Debunking the virtual university myth -

Debunking the virtual university myth

Relax. Your campus isn’t going anywhere.


Patrick J.J. Phillips argues this week in University Affairs that information technology is quickly making the university campus, as we know it, a thing of the past. What we will see, he says, is “a falling away of the campus as a physical location where students gather to sit in coliseum-style lecture halls and mingle and discuss in tutorial rooms. Rather, students will work in a range of different environments at different times via the Internet.” And this is not the distant future, mind you. The change, he insists, will be “striking and immediate.”

So far, no one has asked me to move out of my office. I doubt they will anytime soon.

For one thing, Phillips and others who make similar arguments ignore the profound value of direct, real-time, in-person interactions. In other words, there is no good substitute for being there. That’s why music fans still flock to concerts to hear songs they already have recordings of at home. That’s why sports fans pack stadiums and arenas to see games they could watch on TV. I can’t count the number of times I saw pictures of Stonehenge or the canals of Venice; it wasn’t the same as being there.

As with other experiences, technologically mediated education may be valuable in cases where being there is not practical, but the ideal environment for university education is not virtual. It’s real. Because it’s not just the bare content. It’s the feeling in the room, the laughter of other students at a clever joke, the conversations in the hallways and dorm rooms and professors’ offices. It’s the routine of going to class and the chaos of finishing a last-minute assignment. It’s being there. If there were not a special value in being at the university, the physical campus would have disappeared long ago. The University of London has offered distance degrees since 1858. England’s Open University began using electronic media to send courses to people’s homes in 1971 through its television broadcasts, an innovation that must have seemed to herald the end of physical campuses then, too. England’s universities still stand, and those TV broadcasts were ended in 2006.

All this would, to my mind, sink Phillips’ argument even if we accepted his tacit assumption that the only thing universities do is teach. But that is obviously false. Universities are more than just classrooms and the lectures given in them. They are research centres with labs and archives and performance spaces. They are also community centres, especially in smaller places where they provide cultural resources not otherwise available. At Cape Breton University, where I work, for example, we have the only serious art gallery on the island, and our theatre is the only place where high-quality live plays are regularly presented. No public library nearby can match the university collection, and a new sports and wellness centre, which will be open to the public, is being built as we speak.

Whether Phillips’ prediction is gleeful or despondent is not clear from his article. Either way, I think he’s wrong. If this time next year I find myself packing up my office, I’ll owe him an apology. Otherwise, I guess he owes me one.


Debunking the virtual university myth

  1. While I don’t necessarily disagree with you, there are a few contrary points I’d like to bring forth.

    Firstly, I went to CBU as a student (it was UCCB at the time). Your Ideal of University life seems to be the “as seen on TV” version. That is, students sitting on their desks in small classrooms with bright eyes, having debates with the wise professor, and everyone learns something about themselves.

    I can tell you, for Many students, that’s not how it goes. I spent My entire first year running between classrooms that were ridiculously far apart, to sit in a small room crammed with as many of us sardines that could fit. I was lectured at for an hour or so, and then quickly had to rush to the next classroom on the other side of the campus. No one in those classes had bright eyes.

    I think, If given the choice, assuming the technology was available and robust enough (and the cost wasn’t out-to-lunch, as it is now at CBU) many of those students would have oped for “from home” type studies.

    Also consider that the Human Dynamic is changing in general. For better or worse, there are dozens of studies that indicate that people now consider their internet friends as valid (or moreso)than their local friends. They also point to the fact that as a race, our means of communication is growing vastly more digital year over year. In the last 3 years the changes have been near exponential mathematically. Humans are becoming Introverts, and socially alienating themselves. While this seems terrible, it only stands to reason that more and more folks will find ways to educate themselves in ways that allow them to ignore others, and allow them to chose the interactions that benefit them only. Again, for better or worse, this is the path we’re on.

    In fact, I’d guess that the only thing preventing many students from studying at home, is likely their parents (most first year university students are still heavily ruled by their parents). Parents from this generation still only have a moderate understanding of computerized socializing, and would likely frown on their son’s and daughter’s taking digital university courses.

    If not the parents, then another possibility is the trust factor. By that I mean, people may still be a little distrusting, or weird about taking courses via the web. However, Not so many years ago, people were distrusting and weirded out by the idea of buying things online. E-commerce flourishes now…It’s not unrealistic that E-schooling is not far away as a commonplace choice for budding students.

    But I do also agree that there will always be brick-and-mortar Universities, but I think the net time spent within the walls will decrease drastically as students opt to take certain portions of their education online.

  2. After 30 years of doing I have been blessed with the opportunity to actually get a piece of paper that shows the world that I am educated. Sitting in a room with 20 other second career individuals that have experience but not the certificate is an opportunity to share and debate issues. However it is not perhaps the best way to deliver a structured course content and have that content tested on a standard exam. We get lost in sharing stories at times and in a structured time frame this can be detrimental. An online course would allow more structure in a course – give the option to the student of spending more time if needed on a component and allow for social interaction with others still.
    What I do not understand is why these courses are not less expensive. My in-class fast-tracked training is twice the cost if I was to take it in Night School.
    If we as a country are ever to fully develop our human resources the cyber option needs to be looked at as an economical delivery method.

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