Some questions about online/offline higher education

This morning’s post about teaching online got me to thinking about the nature of brick-and-mortar colleges versus online universities. These are just stream-of-consciousness questions at this point — discuss them in the comment section.

  1. Is the university today really just a de facto online university, due to the widespread use of communications and course management technology (including email, IM, CMS software, etc.)? What real academic purpose does the traditional model of regular face-to-face classroom interaction serve any more?
  2. What real academic purpose does a campus serve today? Is there a legitimate academic value in having a residential campus? Is the concept of living on campus mainly used as a means for engaging in non-academic behavior such as sexual promiscuity, binge drinking, etc.? If you removed the residential campus from the equation of the traditional university, what exactly would you lose, and would the loss of positive elements be compensated by the loss of negative elements (sex, alcohol, etc.) and the addition of new positive elements (flexibility, lower housing costs, etc.)?
  3. Does the university have a legitimate calling today to educate students socially? Are traditional sources of socialization in college being supplanted today by online social networking and the students’ pre-existing social structures (family, friends from high school, etc.)?
  4. Fill in the blank: An online university is inherently less effective in educating students than a traditional brick-and-mortar university, because ______.

Like I said, discuss in the comments. I’ve got no agenda here, just wondering.

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5 responses to “Some questions about online/offline higher education

  1. Great questions. Wish there were more comments.

    As good as online content management systems are at aggregating lots of content quickly, there is something magnetic about a college and, specifically, a college town that draws so much value I’m not sure is so easily replicated online.

    Viz. I’m not sure that film festival I went to my sophomore year would’ve been such a blast if I were watching the movies on iFilm and participating in an online chat with the director and several hundred readers.

    Maybe I’m just behind the times, though. I mean I am 24.

  2. virusdoc

    An online university is inherently less effective in educating students than a traditional brick-and-mortar university, because:

    1) you can’t appreciate the beauty of the ivy growing on the bricks on a brisk October morning as you walk from the dining hall to your 9 am class discussing politics or religion or _______ with the classmate you unexpectedly met at the coffee pot. Twenty years from now, although you don’t know it now, he and his wife will be the godparents to your three children.

    2) you can’t get into a spirited argument with your professor about the content material during class, an argument which spills over into coffee later that morning and into a lifelong mentorship that steers your career and personal life for years to come.

    You get the picture. College is about more than content; it’s primarily the relationships that we forge during that period of our life that follow us. The content is important, to be sure. But there will be many occasions to learn that content, and few to develop those relationships with peers and mentors. This isn’t to say you can’t develop good friendships outside of a traditional campus, but I don’t know of any other environment in which this is an expected outcome, and in which the professors (or at least many of them) see this as a privilege of their profession.

  3. Doc-

    This isn’t to say you can’t develop good friendships outside of a traditional campus, but I don’t know of any other environment in which this is an expected outcome…

    I think that’s a very interesting comment — is this sort of friendship/mentorship an EXPECTED outcome in the university today? And expected by whom — faculty, students, administrators, all of the above? Generally speaking, what proportion of students enrolling in college today are *looking for* — or even desire — that kind of relationship with their professors?

  4. I think that the relationships and networking are part of what’s being sold at the Ivy League schools (and others of that ilk). If I were more socially savvy, I could have made friends with my classmate whose dad was CEO of Disney or the kid whose dad was an ambassador or the any of the other highly connected rich kids I went to school with and then used their connections to get a “real job” right out of college. Instead I hung out with geeks and nerds there on scholarship and went on to get this worthless Ph.D. dumping me into a glutted job market. 🙂

  5. virusdoc

    I can only think of three motivations that would drive one to become a college professor: 1) love of the subject matter; 2) love of the teaching process; and 3) love of the students. The latter two seem inextricably linked to me, but I guess there could be some faculty who enjoy teaching but prefer not to develop relationships with their students. Most of the faculty I have interacted with (in the undergraduate setting, to a lesser degree in the grad setting) see mentorship as part of their calling, although there is little consensus on what “mentorship” means. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky? I don’t know whether the same is true at the administrative level, although most colleges give it lip service in their PR material.

    As for the number of students who enroll desiring/expecting such relationships, that’s a different question and I’m unaware of entrance surveys that quantitate it. But given the perennial popularity of Dead Poet Society/Good Willing Hunting/Stand and Deliver/Mr. Holland’s Opus type movies, I would speculate that this need for mentorship is a deeply embedded western ideal. I think most students enter college expecting to form deep, lifelong friendship with some of their peers (a desire the Greek system capitalizes on) and hoping to form at least a few relationships with professors to guide them along their career. It is difficult for me to imagine such relationships being formed via purely digital media.