Residential Online, a Reintroduction

I jumped the other day into a fairly specific discussion of some problems that residential online could solve, and was reminded by some that these were not universal problems.

So I want to back up, and talk bigger picture.

I believe there are multiple possible futures for education, and that many of these futures will in fact exist at once. There’s no single future for education.

What I worry about, however, is the decline of residential education. I worry that a residential education will become the privilege of a few, and the rest of society will be handed the warmed-over leftovers of whatever the Ivy Leaguers get, to be eaten in the microwave at home, with one’s helicopter parents checking over one’s shoulder to make sure the plate is clean.

Here’s the thing — I came to college myself as a really smart but profoundly incomplete person. I was not balanced. I was too sheltered, overly binary in my world view. Some of what happened in the ensuing five years (yes, five years — I had a gap in there where I played folk guitar and lived in Athens, GA) — some of what happened can be laid at the feet of normal late adolescent cognitive development, but an awful lot of it was the environment a residential liberal arts campus afforded me.

I’d like to say it was the teachers, and certainly there were a few that had profound impact on me. But it was my classmates who changed me the most. I still remember a night one of my friends threw our Critical Theory text full force in frustration down the hall at two a.m.  Tired beyond belief, up studying at the radio station, we watched it hit the tile, splay, then slide down the hall like a deconstructionist bowling ball. And then my friend went and retrieved it and we started again.

It’s not a stunning moment, but it’s a memory that has been reinforced for me over my life, because it captures the sort of atmosphere that made a difference in college. The massive four hour group study that led up to that moment, the frustration and the exhilaration, but most of all the camaraderie. For the first time I existed in a world where my intellectual circle and my social circle were one thing. The people I drank with were the people thought with. Not to idealize it too much, because there was a lot of messing about with Old Milwaukee, funnels, and occasional hallucinogenics, but in scattered moments it approached an unapologetic life of the mind.

When it comes to online education boosterism, I’m pretty hardcore. You can do a ton with online as well as (or better) than you can face-to-face. But I can’t imagine anything like my undergrad experience online, anything as powerful as it without the residential element. The big face-to-face experience that online has trouble replacing isn’t the absence of the physical teacher, it’s the  face-to-face experience of students meeting other students and re-envisioning who they are in the process.

Now back to those possible futures.

We can let online evolve outside the residential college experience. And my sense is that if that happens the residential experience will erode as outside options pull away the more profitable bits and leave us our loss leaders to run, further accelerating the rate of tuition increases. Over time two tracks will develop. The elite with get the traditional college education, and those on aid and government-backed loans will get the online version. What’s more, the residential experience itself might be whittled down, with most students coming in only after a two year battery of online courses to take a year or so of capstones and advanced labs.

And maybe that’s fine. But to me, it seems a huge cultural loss.

The other vision is that residential colleges aggressively pursue building online capacity and integrate online seamlessly into the residential experience. We prevent the erosion of credits away from us, brace for the “Gray Wave” that will radically defund higher education, and meet our future with both hands firmly on the steering wheel.

For each campus the implementation might be different. But the key is to build the capacity to do this now so that we have the flexibility to respond as the situation evolves. What problems will that capacity allow us to solve — and what values will it allow us to protect? I’ll talk more about that in the coming weeks. But I do believe if we leave online to the community colleges and for-profits, it is the beginning of the end of so much of what college was about for all of us, and what it could still be for so many students yet to come.

5 thoughts on “Residential Online, a Reintroduction

  1. There is very little in here that I disagree with but I do think there are alternative paths that the growth of online courses and material may take. My fear is that over time we will relegate almost all general/core/liberal education to extremely large online courses (MOOCS today something else tomorrow). The attitude of many students and certainly their parents is college should lead to a profession and therefore they need to get on with a major that has a specific career path. Regardless that many professional organizations and large companies argue that what they really need is better thinkers, problem solvers etc. the students and parents believe a more narrow focus will serve them better. The value of a course in sociology or in literature is at least in part found in the personal dialogues that students and professors have over coffee, beer or whatever. It is in long arguments and searching out the finer points of a particular idea or concept. Clearly, this can and does happen online but I fear we will be losing a major piece of what college was all about when we move all our introductory and “life skills” courses to the online framework. I could be wrong on this but I sense both the federal government and many for profit entities are ready to support such a move. In this vision college becomes a place to “finish” your work rather than start your work. The grandeur of higher education in the U.S. has been the luxury to think long and hard both creatively and for the pure pleasure of exploring new thoughts and connections. When one turns to the more narrow focus of a major content becomes king and without a background in critical thought a great deal will be lost.

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