The Power of Bricks and Mortar

05/09/2014 03:09 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014

"Learning is a complex, holistic, multi-centric activity that occurs throughout and across the college experience." Learning Reconsidered, a NASPA white paper, 2004.

With all the talk these days about the magic of online education, I thought I would take a few minutes to talk about the power of bricks and mortar. We all know there are universities where you can earn a degree entirely online, and there is pressure (both internal and external) on public and private universities across the country to do more in cyberspace. Like many states, Virginia is urging its public universities to create more online courses to make college more affordable and more accessible. So my university, the University of Mary Washington, is moving in this direction too - albeit cautiously and deliberately.

But I have trouble thinking that the college of the future will be a laptop and a kitchen table. That's because there is a lot of learning, education, and personal development that can only occur on an actual college campus. Indeed, research shows that students do better in many ways when they are connected to a residential community that allows them access to all of the university's resources.

We believe there are three types of learning that take place on campus: psycho-social, cognitive, and moral. Psycho-social learning derives from the environment, especially from the connections that a student makes with other people. We know that there is a lot of personal growth that takes place in the first two years of college, and it is no coincidence that at Mary Washington we require that students spend those two years living on campus. There, and often for the first time, students learn to organize their own lives, set their own study rules, and figure out how to live with others. It's experiential learning at its most elemental.

Cognitive learning is most influenced by a student's academic studies. But there is a larger sense to cognition, and that is making meaning of things. That encompasses problem solving, reasoning, argument, planning, and decision-making. Imagine how students might apply what they learned in psychology, sociology, architecture, or biology classes as they walk across campus or hang out with friends. But cognition also involves communication and teamwork skills, all learned in group activities like clubs, social and government activities, and athletics. Employers tell us they value those two attributes more than any others.

A third kind of learning takes place on campus as well - moral development. Living away from home, often for the first time, students learn that society has its rules and that there are consequences if they are broken. Those rules may be formulated and enforced by the university, the town, or the state. But there are other rules as well, seemingly less consequential, but arguably more important. Those are the rules of interpersonal behavior that are only taught by living with roommates in a close setting, working together on a service project or playing on a team. This is where you learn that the Golden Rule has real meaning.

Speaking of which, at Mary Washington we place a heavy emphasis on service learning. In these programs, students go out into the community to do hands-on (or brains-on) work to help organizations, schools, and real people. Mary Washington students now do 17,000 hours of service learning each year. We know that our service learning projects, along with volunteering and internships, are invaluable for connecting students with the community and the world at large.

It's impossible to talk about the physical campus without referring to sports. There is nothing like athletics, whether at the club, intramural or varsity level, to learn communication and teamwork skills -- not to mention the ideals of working to overcome adversity, role playing for the good of the team, and striving to meet goals. And this learning environment can only be found on campus. At my university - and we may not be different from other Division III schools our size -- nearly one-third of our students become involved in some sort of school-sponsored athletic activity.

Recognizing that the campus environment is a petri dish for learning, it is incumbent on us, its administrators, to continually strive to improve the setting. While this might mean building more tennis courts or a bigger gym, we are mainly focused on such things as designing dormitories with study lounges, play areas, and settings for coffee, pizza and conversation. We need places like our new Convergence Center where students and faculty can work together in a digital environment. We need living and learning communities where students in the same dorm study the same subjects. Our studies show us that students in these communities have higher grades and are more engaged in their coursework and discussions.

A sense of place is a big part of higher education, and much of what we do in that place cannot be duplicated in cyberspace. If we keep asking ourselves, "What is unique about our campus?", we will find the answers, and we can continue to enhance the power of bricks and mortar.