to train individuals in specific trades or provide technical skills instruction. However, it does present considerable challenges for more theoretical programs. An interdisciplinary program such as ComCult by its very nature seeks to create links between various schools of thoughts and practices. This hinges heavily on theory, lectures, seminars, and debates of topics that are complex and multi-faceted. The pressures of the industry to train students to fill needed jobs seems to be placed in opposition to ‘knowledge gathering’ that emphasizes advanced comprehension and exploration of ideas and of potential relationships and connections between fields and schools of thought. I can’t quite wrap my head around how open learning would accomplish this. However, I would imagine a more open-learning educational model could open the program up to an even more diverse student base- and an interdisciplinary program draws its strength in part to a diverse range of ideas rooted in different academic backgrounds.

Furthermore, I anticipate my second year will shift to more of a student-centred academic experience, by virtue of working on an MRP or thesis. This will move the program instructors and class-based learning, along with other considerations like travel/proximity, to the periphery. Resources, including access to a supervisor, will move up in importance. Can open-learning adapt to support this type of program? I’m not sure. I am not certain that even within one two-year Master’s program, design could fully reflect the shifting centre-periphery from year to year!

Also, can we achieve a massification of education when there will always be barriers in access to technology? In one of my classes in particular, there is pressure, albeit self-imposed, to obtain advanced technological tools. As I want to experiment and understand new methods of storytelling (interactive narrative platforms), this is pushing me to update my current computer. I can already see how this would create challenges for students who cannot afford technology to experiment with. Will this result in a situation where only those with financial means will be able to truly experiment?

What will the relative value of my degree be under conditions of massification of education? Hopefully, the professional and academic communities will recognize the value of an education that emphasizes interdisciplinary methods and how they can by applied to real-world challenges. But, how do you qualify this skill? And if we are headed towards a mercantilization of knowledge, does the value of innovative thinking have a place at the head table of education? I think the nature of these types of programs may struggle to secure funding without directly demonstrable “results” or “profit.” However, in many ways it represents the ‘lifelong learner’ educational movement that seems to be gaining steam as students do not predominately enter a program like Communication and Culture with concrete end goals. An interdisciplinary education could provide a valuable platform for knowledge exchange between academics from vastly different fields to discuss topics of relevance to the whole of society. Without physical proximity to one’s peers in a material classroom, does online-based open learning create a future borderline issue: a barrier to true innovation and debate?

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