Greater Greater Washington

Education


College campuses aren't going away, nor should they

Education is moving online, leading some to say that the college campus isn't necessary anymore. But campuses allow students to learn and grow in a physical place, something that can't be replicated virtually.


The University of Maryland. Photo by Mambo'Dan on Flickr.

Writing in the Atlantic Cities, Anthony Flint asked if college campuses could become obsolete like bookstores due to the rise of online universities and massive open online courses (MOOCs). The Wall Street Journal piece he responded to predicted a future where students could learn anywhere, resulting in the demise of the traditional model of professorial learning.

What does that mean for the college as a place, not just a web address? In an attempt to slow rising tuition costs, universities have streamlined degrees or certificate programs, but some experts suggest colleges rid themselves of fancy dorms, fancy food, and amenities like fitness centers. Many colleges have done just that, by contracting out these auxiliary services and requiring students to pay more in fees or opt out of using them.

But what happens to the college experience when it becomes sanitized and streamlined? The campus experience draws its power from the intangible experiences that many students find have the most impact on their lives. Students seek out the places that encourage interactions with others. Many students learn most when discussing the issues of the day over coffee, at the library, or on the walk to class.

While online learning and social media have an important place in the academy, a brick-and-mortar campus can foster the kind of interaction to enhance a lifetime of learning. Although we have already written the eulogy for the bookstore, in some cities like the District, the bookstore is still alive and well. It is a hub of activity and interaction. Meanwhile, students continue to buy physical books, despite the years of predicting the demise of textbooks.


The Rathskeller at the University of Wisconsin's Memorial Union. Photo by Alan Wolf on Flickr.

Some DC-area universities are actually investing in their communities as a way to heighten the student experience while raising money. But the District's campus planning process fosters antagonism between the campuses and the neighborhoods, preventing the kind of openness that a true college town requires.

In Ward 3, American University should be a neighborhood amenity but is often the target of neighborhood attack. This process creates an environment that makes the campus ever more insular when it could have a more open relationship with the community. If a school can't be a part of its surroundings, it's easier to make an argument for not having a physical campus.

It is possible that I am biased. I attended the University of Wisconsin and always had an affinity to spaces like the Memorial Union, where a student could study, attend a meeting, and have a beer all in the same building. It was also a campus that interacted with the residents of the city, providing cultural events, education, employment, and meaningful spaces for people to interact.

I went to class, but I learned about myself and the larger world outside the university gates as well. That's something that students taking a class online won't have the opportunity to do.

Abigail Zenner is a member of the Ward 3 Vision Steering Committee and often described as a professional parking nerd. A former higher education policy advocate, she changed gears to the smart growth world to pursue her passion for working to create a more livable DC. When she's not nerding out about smart growth, you may find her teaching a fitness class. 

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On, Wisconsin!

by Alex B. on Jan 16, 2014 10:18 am • linkreport

With my engineering degrees in hand I have a hard time believing that you could replicate the lab experience online completely.

Online education is going to revolutionize things, but students will still need some hands on interaction, more so in some fields than others.

Class rooms and lecture halls might become less important, but as more and more students take up more education existing facilities will continue to find use.

by Richard on Jan 16, 2014 10:23 am • linkreport

Bookstores might not be a bad comparison, actually. The elite few with powerful brand names and income streams will survive and perhaps even thrive (kramerbooks, Politics & Prose, Powell's, etc). State institutions will hobble along the way libraries do. The less elite private schools may well find themselves phased out of the market, undercut by Amazon-like purveyors of cheap, tailored credentials aligned with specific jobs.

To Richard's point: you're likely to see a lot of sharing of physical space, separation of clinical from lecture, etc. it's how online nursing programs work.

by Dizzy on Jan 16, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

I've been having discussions about this lately with academic colleagues. The informal impression is that the latest MOOC wave is foundering. But it's clear that there is very little reason for the traditional lecture hall experience. There's no reason why you have to sit in the same room with other students and hear a lecture live. Lectures can be delivered by video over the internet, for you to watch at leisure, rewinding when you don't understand something. But education is about more than listening to lectures. There's a lot of hands-on activities and interacting with peers and faculty which are difficult to replicate online. Your lower-tier colleges might not provide much of an advantage over an online-only experience, but probably most colleges will

by alurin on Jan 16, 2014 11:49 am • linkreport

Anybody that thinks MOOCs will make universities go the way of book stores, does not understand education.

MOOCs are good for people who do not have proper access to education at universities, for whatever reason. However, they are no replacement for person-to-person education. Or for the parts of education that you need your hands for: Learning to write, art classes, science labs.

It's funny that just when education scientists have clearly demonstrated that frontal teaching is the least efficient, MOOCs are suddenly supposed to save education... It makes no sense.

by Jasper on Jan 16, 2014 12:22 pm • linkreport

Online isn't a threat to the campus, cost is. I truly feel for kids today who want to major in something like philosophy, and may need a long-ramp up of internships and freelance work to become marketable, but face a crushing, freedom-restricting student loan debt. It's killing this country.

by kob on Jan 16, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

The reason you pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to school is not the lectures. I went to a state school and paid $2,000 for a semester with much better professors, than when I went to American and paid thousands for just one class. You go because the connections you make, those don't happen via online classes. MOOCs will serve some purposes, but they will never provide the networking you can get through the traditional college experience. Parents will continue to pay for that opportunity.

by DC Parent on Jan 16, 2014 2:21 pm • linkreport

I truly feel for kids today who want to major in something like philosophy, and may need a long-ramp up of internships and freelance work to become marketable, but face a crushing, freedom-restricting student loan debt. It's killing this country.

