Students at Mohawk College are suffering a “crisis of quality” because of a new learning system that is increasingly moving coursework online and out of the classroom, according to a new report from the union that represents college instructors.

What the college calls "blended learning" is just one of the problems stemming from a “climate of fiscal austerity” in Ontario colleges that is placing more weight on budgets than education, writes Kevin MacKay, a pop culture and sociology professor at Mohawk College and the report’s author.

The college maintains education and student satisfaction is its top priority, and that any moves toward more online coursework stems from the evolution of the education system, not cost-cutting measures. All of Mohawk’s lecture-based programs are now blended, and combine in-class with online learning.

'You can’t make an academic argument for watering down these courses.'- Kevin MacKay, Mohawk College instructor

But Mohawk has been the most aggressive of Ontario’s 24 colleges in pursuing online courses, with an administrative mandate that has barrelled in over faculty and student objections, MacKay told CBC Hamilton. “The squeeze has really been put on,” the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) member said. “There’s been a lot of student pushback.”

Social service work student Michael Van Arragon is one of those students pushing back. He says students “naturally rebel” from online coursework, which he finds “confusing, bland, and not intuitive.”

“It’s inherently disturbing when you’re paying for your education,” the 22-year-old said. The most rewarding learning in his program has been face to face, and students have been quite vocal about having that taken away, he says — especially considering there is a focus in his program on the skill of face-to-face interaction. “It feels a little silly to be watching YouTube videos or Ted Talks,” he said.

Not a cost cutting measure: college

But Mohawk spokesperson Jay Robb says Van Arragon’s sentiment isn’t one shared by the majority of students. According to the provincial Key Performance Indicators survey of students at Ontario colleges, 91 per cent of students said “online learning was important.” With many students juggling school, work and a personal life, “moving a portion of their courses online gives them greater flexibility,” Robb said.

“This is not meant to be cost cutting,” he told CBC Hamilton. “This was never the intention at Mohawk.”

But Van Arragon says blended learning is “obviously a cost-cutting technique,” and MacKay is steadfast that “you can’t make an academic argument for watering down these courses.” According to the Innovative Practices Research Project from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Blended learning has the “potential to enhance and transform Canadian higher education” and also helps to “provide the digital literacies essential for a global graduate and knowledge worker.” But the report also notes faculty resistance and student reluctance to the process, and insufficient support systems for the practice.

In the union report, MacKay also highlights a shift from full time to part time instruction and a lack of faculty control over the programs in Ontario colleges as a problem rising from funding decreases. In the 70s and 80s, governments funded over 75 per cent of operating revenues for colleges. Today, it’s about 50 per cent. That’s turned the college focus from education to revenue, he says. Corporate sponsorship and partnership with private colleges has done nothing but water down the education experience, he added.

“Essentially, students are paying more to get less.”

Financial constraints a factor

Robb admits that all post secondary institutions are dealing with fiscal constraints, stemming from salaries, benefits, and building maintenance. Some of the buildings at Mohawk are close to 50 years old. The college has had balanced budgets for the last five years, he says, with some money left over to reinvest in infrastructure and programs.

“At the end of the day, we’ve been very successful … at living within our means and giving a great student experience. We’re always looking to improve.”