The explosion in online learning marks the beginning of a revolution, one that may well make higher education available to an unprecedented number of people from all levels of society. The Internet has become a tool to extend the reach of higher education, still our society's most potent force for reducing poverty, fostering self-sufficiency, and creating future leaders.
Yet in a world in which even MIT and Harvard University are offering virtual courses over the Internet, traditional colleges retain one vitally important asset: The campus.
For students, the real-world institutional experience -- the socialization, the sheer human contact with peers, faculty, and the institution at large -- can be one of the richest and most rewarding aspects of the college years. It also represents a vital element of deep learning, in which students develop fresh insights from a variety of sources, including new experiences. And in the warm glow of memory, campus life is what alumni treasure.
"Computers will enhance learning, but they will never replace the profoundly personal dimension in deep learning," Pepperdine University provost Darryl Tippens wrote in the publication Chronicle of Higher Education. "The degree to which we believe that physical presence is important to learning will influence our answer to, 'What is college for?'"
In other words: The online learning revolution is exciting, but nobody will hold a reunion with their old laptop.
It may hold tremendous promise for the future, but online education should be only one component of a rewarding university experience; the setting of a physical campus is another. In the best tomorrow, virtual learning will co-exist with the brick and mortar of a traditional campus.
You can not call it a revolution unless it overturns tradition. The rapid adoption of online learning has indeed revealed much that is outdated, inefficient, and fundamentally broken in higher education. In particular, it demonstrates that the ability to embrace rapid change is critical for the future of our colleges and universities.
In their book The Innovative University, authors Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring argue that high costs for students have made the traditional university model unsustainable. They call for colleges to re-write their DNA through disruptive innovation, the practice of embracing change that breaks down the old as it forges the new.
We feel that institutions like Becker College are well-positioned as practitioners of disruptive innovation because we are reinventing ourselves anyway. In the past several years, Becker has implemented numerous innovations, including the development of a new vision, mission, and institutional core values, and the launch of a video game design program now recognized as one of the best in the country.
But Becker and other institutions of higher learning must now place new emphasis on a deliberate engineering of the student experience, especially as it occurs on the physical campus.
It all comes down to the value proposition: If a student will spend upwards of $200,000 for a college degree, what is the return on that investment? What unique value does the college provide? The promise has got to be more that simple preparation to enter the working world, if the result is a $25,000-a-year job for a student with $50,000 or more of debt.
We must ensure graduates leave our embrace with a broad skill set. They must be prepared to be global citizens -- taught to see how they fit into an internationalized society -- because they will compete in the global arena. They must learn to build their own personal brands, because on average, they will sell themselves into 15 or more different jobs as they pursue careers.
That's why engineering the student experience begins with a deliberate approach to campus life, an asset that is simply not replicable online. You can't have and enjoy a fantastic football program on the Internet. You can't replicate dormitories, student centers, the green spaces that invite students to stroll; These are the places where accidental encounters occur, where ideas are swapped on the fly, where simple human contact feeds inspiration and innovation.
At Becker's Central Massachusetts campuses, dining rooms and open quads are often packed with students gathered around open laptops, comparing work, solving problems, and sharing laughter. Those students are spending their college years building a rich foundation of relationships. There may come a time when technology will replicate that process, but that day is not yet in sight, and does not seem desirable.
The future will wait for no institution. The time has come to embrace the change that will make us stronger. Where we once provided the environment and allowed nature to take its course, we must now deliberately engineer the student experience, starting with the daily life that makes every campus a vital, growing community. There's no point in trying to open doors if you have no walls.