Learning Today: the Lasting Value of Place

Illustration by James Yang for The Chronicle

May 08, 2011

At a conference last summer, Bill Gates predicted that "place-based activity in college will be five times less important than it is today." Noting the ever-growing popularity of online learning, he predicted that "five years from now, on the Web­—for free—you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university."

"College, except for the parties," Gates concluded, "needs to be less place-based."

Although it's bold and thought-provoking, Gates's prediction is oversimplified. As we can already see, something more complex is happening. Across the United States and the world, colleges and universities, historically defined by their physical campuses, are diversifying their delivery systems. They're expanding them to provide higher education not only online, but also in new physical locations, both domestically and worldwide. Online education may be on the rise, but place-based education is, too.

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Today a college or university increasingly is not just one place, but many places—a main campus, a satellite branch in a different city or state, an international outpost, and a virtual-learning environment. This major evolution is likely to proceed further as the demographic changes and competitive pressures facing our sector continue to intensify. As increasing numbers of working adults attend college and the higher-education marketplace becomes more global, many institutions are expanding part-time, evening, and weekend degree programs that, by definition, de-emphasize the traditional campus experience.

Many colleges today offer a robust array of online courses and programs to accommodate the needs of working students and others who seek the convenience of Web-based education. To help students keep down costs and facilitate their transition to professional life, a number of four-year institutions have established three-year degree options. More institutions are adopting experiential education in response to calls from students and employers for a model that prepares students to navigate the world economy successfully. Some institutions, like mine, infuse it with a global dimension through cooperative education opportunities with brokerage firms in Hong Kong, global software companies in India, and microfinance organizations in South Africa, among others.

Taken together, these examples represent a significant shift. While educational models and offerings have always been diverse, the identities of institutions have typically been tightly coupled with their traditional campuses. Now the confluence of new technologies, changing student demands, and the emergence of a global higher-education market are quickly loosening the bonds between campus and brand. Diversity of delivery systems is a major development in the evolution of higher education.

While observers like Gates see online education as the defining characteristic of this new delivery system, it's important to note how central place-based education continues to be within this framework. Of all the ways that the delivery system has changed, most either remain anchored in a place-based schema or retain some element in which education is delivered in person.

In fact, even online higher education is more place-based than many people realize. According to the research company Eduventures, more than one-third of online students live within 50 miles of their institution, while almost two-thirds live in the institution's geographical region.

In many ways, the continued centrality of place-based education is no surprise. Some online courses are getting more sophisticated by the day, with the addition of streaming video lectures, real-time discussion functions, and other advances. However, the key question is whether the range of human interactions inherent in place-based education can be fully replicated in a virtual environment. I would argue that the answer is no, given the fact that learning happens both inside and outside the classroom, whether physical or online, in the following ways:

Peer-learning environments. By its very nature, place-based education promotes peer learning because students can easily share their perspectives, disagreements, and emotions about what they are learning in the physical classroom. Online classes can match this when they are well designed, but they also have the potential to inhibit peer learning because students are physically isolated from each other. In addition, place-based settings make it easy for students to continue learning from one another outside the classroom—in study groups, discussion sessions, and informal conversations—while online students may have to make more deliberate efforts.

Exposure to diversity. Place-based education provides many natural opportunities for students to be exposed to diversity. In the same vein, place-based settings also imbue a global dimension to students' education by facilitating daily interactions with faculty and peers who hail from different corners of the world.

Research opportunities. From laboratories to historical archives, place-based higher-education environments feature significant research infrastructures that give students opportunities to apply and enrich their classroom learning. While online students have access to digital libraries and the Web for research, place-based settings amplify those resources with faculty tutelage and hands-on experiences.

Campus and community engagement. Students in place-based environments also have access to an array of campus and community resources that can augment their learning and enhance their social engagement and interpersonal development. For many students, campus organizations, service learning, sports, school-spirit activities, and other experiences are as important as the classes they take in strengthening their identities and preparing them for the professional world.

Chance encounters. Compared with online students, students in place-based higher-education settings are exposed to something subtle but vital: the chance encounters that come with membership in a diverse intellectual community. Whether a guest lecture, a conversation with a peer majoring in a different field, or the experience of befriending someone from a different background, place-based encounters can spark new interests and set students on fulfilling paths they might never have traveled otherwise.

My goal here is not to assert the superiority of place-based higher education over online education. The point is that both models give students opportunities to obtain what they desire from higher education. Indeed, as institutions evolve to encompass many places, it's foreseeable that in the future, the experience of more students will comprise a healthy mix of campus-based courses, online learning, and terms spent at domestic satellite and international campuses. Contrary to the notion that one model will prevail, the more likely future of higher education is one in which the best aspects of a diverse delivery system come together to meet our students' needs most effectively.

In many ways, this expanding diversity is simply the latest stage of an evolutionary process that has strengthened the American higher-education system time and again. After the Civil War, university leaders shifted from the predominant model of classical, religiously affiliated higher education to a new archetype inspired by the great German research universities. After World War II, the influx of returning GI's and the increasingly sophisticated demands of the U.S. economy led to an expansion of the higher-education system and the establishment of new models, like community colleges. Those evolutionary stages had two things in common: First, they were motivated by a desire to extend the benefits of an education to an ever-greater number of American citizens. Second, they led not to the ascendancy of one "best" higher-education system but to the emergence of many diverse paradigms—large research universities, small liberal-arts colleges, community colleges, and others—each suited to meet the educational needs of an increasingly multifaceted array of students.

Now the rapid march of technology, customers with new needs, and global opportunities are driving the evolution of the new delivery system that we see today in higher education. Bill Gates is right to have faith in the ability of online education to empower new generations of students to advance their educations. But if past is prologue, online education will remain a component of—not the answer to—the diverse system that has cemented the leadership of American higher education in the world. That includes place-based education, parties and all.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.