In my previous blog post, I mused on whether physical universities are really useful enough to justify their significant cost premium over online universities. The reaction, online and offline, has shown me that many people think the experience of being “at university” is worth every penny. If so, there is still a viable business model there.
However, in my studies I recently listened to a presentation given to the Open University by Dr Etienne Wenger (the video and transcript have been made available by the OU here). Dr Wenger is best known for popularising the idea of “communities of practice”, that learning is a social activity and that, as he puts it in the talk, “The act of knowing is an act of participation”
It is an interesting talk, with lots of ideas, but here I want to pick up on just one of them. Having discussed how complex knowledge systems for professionals can be, Wenger addresses a remark specifically to his OU audience, specialists in distance education:
“It’s sort of interesting because traditionally, at least, in many people’s minds, I think, distance learning is kind of second cousin to on-campus learning. But, if you start thinking about learning as engagement in a system of practices, then distance learning could be viewed as actually closer…. campus is actually further from practice and it may be easier on a campus-based learning system to forget about the complexity of the landscape of sources of knowledgeability for a professional.”
It is not a completely new point, but it is well worth reflection. Universities are among our oldest institutions. They form very strong communities of practice in their own right. An enrolled student at a university is studying within that community, with its own norms and practices – matriculation, lectures, essays, supervisions, graduation and so on. This effect is particularly strong if you are living on campus. These norms and practices may or may not have anything to do with what goes on outside, in professional contexts, whether those contexts are medical, legal, commercial or anything else.
So here is where an approach of distance learning, or maybe blended learning, will have an advantage. Most blended or distance learning students will be working, remaining part of a professional community and exposed to all the sources of learning and experience that offers. They can bring their learning immediately into that context and education can enrich their community membership, not disrupt it.
By contrast, full-time, campus-based students are divorced from that context – they will need to make a significant effort to translate their learning into a professional context – on leaving university, they will have to join new communities of practice. In some respects, they may have to start their learning all over again.
I am not necessarily trying to argue the superiority of blended and online university education over campus-based. However, I am arguing that it carries some advantages beyond convenience and cost. Providers of such education should start promoting them.