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In my opinion

Enjoy your last days on campus

Another forecast of changes coming to university education


Those working in contemporary academia stand on the shale slope of change. The implications of this change will dwarf in scope and impact that of the massive building phase of the red-brick university campus developments that followed the Second World War. Those who are now hoping to see their children attend postsecondary education within the next 15 years will witness the results of this stark transformation firsthand.

The most striking and immediate change will be the elimination of the physical campus. This radical turn of events will bring with it consequences that will supplant, and in some cases eliminate, the inherited pedagogical models of the 1950s and ’60s.

Adaptive technology is alreadwidespread in the classroom. Examples of this new technology often include PowerPoint, video streaming, web-based courses and electronic books. But these are merely the forerunners of the coming change.

What the future holds for our children’s postsecondary experience 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. Students of the future may feel this is quite natural, perhaps even preferring it to the large and overwhelming lecture hall experience.

Environmentalism and economics will work hand in hand with the elimination of the physical campus. Large buildings have to be constructed at massive cost, as well as maintained, cleaned, heated, insured and staffed. They necessitate mass commuting of the student membership. Physical campuses involve an untenable fiscal proposition and leave a large direct carbon footprint.

Politics also plays a role in the coming campus elimination. University administrators are pressured to show accountability for the “products” of a university, such as listing the skills a student finishing a degree program will have gained (a before-and-after snapshot). An Internet-based pedagogy works better for this kind of accountability.

Current pedagogical models also will help do away with the campus. To meet the needs of learners who learn differently, postsecondary teaching has drawn on a new wave of adaptive technologies as pedagogical instruments. Taking a lead from this “diversity in ways of learning,” what’s coming is a “diversity of methods of assessment” in postsecondary education. Multiple ways to satisfy the criteria of any given course will soon be available.

This melding of diversity of learning and of assessment will gradually close the gap between academic departments and the administration about the need for universal course design, or UCD. The joint requirements of UCD are homogeneity of teaching (or as it’s now called, course delivery); and that UCD be legalistic and binding. Both requirements will necessitate a web-based context.

What will result from the elimination of the physical campus? One possibility is a tiered education system offering the “product” according to the student’s ability to pay. An analogy might be the legal seminar. Here, invited speakers lecture via a video-conferencing link. They are presenting to a live audience at such taped events – people who have paid a premium and may ask questions of the invited speakers. The second-tier audience may watch the conference on a computer in a boardroom or on their laptop. Charged a lesser fee, they may still ask questions through a web link. A third tier of the audience may watch without the right of reply or the ability to ask questions. Postsecondary students of the future might be faced with a similar multiple-tiered choice of options – and cost – for delivery of their postsecondary education.

As for the physical campus, what will remain will function as regional examination centres. Such examination centres will retain the names of their parent organizations (where their parents’ names are good). These names would function, not so much as purveyors of reputation as classically understood, but rather as “brand names” with their own economic value in the competitive marketplace for prospective students.

For those who feel that the vandals are indeed at the gates and ask, “Will the experience of talk-and-chalk in the honourable and edifying tradition of the Socratic Method among a real (as opposed to virtual) community of scholars and fellow travellers survive this change?” The answer of course is yes.

Yes, but surviving as so many of our traditions do, in the same way that top hats are still worn at Eaton or ceremonial gowns by the Masters at graduation. That is to say, such traditions will survive, but only on very special occasions in elite company, for those who can afford the trappings of tradition in a mercantile age.

Dr. Phillips is a lecturer in the philosophy department at York University.

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  1. Linda Hansen / October 13, 2009 at 11:10

    What will result from the elimination of the physical campus?

    How about: the furtherance of the information ghetto (extending it by gender, age, economic capabilities, ethnicity, nationality, geography etc.)?

    Sounds pretty much like something a few politicians and senior administrators would be keen on — thus ensuring their *voters* remain undereducated and incapable of acquiring education.

    I am hopeful that sooner or later someone will pick up on the notion of education equity — that perhaps the equitable ability to acquire a quality education of the student’s choice (as opposed to *an education*) should be a given.

  2. Bart R. Johnson / October 16, 2009 at 11:15

    The inane and alarmist tone of Phillips’ forecast is silly. He meant to make us all think about the shocking change that is to come. However, the shocking change has already come. At my university, we deliver much more than powerpoints – the web is central to core delivery, and will become moreso. I have a colleague who delivers core business lectures via Second Life. Athabasca and the Open Universities have existed for years.

    Rather than the elimination of the physical campus – linked as it is with dynamics of power, prestige and real estate endowments – we are more likely to engage with unforeseen hybrid methods for teaching in the future. Combinations of the live, the virtual and other technologies are likely to emerge rather than full replacement of living contact. This is because, like it or not, people actually enjoy being together in the same room, and students seek new (live) social contacts through the University experience – contacts between bodies, skins, sexualities – basic human needs that are a byproduct of physical togetherness. Technology will complement and replace the live in some fora, but not all.

    Academics love to be the prophet who saw it coming before everyone else, and to forecast doom. Stop it. It’s both boring and oversimplistic. One might be able to teach philosophical discourse via the internet – indeed there is a certain kind of socially phobic academic who would adore that kind of future – but social networking has not replaced live sexuality, just complemented it with a range of erotic to gory practices. Academia is likely to be the same. We will replace some live contact with technologically mediated contact, but bodies still need bodies and this will not just be a need of the elite, but rather of humankind.

    If we really want to take the environmental argument to the extreme, it is possible that there will not be enough electricity to keep people networking from a distance in the future, never mind preventing them from travelling to campuses! So perhaps all humanity is doomed to live in cold caves, sitting in the bleak, drafty, humid corner, gnawing on the bones of Atwood’s pigoons, texting tracts quoting Deleuze to one another during the few moments per day the mobile phone masts are live. In which case I will return to dirt farming, and Universities will cease to have much value, and the dark future foreseen here will be even darker. Great, fresh broccoli though! And fantastic cabbage!

  3. Irene Miwa / November 13, 2012 at 15:24

    The overarching assumption is that higher learning should be equally accessible by everyone regardless of social or economic class but becoming less possible as the costs of maintaining massive campuses rise. But eliminating the physical campus as the most sufficient cause for the financial stress, and substituting electronic technology, mean that education would be tiered according to the student’s ability to pay.

    This conclusion was deduced from the fact that the traditional pedagogy intrinsic to the lecture species of teaching methods necessarily becomes redundant.

    If every student is plugged into his or her modum located in disparate sites around the globe, how will Professor Phillips interact with each and every one of them 24/7? And, equality necessitates that he does. Further, interaction is an essential process if a teacher is to impart abstract ideas to young minds. Therefore, Professor Phillips would be justified in charging full cost for full interaction during prime time, a lesser fee for a “Yes” or “No” answer, and no fee at all for auditing.

    All of the above are counterfactual propositions. Even his textbook, “Challenge to Relativism”, wouldn’t have helped me to learn to think critically if I hadn’t had the good fortune to attend his lectures and interact with the other learners.

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