Ahbi Mukherjee
The Silhouette

A new pilot program, Spark, will be a student-led, student-run service of the MSU devoted to setting the stage for student success at the University. The service was proposed by the MSU’s vice-president (education) Spencer Graham and will specifically cater to incoming first-year students at no extra cost.

Spark will begin at the start of the coming fall term and will be designed to provide students with small group environments that facilitate first-year growth and build personal development and reflection skills for undergraduate career. It will introduce students to campus services, clubs and leadership opportunities and encourage extracurricular participation. It will also connect students to their peers and upper-year students to promote increased support on academic issues and associated first-year challenges.

The program will be comprised of weekly sessions that will consist of small groups of participating first-year students and be led by two undergraduate Success Facilitators. Each session will be between 1-2 hours long and will take place throughout the entirety of each term. The topics for each week’s sessions will be planned by the Spark coordinator in conjunction with the vice-president (administration) as necessary. A session may involve leadership activities, presentations from speakers, discussions, journaling/reflection periods, games and other activities. A participating first-year student will have completed the program upon the completion of three self-directed activities within the University or broader community of Hamilton. There will be several optional, open study groups at various points throughout the week to promote building inclusive student learning communities.

Online applications will be made available for students and will ask students specific questions, which will help arrange them into groups. These groups will be created with the intention of dividing students according to diversity of goals, personality types, level of comfort and level of prior engagement.

“The idea for Spark came to me when I was running for VP (education) a year ago. I came up with the ideas through some of my old personal experiences and some things that I noticed in the school community in general,” said Graham. “Students nowadays are very much expected to go to university; its an expectation placed on them by their parents, peers and society and throughout their years at university, they have very little time to sit down and think why they are here in the first-place. That is what Spark will be all about, to open up the box.”

“The idea is that first-years come into the university and they will be put under the guidance and leadership of upper year students to be successful," Graham said. "So the program is meant to crack open the box on why you are here and what you can get out of university and what first steps I should be taking as a first-year to get to where I want to be.”

Participant spots are first come first serve for the Spark program. It will be open to students from every faculty. As the first installation of the program is a pilot project, the total number of students to be accepted will be approximately 100 per term, however this number depends on the available resources that will be deduced by the Spark coordinator.

The Ontario Liberals announced on Jan. 20 that they are extending the ‘30 per cent off’ tuition grant eligibility to cover about 5,000 more students.

Co-op students in their final year of a five-year program and students in private postsecondary institutions who qualify for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are now also eligible for a 30 per cent off rebate on their tuition.

“For co-op students, while their program lasts five years [instead of four], a good part of that is taken up by work experience. When the 30-off tuition program was originally constituted, this was kind of an anomaly that was determined afterwards,” said Brad Duguid, minister of training, colleges and universities.

In spite of the expanded eligibility requirements, provincial student lobbying groups have pointed out perceived shortcomings of the program.

After the announcement, the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario released a statement saying they do not support the extension of the grant to students in private career colleges and institutions.

“The issue is that the government is funding private institutions rather than prioritizing public postsecondary education and making it more affordable,” said Anna Goldfinch, national executive representative for the CFS-Ontario.

Goldfinch expressed concern over the ministry’s oversight of private career colleges, referencing public scrutiny over the ministry’s enforcement of the Private Career Colleges Act. In 2009, for instance, the Ontario Ombudsman’s office found that the ministry had “inadequate oversight” of Bestech Academy Inc. The owner had falsely advertised the academy as a registered private career college.

The CFS-Ontario maintains that while the expansion of the grant could help 5,000 more students, the funds would be better allocated to institutions’ operating grants toward a 30 per cent reduction of tuition over three years.

Duguid said the Ontario government is committed to providing targeted funding to lower-middle income students in the form of financial assistance.

“We want the funding that we’re providing to lower-middle income students to go directly to those students, rather than the institutions. That’s what’s important about the 30 off grant,” Duguid said.

Spencer Graham, vice-president (education) for the MSU and a member of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance’s steering committee, said he was surprised the government would extend the grant eligibility to students in private career colleges. However, he said OUSA still supports the expansion of the grant.

“OUSA believes increases to base operating budgets is important and that remains a priority for us. That doesn’t mean we’re coming out against the increased Ontario tuition grant eligibility, because it does help students. It’s not necessarily an either-or,” Graham said.

OUSA continues to lobby for expansion of the tuition grant. The grant currently covers students who attend college or university up to four years after they graduate from high school, and those in a five-year co-op program.

“That policy serves as a barrier to a number of students who attend postsecondary education after the four years after high school are up,” Graham said.

“Particularly this speaks to students who have dependents and children. We also see that Aboriginal learners tend to wait a number of years before entering postsecondary education. The grant doesn’t cover those two types of students, who face particular barriers,” he said.

OUSA’s pre-budget submission to the Ontario government also recommends that the grant should offer 35 per cent off tuition, up from 30 per cent.

Currently, eligible students can save $1,730 in tuition on average for degree programs and $790 for diploma or certificate programs. The deadline to apply for the grant for the winter semester is March 1, 2014. According to the Ontario government, 230,000 students received the tuition grant last year. About 310,000 were eligible before the expansion of the program.

This article was originally published on the Canadian University Press's newswire.

