Most universities and colleges see online education as a supplement to the core business of the traditional campus. The institution's soul lies in the campus with its buildings, parks and meeting spaces and the everyday interaction between staff and students. But what happens when the online sector outgrows the campus? When most of the staff and students are working from home the campus loses its function as a meeting place. The physical campus has enormous symbolic value and if a visitor sees very few people milling around it is easy to draw the conclusion that the place is ready to close down, even if the online courses are full and very active.
These thoughts are discussed in a short post by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed, Online Enrollment and Campus Culture. His college has a rapidly rising number of online students and this is also affecting staff presence on campus as more and more prefer to teach from home. Empty corridors and quiet staff rooms can negatively affect staff morale and the feeling of community is eroded.
... it’s hard to convey a welcoming campus culture when fewer faculty are around at any given time. The feel of a department starts to change. If people who used to be on campus four days a week are suddenly here only two days a week, areas that used to bustle with activity start to feel like ghost towns. The culture starts to fray.
This in turn influences the students' sense of belonging to a living institution.
There are no clear answers but one guiding principal is to make the campus experience as valuable and unmissable as possible. Of course many distance students live too far away to attend campus meetings on a regular basis but all should be encouraged to spend some time there. Most of them are happy to travel if they can but there needs to be a very good reason for doing so; not just to get information that could have been delivered in a recorded video. Even established institutions need to rethink the physical campus, what it offers and why students and staff can benefit from being there. That added value should never be taken for granted.
Many institutions have succeeded in creating stimulating collaborative learning spaces where academic and social events can take place. At the same time we need to extend the college community into the digital spaces and find ways to blend the two environments. How can online students participate easily in campus events and be visible in doing so? How can we make campus students more aware of their online counterparts and create a common culture and community? These questions were partly addressed in the British JISC project, Sticky campus, where they experimented with setting up learning spaces where campus and online students could interact, even outside regular class activities. If we can use technology to make bridges between campus and online we can create a greater sense of community for all. The online students can become more visible and feel part of campus activities and this will hopefully motivate them to some day make the trip to see it for real.