Without a long list of internships it can be tough to get a job with an engineering degree these days.

As for the long list of folks graduating with bachelors in philosophy, hopefully someone, some time, told them that the a job might not be waiting for them right after college.

by Richard on Jan 16, 2014 2:24 pm • linkreport

@Richard

Philosophy was my major, and be assured that the job thingy problem is 101.

by kob on Jan 16, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

I think we are going to see a split that encourages more hybridization with some subjects will lend themselves more to online participation due to subject matter (maybe computer programing or introductory science lectures but not labs or public policy or anything involving field work for example) and/or diffuse interest (niche history subjects or obscure languages). For example my high school district growing up had one Russian teacher and our three high schools participated via video conference which was more effective than you might think because there were only 20 some students interested in the whole system. That said a lot of subjects lend themselves to group discussion and exploration for which online work can be far from ideal. Hopefully the lure of cheaper education wont drive local institutions to make detrimental decisions though. I would certainly not have the undergrad or grad experiences I value with a completely online environment.

by BTA on Jan 16, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport

I love how "US-Centered" this discussion is. All you have to do is take a look at how higher education works in Europe or Latin America to see that this concept of a "live in campus" is very foreign to most of the World.

Students worldwide have been doing just fine with out the extensive, overbuilt and expensive college campus for centuries.

Most of them live with their parents and only attend college near by during the day (if that). So online learning is basically just finally bringing the U.S. back into line with the rest of the World.

I am the product of a true campus experience, and yes there were many wonderful things about it. But unless tuition and room/board costs are curtailed, I am afraid it will become more and more of a luxury rather than the norm. And quite frankly, not sure how necessary it really is or was in the first place.

by LuvDusty on Jan 16, 2014 3:51 pm • linkreport

I love how "US-Centered" this discussion is. All you have to do is take a look at how higher education works in Europe or Latin America to see that this concept of a "live in campus" is very foreign to most of the World.

Students worldwide have been doing just fine with out the extensive, overbuilt and expensive college campus for centuries.

Most of them live with their parents and only attend college near by during the day (if that). So online learning is basically just finally bringing the U.S. back into line with the rest of the World.

But this discussion is not about living on campus. This discussion is about replacing live classes with virtual classes. Students in Europe, South-America and Asia go to class, just like American students do. There, the education comprises interaction with professors, teaching assistants, peers and hands-on works. Education research shows that peer-to-peer education is the most efficient way of way of teaching. You need peers for that.

You are right, that this discussion is very western. MOOCs are great for people in development countries who have no other access to education by the sheer lack of educational institutions. And MOOCs are great for poor people who do not have financial access to education.

by Jasper on Jan 16, 2014 9:02 pm • linkreport

Before online, came libraries, many offering free textbooks for loan.

Sure, you can stock up in books and become and expert....but obviously no one did that.

Online is the same. It's available, and it's fun, but it's not a real substitute.

And in a word where all physical colleges are banned, and everything moves online....God help us. You know the single-child who was home schooled and really sucked working with because they had no concept of proper team-work and such?

Yeah, now imagine a nation of those, and try to hire them.

by JJJJ on Jan 17, 2014 3:58 am • linkreport

Let's declare ourselves "experts" and go all the way by removing the inefficient biological human element and replacing ourselves with software. Learning will be instantaneous! Only a little power will be required to keep us going forever, and if you don't like someone, you just delete them. Removing the human-contact element from education is the fantasy of "experts" who value efficiency over all else.

I've taught a few courses online and my wife many, but it's not nearly as effective as classroom teaching and sometimes quite maddening. While some curricula adapt fairly well to online instruction, you certainly cannot teach the arts online (music performance, painting, etc.). Online is an education that's convenient and better than nothing.

by JWF on Jan 17, 2014 7:01 am • linkreport

I think it depends on what you mean by online. My class via video conference was fine. I think you can work around physical presence by phone or video conference, I bet most of us have done that professionally. It may be a good tool to maximize existing resources but I can't imagine you could ever dispense with at least occassionally coming together and acheive the same level of education.

by BTA on Jan 17, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

No, I have not had experience with video conferencing online. That would certainly be more effective when it's in real time and allows for interaction between student and teacher. It still wouldn't work for chemistry labs or music instruction, though ;-)

What I was referring to in my first post was the standard form of online instruction that resembles texting. It's done within an educational application designed for online instruction. Students read the assigned chapter (one hopes), then ask the professor questions. There's no traditional lecture, only occasional explanations based on questions. No visuals. I once taught at a large state university and felt the students, scattered all over the country (one in Puerto Rico), were getting only a fraction of what I could have taught them the old-fashioned way.

by JWF on Jan 17, 2014 3:41 pm • linkreport

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