Do we need physical universities for education?

Recently, two of the most prestigious universities in the world, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), launched a major e-learning initiative called edX. The launch was somewhat hyped, and seemed to imply that distance learning is an exciting new thing that has just been invented. Actually, organisations like the Open University have been doing it since the 1960s, but let that pass. What I found most interesting was the positioning of this initiative in the press release:

““The campus environment offers opportunities and experiences that cannot be replicated online,” said [MIT president Susan] Hockfield. “EdX is designed to improve, not replace, the campus experience.””

In other words, we are doing some online stuff but don’t think this will ever be equivalent to attending our physical universities. This assertion is not supported and a lot depends on what she means by “opportunities and experiences that cannot be replicated online”. Does she mean things like getting drunk, late-night discussions about the meaning of existence and playing sport? Or does she mean that education itself is improved if delivered on campus?

The assumption that “the campus environment” offers major advantages seems to be widely shared. According to The Complete University Guide, students in England starting a traditional undergraduate degree in 2012 will pay average fees of £7,793 per year, even after financial support is taken into account. Compare this with a charge of £1,610 for the equivalent of a year’s study at the Open University. Students are clearly prepared to pay a premium for a campus-based university education.

So is there any evidence that face-to-face education is actually “better” than online? Not really. As I have blogged previously, the evidence does not show any necessary reduction in the quality of education when it is delivered online. In the last few weeks, a new and detailed study has been published by Ithaka S + R in the US. Their research involved randomised trials using volunteers at a range of US educational institutions. Students studying an introductory statistics course were either assigned to face-to-face teaching, or online teaching, supplemented by one hour per week classroom tuition. Their conclusion, though necessarily limited in scope, was clear:

“Our main results provide compelling evidence that, on average, students learned just as much in the hybrid format as they would have had they instead taken the course in the traditional format—with “learning” measured in traditional ways, in terms of course completion, course grades, and performance on a national test of statistical literacy.”

Clearly, there is good and bad online education, just as there is good and bad face-to-face education. And it is extremely difficult to measure overall “quality” of education, let alone measure differences in a controlled way. But the emerging evidence seems to suggest that there is nothing inherently better about face-to-face education compared with online. If so, then consider a question which may become more significant over time. Why go to the cost and inconvenience of face-to-face university education at all? Perhaps at postgraduate level contact with other researchers is important (though arguable – that is another story) but what is the justification at undergraduate level?

It may be that the real benefit of going to a campus university is that, as implied above you get “opportunities and experiences” that are social. It is good fun living with a large group of people your own age and you can indulge hobbies to an extent that is very difficult if you are holding down a job. This can mean having a serious go at sport, drama, debating, or even just socialising. It is an opportunity to make close friendships that often last a lifetime, and very often to meet your future spouse.

If this is the case, then there are a number of implications. Maybe physical universities should be honest and say that their real benefits are not so much to do with education as having fun and socialising (which may of course in itself be educational in the broadest sense.)

This is a perfectly fair argument to make, although perhaps the social experiences could be gained more cheaply in other ways, perhaps by living away from home and doing voluntary work, or going to a kibbutz. That is the student’s choice to make. But it does suggest government policy is broadly right to shift the funding of undergraduate education away from the taxpayer and onto the student’s future earnings. There is nothing wrong with having fun but it is not reasonable to expect the taxpayer to pay for it.

One thing is clear – good quality university education can be gained online at a fraction of the cost of a campus-based education. The physical universities will need to demonstrate some significant added value if they are to survive and thrive. This added value can take a number of forms, but they will need to be clear about what it is, and they will need to make sure their students know it too.


Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

4 responses to “Do we need physical universities for education?

  1. I agree with you, in terms of the program itself and if the students are deligent and self motivated they will indeed get the same knowledge from online versus face to face at a physical location. The physical location has an advantage in that it helps to develop and promote the social skills necessary in young adults. I am an instructor myself for hair salon training, a trade; and it’s very different in face to face interactions and online learning.

    • Thanks for your comment Dee. I agree social skills are important, I just wonder if university is necessarily the best way of acquiring them. In every case at least.

      In terms of the type of training you do, I find it hard to imagine instructing hairdressers online. That is a useful reminder that there are some types of training that do need to be carried out in person.

  2. Angela Phillips

    I agree with you in many respects, online education can be just as good as physically going to classes. When teaching is go, both on-line and face to face it will generally produce good outcome.

    However, the life experience of leaving home and going to university is equally as important as the subjects studied while there. If I think about my own children doing an on-line degree rather than physically going to university, I would be devastated that they had missing out on an amazing and unique life experience. I don’t think the university experience can be replaced by volunteering, there is something special about groups of people all learning to do their washing together while learning Physics. I personally think that alone is worth the £6000+ extra per year.

    My main concern is the educational maturity of many students who start university straight from school, could they handle on-line learning after secondary education? I’m not sure many could. This could be an issue with schools and colleges spoon-feeding their students to get them through A-levels, but that really is another issue.

    • Thanks for the comment Ang. It’s interesting how people react. I had a very traditional university education, but I don’t think I would be that upset if my children chose a different route. It may not be right for everyone. I also have no problem with universities charging what they do if they genuinely are providing an overall experience that is worth it. That is an open question.

      I take your point about educational maturity, but here’s another question. Is it a particularly good idea to continue education from school straight through anyway? Wouldn’t people get more out of education if they worked for a bit, then went back to study? In some ways I think I failed to get the best out of university first time round because I wasn’t mature enough to…


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