What’s the point of school if there’s no space to study?

Overcrowded campuses should worry about MOOCs

Studying in the Bullring Pub at the University of Guelph (Jessica Darmanin)

Three out of five. That’s how many of my younger brother’s second-year arts courses at the University of Guelph are online this semester. He would have rather taken in-person classes, but was assigned to make his schedule after most other students and found the offline sections full.

Two out of seven. That’s how many days of the week he bothers going to campus now. With a shortage of study space, like at so many Canadian universities, there’s no point in going to school when he doesn’t have classes. He doesn’t really need the library; the journals are online.

So his $6,500 tuition gets him two days per week on campus. The rest of the time he’s working alone in his townhouse miles from campus because the university doesn’t have the space for him.

Before he informed me of this, I was pretty dismissive of those who argue that cheap or free Massive Open Online Courses, taught by hotshot professors from Harvard to UBC, are a threat to universities as we know them. The argument, made daily it seems by some columnist or another, is that MOOCs are such a good deal that they’ll cause an exodus from residential campuses.

After hearing the frustration of my brother at paying so much for so little, combined with the news that colleges are testing out formal credits for MOOCs, I think universities should be worried.

Until now, I dismissed MOOCs because I believed universities offer one-on-one interaction—student to student and professor to professor—that can’t be replicated online. When I was an undergraduate at Guelph (2003 to 2008), I valued seminars led by graduate students who coaxed us into civil debates. I valued relationships with a handful of professors who’d notice if I didn’t show up. I valued casual conversations with fellow students from various backgrounds, whom I wouldn’t otherwise have met. At the University of British Columbia, where I did my master’s degree in journalism, some of my biggest ‘aha’ moments came from chatting with peers and professors in the hallways, classrooms and communal offices of our little journalism building. I went to campus every day because it was a more fruitful place to work. Anyone watching the debate over whether Yahoo employees should work from home knows the argument that collaboration happens best in person.

The offline interactions made my education whole. My brother seems to have far fewer of those.

I’m not saying universities should build more. It’s near impossible and probably unwise considering the size of provincial deficits and recent funding cuts. But Guelph has grown enrollment as quickly as possible because it needs the tuition dollars to beat back its structural deficit, a hole caused partly by benefit and pension costs that grow 10 to 15 per cent per year. Reining in benefits will help. What would help even more would be a funding formula that discourages overcrowding.

Universities that offer undergraduates enough in-person classes and physical spaces to study and collaborate will thrive. Some schools already seem to do that better than others. Universities where student feel crowded might lose those students to MOOCs, and who could blame them? But I fear such students would miss out on the full university experience–even more than my brother might.