In his provocative recent essay “The End of the University as We Know It,” Nathan Harden decries the excess of university spending on its physical space, where “luxury dorms and dining halls, vast athletic facilities, state of the art game rooms, theaters and student centers” require “layers of staff and non-teaching administrators, all of which drives up the cost of the college degree without enhancing student learning.” Arguing that investing in such building and physical infrastructure “is an investment in the past, not the future,” Harden mounts a compelling argument for a more sustainable learning experience in higher education. Predicting the inevitable doom of the residential university, Harden imagines a future in which students gain increasing access to the specialized knowledge of the elite university through MOOCs and other forms of hybrid education.
Surely Harden is right on many levels. Very few college students inhabit the posh real estate of university campuses without incurring greatly burdensome debt. In such a context, Harden’s intervention in the larger discussion about rethinking university spaces is timely and affirms a more democratic vision of higher education. As a supporter of new kinds of shared learning spaces, I have been thinking about this doubled nature--the virtual and the physical--in higher education, especially in respect to many aspects of our increasingly digital lives.
My own campus, Stanford University, has been ambivalent about new learning environments. On the one hand, many Stanford community members, faculty as well as students, have long been involved in virtual learning environments. For many years Stanford students have enjoyed the option to watch recorded Stanford lectures on their own time and to enroll in other courses simultaneously. More recently in 2011 Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng launched Coursera, and in 2012 Stanford research professor Sebastian Thrun co-founded Udacity. My students report that inhabiting multiple learning environments is both seamless and part of their daily lives. Some take Coursera courses and last spring I enrolled with several humanities undergrads in Udacity’s Statistics course. Yet, the university has recently decided to demand physical presence of students in classrooms.
In fact, so many Stanford students have preferred the recorded lecture to the physical version, the university recently moved to prohibit students from signing up for two courses at the same time in attempt to force students to be physically present in their classes. Students protested to the point that the policy has been shelved indefinitely. It appears unlikely that learning outside the traditional classroom can easily be quashed by registration restrictions.
And why should it, with costs and stresses involved? As someone who had experienced residential education 30 years ago and had to work full-time in the campus bookstore to afford it even then, I am increasingly convinced of Harden's criticisms. Additionally, I've begun to revise my own narrow understanding of the physicality of a shared learning experience. On a recent trip UC Irvine, where I’d been an undergraduate and which I’d not visited since 1986, I realized that my residential experience in the pre-Internet and digital media days had already been on the way to hybridity.
Expecting a delicious Proustian encounter with the long unseen place of learning, I bolted up to the second floor of the Humanities Hall to the patio where I used to study before classes. I was not disappointed. Much to my delight, the very same rusty metal tables still stood outside the classrooms. Hovering there, I recalled hours I’d spent on those uncomfortable welded seats pouring over Hegel’s introduction to the Phenomenology of the Spirit, distractedly chatting with friends, debating whether the dialectic was real, and whether Bergman’s Persona was deep or dated.
And then, I had another thought: Many of my shared learning experiences back then had not occurred in the traditional classroom or even on campus. In fact, most of the famous paintings I’d seen were in museums off campus or in other media. For films and art openings I’d travelled to theaters galleries with fellow students.
Snapping out of my willfully maudlin reverie, I approached a group of students returning from their Humanities courses and asked them if their university experience was more about physical or virtual presence. They responded was a blend, but admitted lectures of all sorts, physical or virtual, put them to sleep. The only virtue of the latter was the ability to fast forward.
“True,” I remarked. “There was a Metaphysics lecture here in the 1980s that was so boring my peers and I resorted to taking our heart rates to determine who was closest to unconsciousness.”
In that deadening boredom, we 1980s students had banded together in the classroom. Now it seems as if students in 2013 have a much broader often more inclusive understanding of “togetherness” than we had. They are also smarter about forming learning communities and choosier about teachers, syllabi, course formats and assignments.
With new tools, many digital and social, these students have the potential to advance the best aspects of shared university learning. Now that I live a highly virtual life on academic social media 24/7, I understand that the communities I knew, the teachers and peers, some of whom no longer walk this earth with me, were already part of a hybrid education that has become increasingly innovative and accessible to greater and different publics. I am eager to learn how higher education in its transition to wider digital publics might improve the lives and knowledge of my students, my children, and the many who come after.