During the next few weeks, millions of college students will be going back to campus for the start of a new school year. However, if Bill Gates is right, this longstanding tradition of education on college campuses will be obsolete soon.
Earlier this month, billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates predicted at a technology conference in Lake Tahoe, California, that in five years, place-based colleges will be significantly less important due to technology. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education and others, Gates said, "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, need to be less place-based." He also stated that online learning could bring down the cost of a college education.
There is no doubt that online learning, or distance learning, is increasing in popularity. Millions of college students are participating in online learning, and most major universities offer many courses online. Some of the benefits and advantages of online learning include cost, convenience, and schedule flexibility. It is often a good option for adults who work full time, people with disabilities, and those who live in remote areas or don't have regular transportation.
The 2009 Sloan Survey of Online Learning indicated that online learning enrollment rose by nearly 17 percent from 2008. The Sloan report stated that around 4.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2008.
As an adjunct professor of Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University, I'm aware of the value of online learning, but I still strongly believe in the value of place-based colleges.
One of the main goals of college is to develop independence. Living in dorms with a bunch of people that you didn't know at first helps students get away from their familiar home surroundings and teaches them skills of living with and cooperating with other people. Having social interaction with a group of diverse people is likely to make young people grow as a person. Strong bonds can occur during 2 a.m. study groups or a midnight pizza run.
Having face-to-face interaction with faculty and other students makes it more likely to develop strong and meaningful relationships. The learning is hands-on and the feedback is more immediate. It's more beneficial to teaching techniques such as lectures, the give-and-take Socratic method, question-and-answer sessions, and student critiquing groups and other group projects. In-person learning is also more conducive to individual, personalized attention and feedback. While online students do communicate via email, chat rooms, and online discussion groups, the interpersonal face to face connection is still missing.
On-campus learning also involves structured schedules, which usually makes it easier for students to plan their days and other activities. Students also have better access to on-campus resources, facilities, and club activities.
In addition, there's still a sense of excitement, passion, and energy about a college campus atmosphere that can't be replicated anywhere else. Taking a virtual tour of the Lawn and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia isn't the same experience as actually being there. Playing Virtual Beer Pong isn't the same as being there. Online college students won't get the experience of rushing the court or tearing down the goal posts after their school wins a huge home game. There's a common sense of community and school pride on campus. Many alumni return to school for a Homecoming football game or a class reunion. Most people don't just identify with their college for four years; they identify with it for life. That same passion and identification doesn't exist for online colleges.
Finally, whether it's fair or not, there is still somewhat of a stigma and skepticism towards online-learning institutions as far as reputation, especially with some employers. This is likely to change in the future, but it could take decades for an online degree to have the same reputation and value as a regular university diploma.
It would be a shame if Bill Gates is right and that the days of the college campus are numbered. Online learning works for many people, but so does the traditional university setting. Unlike Steely Dan, some people do want to go back to their old school. Literally.