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The campus is dead: long live the campus?

Technology has now reached a point where it is conceivable that an education experience on the internet can be comparable to one on a university campus. shutterstock

With technology changing the landscape of higher education, The Conversation this week is running a series “Re-imagining the Campus” on the future of campus learning. Here, Jason Lodge ponders the future of the campus in an age of online learning.

Much hype and discussion has surrounded the evolution of online higher education over the last few years. Technology has now reached a point where it is conceivable that an education experience on the internet can be comparable to one on a university campus. However, just because it is conceivable does not necessarily make it so.

The learning that occurs differs markedly across disciplines and domains of knowledge. For example, it is relatively easy to comprehend how basic level accounting could be effectively learnt in a virtual environment.

It is not so simple when considering advanced surgical techniques. It would be a brave soul who would trust a surgeon trained using wikis, instructional videos and virtual classrooms.

While these might be extreme examples, there is undoubtedly a large market for flexible delivery of university education, and many universities now offer online degree programs. This is true even for the many institutions not traditionally associated with “distance learning”.

Implications for learning

The growth in the online delivery of programs raises several questions when considering the implications for learning. The first of these is about the quality of these programs compared to the programs offered on campus.

While arguments about quality often get sidetracked about the relative benefits or shortcomings of particular technologies for delivering an educational experience online, the real issue is educational design.

In general, a quality educational experience is not limited to a particular time and space. The trick is to design the best possible learning experience using the tools available, whether they are virtual or physical. The foundation for this is provided by the evidence of effective online and in-class teaching techniques.

Attempting to compare or equate one with the other or to “just add technology” to a course designed to be delivered on campus makes no sense. The best ways to engage students in a classroom do not neatly translate to the virtual world and vice versa.

Each delivery mode requires careful consideration of the possibilities provided by it alone, not in terms of how it simulates the other.

Coming to campus

The second question is then about the value of coming to campus. If a quality learning experience can be delivered online, why would students make the effort and take the time to travel to campus at all?

In the same way that the online experience provides flexibility and a learning environment that can fit with students’ busy lives, coming to campus provides real but different advantages.

The issue with the delivery of on-campus programs is that universities are just coming to terms with what the internet means for engaging students in learning in classrooms. This has come about because of the increased competition created by the proliferation of flexible learning options and the increased availability of information online. If students are going to come to campus, their time is not best spent having someone talk at them for hours on end.

The inefficiencies of the traditional transmission model of education are most obvious when considering the significant drop in lecture attendance observed by many lecturers. The “flipped classroom” approach, where students engage with content in their own time and use class time for activity-based learning, has emerged as a response to falling lecture attendance.

This is an example of the ways in which educational design can be used to enhance the on-campus experience.

Coming to campus provides real but different advantages for students. AAP/Paul Miller

Benefits of a campus experience

While “flipping” classes is a start, the tangible benefits of being on campus continue to be what they have always been in a number of ways. Coming to campus provides an opportunity to be immersed in an intellectual culture. It allows exposure to legitimate expertise in a disciplinary area and the ability to test out new knowledge with peers.

With students having increasingly busy lives, it is not always possible for them to come to campus or have the kind of intellectual life that was traditionally associated with university campuses. That is the reality of the modern university student but is only just becoming the reality of the modern university campus.

Virtual communities can provide an alternative to the on-campus experience but, as yet, there is little evidence to suggest that virtual engagement with peers and with content matter experts can provide the same benefits as being immersed in the intellectual culture on campus.

It is folly to even attempt to make the comparison because virtual campuses provide different opportunities for students. Regardless, there is also the issue of exactly how much exposure undergraduate students in particular had with their lecturers.

The challenge for universities is to come to terms with this new reality. Online and on-campus modes of study are not equal and should never be considered so. Each has its benefits; each has its drawbacks.

Good educational design and good policy recognises the unique potential of each delivery mode and allows teachers and education designers to take maximum advantage of the benefits of each. The best possible learning experiences will not occur so long as we try to make quality online and on-campus learning look and feel the same. They don’t, and it is unlikely they ever will.

Read other articles in this series here.

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