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Why the campus is still king in the age of the MOOC

Posted on June 25, 2013

With higher education increasingly going online and the recent arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), many have predicted the death of the university campus. It’s said that the student no longer needs to go anywhere, class will come to them.

But these predictions are unfounded. The campus will survive the age of online learning, but not without change.

Online buzz

MOOCs might be novel right now, but the truth is teaching materials, such as lectures, have been available for little or no cost to students for longer than most can remember. For more than 50 years, the UK’s Open University (OU) has used radio, then television and now the internet to deliver course materials to students.

Yet even OU still engages with students on campuses – not only their own, but also on underused campuses of other institutions.

Before MOOCs were even thought of, many institutions had also done away with campuses all together. The University of Phoenix, for example, offers classes in office buildings across the United States, reaching into neighbourhoods that would never normally have a university campus – a kind of on demand pop-up classroom.

It’s also true that some forms of learning do not require the campus; for example, Melbourne University students use online instructions to master the use of software packages. But other forms of learning, however need a physical space – whether it be labs or just areas to learn and talk with peers.

Learning progresses through the encounter with, and testing of, ideas. While there are exceptions – the wonder child who invents a new bit of tech or industry superheros lionised for their lack of formal learning – the vast majority of humankind benefits from learning with others. Likewise, those who teach benefit from structured engagement and support to deliver their teaching, not least from periodic contacts with students.

Teaching machines?

The arguments pointing to the demise of the campus also do not consider the fact that most universities are not simply teaching machines. Universities in the Group of Eight, for example, consist of significant numbers of researchers. The teaching on these campuses is research-led, meaning that those who research also teach.

Some of the best ways to learn is through emulation and by observing others who have succeeded, such as alumni or leading figures in the field. Ideas need to be tested by transmission, articulating them into words or trying it out on peers.

While attendance at timetabled subject lectures is largely declining, it is striking too that our special public lectures regularly fill the lecture hall with close to 500 people. Almost all the material we cover in these lectures is available online, but the power of collective participation means that presence is desired.

After all, most campuses play several roles. They help individuals develop and deliver good teaching materials. Not many MOOCs are developed and delivered by individuals sitting in their log cabins. All the MOOCs I know of are developed by people who work in social contexts where the enquiry of knowledge is the core business. By far the majority work on campuses. It is on a campus that ideas are tested and socialised effectively, with bodies of knowledge accessible in unstructured ways.

The campus experience also plays a role in cohort progression from adolescence to adulthood. From sports clubs to tribal initiations, all societies and cultures develop mechanisms to guide and develop young people. Campuses provide alternatives to regimented combative training which has and does dominate in some cultures.

The future campus

The future campus will emphasise social spaces above formal spaces but large lecture halls will not disappear. Large lectures will be special events with special speakers. The places beyond lecture halls too, such as study areas or service places (such as coffee shops) will be significant places for learning.

Even the places we just pass through now will be important. Spaces will be configured to support chance encounters and small group discussion. Additional facilities will appear in these places; for example, screens on which you can project your material to share it with a group. These changes will lead to places better designed for casual encounters.

Campuses are not necessary for all forms of learning. Access online or in pop-up locations may suffice for some and isolated log cabins may work for others, but for the foreseeable future, the physical and synchronous experience of the campus will be an irreplaceable experience – one supplemented but not replaced by online.

While you might argue that the classroom or lecture hall can be replaced by a MOOC experience, it is often the spaces between the classrooms that are the most powerful for learning and research.

Source: The Conversation, story by Tom Kvan

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