Does Campus Education Have a Future?

Campus based education is under increasing pressure financially and structurally.  These pressures have been recently exacerbated in Australia by the release of a strategic report by Ernst and Young [1] which roughly speaking  predicts the demise of traditional model universities in Australia within the next decade or so. Reading between the lines is an underlying assumption that traditional classroom instruction offers few benefits over watching sophisticated online content. Internet universities are becoming more common, as the cost of higher education is increasingly criticized in the USA and abroad.  Burdened with the high cost of maintaining physical infrastructure, buildings, laboratories, sports grounds and the like, how can traditional campus universities compete with their online counterparts?

To meet this challenge it seems imperative  that traditional universities adapt, by changing their education to better utilise their costly physical assets. I think this means that Universities need to help students learn in ways that online universities are incapable of imitating or replicating. One consequence of this line of reasoning is that traditional lectures and other learning approaches of a more traditional era must give way to collaborative learning that leverages the power of academic communities in new ways. 

I have personal experience with two approaches that may prove fruitful. The first is an international project course combining students from two continents, in a realistic workshop based systems development task. In this course we, the students and I,  explore the role of group interaction and shared informal learning spaces on learning approaches and outcomes. The second approach draws on student reflections I collected while conducting a participatory, student driven, course where the curriculum in realtime and distributed systems was largely presented by the students themselves. In this setting students are central actors and responsible for identifying required concepts and algorithms, learning about them, and presenting them to others. 

As a community of educators we need to explore options such as those I have described in order to  stimulate discussion on a how to achieve a fundamental shift in campus based educational practice and preserve the unique personal development opportunities that campus education can provide.

[1] Ernst and Young, 2012, "University of the future, A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change",


  1. Interesting topic, personally I think campus education will always be relevant. But as you say, it needs to adapt to stay that way. Physical meetings will never go out of style (ok, super realistic holograms might be close enough but I think that will take more then 10 years to get ;-)). The part that could be replaced with online lectures are the large ones where 100+ students sit in a huge room and listen to a teacher that have very limited interaction with the audience. Having this recorded is also good to make it easier to be able to listen to the lecture again if something was unclear.

    The thing that is very hard to replace with online versions are the small project groups and Q&A sessions where everyone can interact. Sure, this is possible in a webcam conference also but it will not give you the same level of interaction and possibility for the teacher to read the participants understanding of the subject.

    1. I could not agree more, in addition the combination of face to face, and personal mentorship and informal peer learning in small groups are features of a campus model that are hard to move into the virtual realm.

      Sure, most of us work and collaborate with people offsite and abroad! Much of my research is in collaboration with colleagues in Australia, Sweden, USA and UK. BUT, I do also meet them regularly at conferences, and (as now) while on sabbatical. The personal and social nature of learning is not to be ignored. For those interested in that area, Wenger has an interesting book on his Social Theory of Learning which is worth looking in to, as a start you can browse the following link

    2. Yes - brick-and-mortar education has significant and distinctive value-added but...

      I suspect a significant facet of the analysis needs to be economic. The 20th C. answer was the large lecture hall, with little emphasis on quality. The (unsupported) 21st C. answer is the on-line/MOOC. I suspect that part of a better answer involves both percieved value-add and as well as structural changes to mix learning and deliver better education for lower cost.

    3. Steve, you may well be right, but given that much of the overhead of the campus infrastructure is fixed I think we need to look at how to generate much greater added value at the existing cost, rather than try to reduce cost, which might be a losing proposition

  2. I appreciate the post - for me, it brings to the fore that the most critical thing academia has to offer (anyone?) is deep, critical, reflective, ongoing conversations. Not slide sets. Not homework problems.

  3. Thank you for the post. I think some academic institutions will be slow to change and adapt. My university is all about engaged learning. Admin doesn't define what that means and I have my own method of implementing engaged learning. I am looking hard at the flipped classroom concept and appreciate the link to Wenger's article on communities of practice.

    I'd like to move away from the traditional lecture format and have used POGIL as one method of doing that. The biggest challenge is that lecture takes the least amount of prep time. How can I be effective *and* efficient?

    Jeff, Utah Valley Univ., Orem, UT


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