Bricks, mortar and the future of learning

Universities will have to evolve as the Internet provides other options

As more than a million university and college students resume their studies, institutions of higher learning face an unprecedented challenge.

Not a lack of money, as might be supposed, but their own creation: the Internet.

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The Internet arose when researchers at different universities in the United States wanted to communicate the results of their research with each other.

Now the web threatens the very existence of universities. The business model that's been used by institutions of higher learning for a millennium will not work much longer.

The model of a teacher in front of a group of students has remained unchanged since the first modern university opened in 1088 in Bologna, Italy. After all, there was no other way to share knowledge, debate and question.

The rise of the Internet and associated communication technology has already transformed a range of industries from banking, travel and selling groceries. Without a doubt, universities are next.

In many ways, universities have been early adopters. Students apply for their studies online, and use the web to pay tuition fees and select courses. Increasingly they buy electronic textbooks, and use online resources for their own studies. Websites such as ratemyprofessors.com allow students to see evaluations from others about professors and courses.

But those changes are slight compared to what will happen next as the monopoly of the classroom model ends. Lectures can now be watched on a laptop 24-7 and assignments submitted electronically. Office hours can be conducted on Skype or via email.

Before the web, students came to the university. Now the university can come to students.

The emerging business model of many universities is that pioneered by airlines. That is, a group of first-class passengers paying a lot of money for a rich and intense learning experience. A second group of students in economy class pays less for mass-produced learning. Both groups will be granted the same formal credential, but the journey is different.

Also different is what they have learned about themselves and life.

For students whose parents have money, the traditional bricks-and-mortar university education will remain the preferred route. Being at a hockey game is not the same as watching it at home.

However, for many students the web-based, lesspersonal university education will be the only alternative. Like an airplane ride, we may want to sit in first class, but usually have to settle for economy seating.

The technology now makes it possible to have far more interesting online lectures than a jerky talking head, as charts, audio and video clips and other sources of information can be seamlessly integrated.

Online discussion groups can simulate some of what happens in a classroom.

Online courses are already available, and growing in number, at most universities.

As universities adopt the airline model, it is unclear so far how many students will want to sit in first class, and how many in economy seats. Also unclear is how much money students, and their parents, are willing to pay for each type of education.

In one scenario, many students gravitate to online degrees. The result will be that university campuses become mostly populated by graduate students, researchers and a relatively few students enrolled in courses - such as chemistry labs and nursing - that require hands-on learning. Lecture halls and classrooms will increasingly sit empty.

However, the airline model is not in the best interests of students, even if it is appealing to parents paying tuition and citizens paying taxes.

As a professor, my advice for students is to take traditional-format courses, if at all possible. The intensity of the interaction and friendships and connections that are made in a classroom, and outside it, are entirely different from the online experience.

The university experience is as much about classes as about extracurricular activities, from student clubs and organizations, to sports, to long nights debating and dreaming with friends.

Online courses demand more self-discipline than attending classes in person. Most undergraduate students do not have the necessary willpower and maturity. Students are keen to attend a lecture because their friends will be there or because a particularly attractive classmate is in attendance as well.

There is a place for online courses at universities, but it is not for undergraduate students. Courses for professional credit, such as executive education, can work very well online. The students have motivation as well as maturity.

University is about learning to be a critical thinker, but it is also about going for a beer (when old enough) with classmates or a professor.

Earning a degree involves changing who you are, and that can only be done in the company of others.

Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University. He wrote this for the Ottawa Citizen.

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