Professor, Designer, Husband, Father, Gamer, Bagpiper

If you enter the right keywords into your favorite search engine, you can read endless articles about distance education, on-campus (resident) education, online education, flipped classrooms, and other intertwined topics like state vs private vs for-profit schools, vocational vs liberal arts education, the costs of college, and on and on.

Technology is making it easier to deliver online classes, and there are a lot of folks bullish about the possibilities as technology become cheaper and more pervasive. One of the reasons I'm excited about our recent Mozilla Hubs release is my long-standing interest in using AR/VR for supporting education.

It's great that we are getting better at delivering online education (for example, Georgia Tech's Online Master's in CS has generated rave reviews, including mentions from President Obama), and it's exciting that technology may make things even better. But it makes me wonder about the paucity of articles talking about the value of still going to campus. Or more specifically: how to maximize the value of being on campus.

There are plenty of articles comparing online classes to traditional classes; plenty discussing how to make traditional on-campus education better (e.g., learning centers, facilities, how to structure a class, the use of active learning methods); but few asking the question: if we can deliver some content effectively online, and we accept that students make take some classes this way, what can we do to maximize the value of the activities that are still done on campus?[1]

Hopefully we can agree that "online" vs "on-campus" is actually a false choice. If the breadth our our discussion (and the limit of our imagination) is "do we deliver 3-credit-hour classes online or on campus" there's not much interesting to discuss.

Rather, I'd like to see more discussion that assumes post-secondary education will be a mix many things, and see Universities embrace ways of maximizing the value to the students of all of them, even if this means that students may spend much less time on campus, and not need to be paying anything to the University for some of these off campus activities.[2]

There is a lot of activity around ways of structuring online education and non-traditional certfication, such as micro-degrees or competency-based certification. These activities are very much works-in-progress, especially in regard to how they integrate with traditional degrees. They point to one part of the puzzle.

Even when considering things that feel very much like traditional quarter- or semester-long classes, online educations needs to go beyond the MOOC-style everyone-is-remote-with-an-online-chat-room model. Universities have the opportunity to go further.

For example, in addition to online classes, they could create "remote" offerings that are structured to support people gathering at smaller schools (community colleges? non-research universities? high schools?) or other venues (community centers? job training centers?) with local facilitators, and provide the materials and resources to support these groups working and learning together. Such classes could complement (or replace) some AP classes in high school, letting a high school host sessions of the actual colleges classes the students are supposedly placing out of by taking AP classes.

Rather than trying to train high school and regional college teachers to teach these advanced topics, we could let students attending small regional schools take classes from the top schools with a local teacher and cohort of students working together to learn the material.

As more gets done away from campus, it should be possible to rethink on-campus classwork. With less to cover, and perhaps less students on campus, the remaining material may not longer need to be broken down into quarter- or semester-at-a-time units. That's currently done for logistical and historical reasons, but if we break off a large part of our current degrees into online, remote or self-directed study, could whatever is left be delivered in entirely different ways?

Ways that maximize the value of being on campus?

What might this mean? Perhaps much of a student's on-campus time could start being spent in studios or lab, working on more substantial projects designed to be taken after (or in parallel with) online or on-campus classes. Students (individually or in teams) can analyze, build and/or create things that require them to synthesize what they learn in these other classes, with constant feedback and critique[3]. Studios don't have to be limited to open-ended capstones or research projects; they can also be well defined projects designed to support students learning the core material of multiple parts of their field.

Many of our programs have capstones of various sizes and lengths: but why do our degree programs spend so little time on these activities? Why aren't students doing projects like this continuously? And why do their projects typically get limited to a single semester or year? Part of the reason is that there is so much foundational material that needs to be covered in the 3, 4 or 5 years a student is in college. But if more of that material can be covered away from campus, perhaps on campus students could spend most of their time doing projects, entrepreneurial activities, or research? Campuses are doing innovative things, even with these constraints (e.g., Northwestern's Engineering First curriculum, Georgia Tech's Vertically Integrated Projects program, to name two). Imagine what more could be done.

The elephant in the room is that the entire University structure (at least in the US) is built on the assumption that students are doing the bulk of their degrees at the university[4]. Funding models and budgets, faculty hiring and job structures, buildings, and so on, are built around this assumption, so radical change will take time, and require support from all corners of society, from parents to politicians, accreditors to funders.

At the end of the day, we need to start asking what the percentage of material, out of the breadth of what we want students to learn as part of a degree, is amenable to delivery in a supported online format? Which topics? Perhaps it's a few intro classes? Perhaps it's 1/2 to 3/4 of the degree? And what's the nature of the rest of the material, and how best can we deal with it on campus if we can focus on that?

I don't see colleges asking this question.

I personally feel there is incredible value to being on campus at a top tier university. There is clearly value to being in a community of learners, being exposed to new people, and being challenged in discussions and assignments. Online classes can provide some of this. There is also incredible value in activities that are harder to replicate online, like guided projects and studios, the opportunity to do research with faculty, or the growing number of entrepreneurial activities tied into a student's field of study. The value of these grow even more when they bring together scholars and students across disciplines, exposing learners to people and viewpoint they might not encounter in online classes.

Universities need to figure out where the true value of the on-campus experience lies, and find ways of maximizing the time, money and effort it takes to be there. We should imagine a future where students cover significant material in well supported remote and online communities, and come together on campuses for a much shorter and more focused periods to learn in ways that require them to be there.

Campuses as we know them would change dramatically, but those changes will hopefully be better for everyone!


  1. Let's ignore the debate of whether online can match in-person education: there are so many variables that make this topic complex. Amazing online might beat mediocre in person; some courses work better in different formats; different people need different support; and so on. On top of that, then there are economic and other practical issues: online is cheaper, and for some people, cheaper will trump best as long as it's good enough. ↩ī¸Ž

  2. Money can be dealt with, but it's a big reason this problem can't be tackled by Universities alone and requires a more wholistic discussion with all stakeholders. ↩ī¸Ž

  3. For example, my father-in-law is a nuclear engineer and former VP at a national lab, and he used to teach a capstone at his local university. He told me about a project he designed one year, where he had the students design a reactor for the surface of Mars. It required them to build on the core knowledge they had learned, but also understand it deeply enough to apply it in this different context: different gravity and atmosphere, different amounts of dust and particles in the air, and so on. What a great learning opportunity. ↩ī¸Ž

  4. Students can take classes off campus, but these are treated as exceptions that must be approved, and there tend to be strict limits on the number of credit hours that can be taken elsewhere. There are some good reasons for this, especially with the wide variance in quality among schools. But these are issues that can be solved. ↩ī¸Ž