CHE: Learning Today: the Lasting Value of Place (8 May 2011)

As published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 8 May 2011:

By Joseph E. Aoun

At a conference last summer, Bill Gates predicted that “place-based activity in college will be five times less important than it is today.” Noting the ever-growing popularity of online learning, he predicted that “five years from now, on the Web —for free—you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

“College, except for the parties,” Gates concluded, “needs to be less place-based.”

Although it’s bold and thought-provoking, Gates’s prediction is oversimplified. As we can already see, something more complex is happening. Across the United States and the world, colleges and universities, historically defined by their physical campuses, are diversifying their delivery systems. They’re expanding them to provide higher education not only online, but also in new physical locations, both domestically and worldwide. Online education may be on the rise, but place-based education is, too.

Today a college or university increasingly is not just one place, but many places—a main campus, a satellite branch in a different city or state, an international outpost, and a virtual-learning environment. This major evolution is likely to proceed further as the demographic changes and competitive pressures facing our sector continue to intensify. As increasing numbers of working adults attend college and the higher-education marketplace becomes more global, many institutions are expanding part-time, evening, and weekend degree programs that, by definition, de-emphasize the traditional campus experience.

Many colleges today offer a robust array of online courses and programs to accommodate the needs of working students and others who seek the convenience of Web-based education. To help students keep down costs and facilitate their transition to professional life, a number of four-year institutions have established three-year degree options. More institutions are adopting experiential education in response to calls from students and employers for a model that prepares students to navigate the world economy successfully. Some institutions, like mine, infuse it with a global dimension through cooperative education opportunities with brokerage firms in Hong Kong, global software companies in India, and microfinance organizations in South Africa, among others.

Taken together, these examples represent a significant shift. While educational models and offerings have always been diverse, the identities of institutions have typically been tightly coupled with their traditional campuses. Now the confluence of new technologies, changing student demands, and the emergence of a global higher-education market are quickly loosening the bonds between campus and brand. Diversity of delivery systems is a major development in the evolution of higher education.

While observers like Gates see online education as the defining characteristic of this new delivery system, it’s important to note how central place-based education continues to be within this framework. Of all the ways that the delivery system has changed, most either remain anchored in a place-based schema or retain some element in which education is delivered in person.

In fact, even online higher education is more place-based than many people realize. According to the research company Eduventures, more than one-third of online students live within 50 miles of their institution, while almost two-thirds live in the institution’s geographical region. . . . Continue reading article in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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