The Ontario government will invest $42 million over three years in ‘Ontario Online,’ an e-learning platform and consortium set to launch in the 2015-16 academic year.

Brad Duguid, the province’s minister of training, colleges and universities, announced the initiative on Jan. 13. The centre would offer centralized online courses for credit, transferable between participating institutions across the province, although universities and colleges are not mandated to sign on.

“Right now we have what I would call a hodge-podge of online learning technology,” Duguid said. “Some institutions are global leaders. Others are holding back. I think we want to get to a point where every student in the province has access to this learning technology.”

Ontario Online will consist of a course registry, an instruction hub for institutions to share best practices for course development and a support hub to offer assistance to students and instructors.

"The MSU definitely supports McMaster joining Ontario Online for a number of reasons," said Spencer Graham, vice-president (education) of the MSU. "We think it will provide students with a lot of increased options and flexibility in terms of how they want to learn."

The centre is the result of various consultations between the ministry and stakeholders over the past several years. The centre will not be a degree-granting institution, which student and faculty groups opposed in roundtable discussions. 

“I think this has definitely been refined from the initial proposal,” said Alastair Woods, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario. However, the organization remains skeptical of the ministry’s direction on e-learning and mandate to offer students more of a choice between in-class learning and online learning.

“I think it’s important to ask who is being presented with that choice,” Woods said. “In many cases, if you live in an urban area like downtown Toronto, you do have a choice. But if you live in rural or northern Ontario or you’re a francophone or aboriginal student, I actually think this reduces your choices because you still may not be able to leave your community to go to school.”

“I think what’s more important for students in those communities would be to have more financial support for them to go to a brick-and-mortar school should they choose to do so,” he said. 

According to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which supported the ministry’s announcement, postsecondary institutions in Ontario saw nearly 500,000 online course registrations in 2011.

Ontario Online was developed in tandem with the province’s ‘differentiation’ policy framework, which was redefined in November 2013. The current framework emphasizes minimizing duplication in course offerings across the province and building a globally competitive system.

Duguid said the new online learning centre “isn’t driven by cost savings” though it would result in savings for some institutions and potential revenue for others.

“Some students will learn better in an online course, and some students may have other obligations outside of school life that make it necessary to go online,” Duguid said.

Woods supported the idea of knowledge-sharing online but said more needs to be done to improve access to postsecondary education.

“What worries me is that there are a lot of changes coming down the sector that the government claims will produce cost savings but are not motivated by cost savings. I don’t think that’s an entirely genuine statement. I think in the absence of any new funding models, the government is trying to come up with ways to do more with less,” he said.

The University of Waterloo, which currently offers more than 240 online courses through its Centre for Extended Learning, allows undergraduate students in five programs to get their degrees entirely online. The university is expected to play a strong role in the new e-learning centre.

Catherine Newell Kelly, director of the UWaterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning, said high-quality online courses would require heavy support for faculty on the development side.

“We bring a whole project team to online course development and work with the instructor to help him or her understand how to teach in the online environment,” she said.

“I do not think that online learning will replace classroom learning. I think technology allows us to think about how students best learn and which pieces of a course might be delivered by technology.” 

Details of how courses would be administered through Ontario Online and whether college and university courses would be cross-listed haven’t yet been released. More announcements from the ministry are expected in the coming months.

Nominations for next year's McMaster Students Union vice-presidents were opened at Sunday's SRA meeting, and six students, all of whom were either on the Assembly or in attendance, were nominated.

Anna D’Angela and Justin Korolyk were nominated for Vice-President (Administration). Lisa Bifano and Spencer Graham were nominated for Vice-President (Education). Jeffrey Doucet and Marc Lamoureux were nominated for Vice-President (Finance).

Maria Daniel was also nominated to be next year's MSU Speaker at the meeting.

Two other nominations were made, though somewhat facetiously, as current VP (Finance) Jeff Wyngaarden nominated current VP (Education) Huzaifa Saeed for VP (Finance), and Saeed returned the favour by nominating Wyngaarden for VP (Education).

The SRA will elect the MSU's 2013-14 set of VPs, who will join president-elect David Campbell on the MSU Board of Directors, at its April 7 meeting. It will be the first meeting of the newly elected Student Representative Assembly.

The MSU Speaker, Simon Gooding-Townsend, hesitated before taking the nominations. While it's customary for nominations to be opened ahead of time, names are not typically submitted until the meeting at which the VPs are elected. The incoming SRA now has two weeks of officially knowing the names of at least some of the candidates, though it's not unusual for candidates to speak to members ahead of being nominated on election day.

More students may be nominated between now and the April 7 meeting, or at the meeting itself.

Earlier in the meeting, there was discussion over how MSU VP elections would work this year. While that will ultimately be up to the next SRA, the current members were preparing their recommendation. A proposal came forward to split elections over two meeting; candidates would give presentations on April 7, and elections would be held on April 14 at a separate meeting. The proposal was voted down.

Also debated was a closed-session discussion period, during which SRA members could discuss the candidates in privacy, without observers or candidates in the room. While this has been a part of the election process in past years, it didn't happen last year. The SRA decided to not recommend a closed-session discussion period in the elections again this year over concerns that it would cause groupthink and cattiness to drive the election.

The video of Sunday's 6.5-hour long meeting is below. View the agenda items here.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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