Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Changing campus

In a meeting this week I was presenting arguments for investing more in distance education. One objection was raised that if we have too many online courses we won't be able to fill our campus places and our classrooms won't be used so much. That's both right and wrong. On the one hand it's normally the case that online students study that way because they don't want to move to campus (because they are already established in their home town with family and career there) and therefore distance learning is not a threat to campus. On the other hand however it is a valid argument since as we move even campus courses online there may not be such a need for the classrooms and lecture halls.

The latter argument is well discussed by Tony Bates in an article Is online learning a waste of space? An increasing number of courses use blended learning (hybrid courses) where classroom teaching is combined with online discussion. Input (lectures) is recorded in advance and available on the net and much of the course's discussion and collaboration takes place in discussion groups and social networks. As more and more realize that there's little point in gathering students together simply for one-way communication there's more focus on using the classroom time as productively as possible. Not all campus students actually live on campus so when you demand that they gather there many have to travel across town or commute from the suburbs. You need to offer something really interactive to justify calling them all in. That means the classroom time will be more viewed more critically in the future and as a result there will be less need for classrooms, at least of the traditional design. There is also likely to be more focus on field work and project work in companies and organisations. The campus will not disappear but the infrastructure will certainly change over the next ten years.

As learning goes more online and as we realize that we can meet and discuss more flexibly, both physically and online, the use of campus floor space will radically change and some buildings may no longer be needed. This creates tension since the image of a university is so intimately tied to the campus buildings and environment. Venerable old buildings as well as shiny new ones are highly visible symbols of the university's academic status whereas a great virtual campus on the net does not attract such attention, even if it is likely to be more beneficial to students.

Bates wonders, therefore, if there are any studies on how online courses impact on campus infrastructure and whether any universities are planning accordingly.

"Also it means not looking at campus planning in isolation from plans for online learning. I don’t know of any institution that has tried to look at the costs and benefits of a move to online learning in this way (if so, please let me know!), but a more holistic approach to the planning of campuses and online learning could lead to improved efficiencies and even perhaps improvements in quality of the learning experience at the same time."

He concludes by asking the following questions and it will be interesting to see what answers come in:

1. Is the impact of online learning on physical space an issue that is appearing or has appeared on your campus? if so, how is it being handled? 
2. Do you know of any study that has looked at the impact of online learning on campus facilities? 
3. Is this a road worth travelling? Are the benefits likely to prove ephemeral or impossible to measure?

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