On Campus

Debunking the virtual university myth

Relax. Your campus isn't going anywhere.

Patrick J.J. Phillips argues this week in University Affairs that information technology is quickly making the university campus, as we know it, a thing of the past. What we will see, he says, is “a falling away of the campus as a physical location where students gather to sit in coliseum-style lecture halls and mingle and discuss in tutorial rooms. Rather, students will work in a range of different environments at different times via the Internet.” And this is not the distant future, mind you. The change, he insists, will be “striking and immediate.”

So far, no one has asked me to move out of my office. I doubt they will anytime soon.

For one thing, Phillips and others who make similar arguments ignore the profound value of direct, real-time, in-person interactions. In other words, there is no good substitute for being there. That’s why music fans still flock to concerts to hear songs they already have recordings of at home. That’s why sports fans pack stadiums and arenas to see games they could watch on TV. I can’t count the number of times I saw pictures of Stonehenge or the canals of Venice; it wasn’t the same as being there.

As with other experiences, technologically mediated education may be valuable in cases where being there is not practical, but the ideal environment for university education is not virtual. It’s real. Because it’s not just the bare content. It’s the feeling in the room, the laughter of other students at a clever joke, the conversations in the hallways and dorm rooms and professors’ offices. It’s the routine of going to class and the chaos of finishing a last-minute assignment. It’s being there. If there were not a special value in being at the university, the physical campus would have disappeared long ago. The University of London has offered distance degrees since 1858. England’s Open University began using electronic media to send courses to people’s homes in 1971 through its television broadcasts, an innovation that must have seemed to herald the end of physical campuses then, too. England’s universities still stand, and those TV broadcasts were ended in 2006.

All this would, to my mind, sink Phillips’ argument even if we accepted his tacit assumption that the only thing universities do is teach. But that is obviously false. Universities are more than just classrooms and the lectures given in them. They are research centres with labs and archives and performance spaces. They are also community centres, especially in smaller places where they provide cultural resources not otherwise available. At Cape Breton University, where I work, for example, we have the only serious art gallery on the island, and our theatre is the only place where high-quality live plays are regularly presented. No public library nearby can match the university collection, and a new sports and wellness centre, which will be open to the public, is being built as we speak.

Whether Phillips’ prediction is gleeful or despondent is not clear from his article. Either way, I think he’s wrong. If this time next year I find myself packing up my office, I’ll owe him an apology. Otherwise, I guess he owes me one.

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