21 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Why the MOOC cannot trump the campus

With higher education increasingly going online and the recent arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), many have predicted the death of the university campus. It’s said that students no longer need to go anywhere; class will come to them.

But these predictions are unfounded. The campus will survive the age of online learning, but not without change.

Online buzz

MOOCs might be novel right now, but the truth is that teaching materials, such as lectures, have been available for little or no cost to students for longer than most can remember. For more than 50 years, the UK’s Open University (OU) has used radio, then television and now the internet to deliver course materials to students.

Yet even the OU still engages with students on campuses – not only their own, but also on underused campuses of other institutions.

Before MOOCs were even thought of, many institutions had also done away with campuses altogether. The University of Phoenix, for example, offers classes in office buildings across the United States, reaching into neighbourhoods that would never normally have a university campus – a kind of on-demand pop-up classroom.

It is also true that some forms of learning do not require the campus; for example, University of Melbourne students use online instructions to master the use of software packages. Other forms of learning, however, need a physical space – whether it be labs or just areas to learn and talk with peers.

Learning progresses through the encounter with, and testing of, ideas. While there are exceptions – the wonder child who invents a new bit of tech, or industry superheroes lionised for their lack of formal learning – the vast majority of humankind benefits from learning with others.

Likewise, those who teach benefit from structured engagement and support to deliver their teaching – and such engagement and support are derived partly from periodic contacts with students.

Teaching machines?

The arguments pointing to the demise of the campus also do not consider the fact that most universities are not simply 'teaching machines'. Universities in the Group of Eight in Australia, for example, consist of significant numbers of researchers. The teaching on these campuses is research-led, meaning that those who research also teach.

Some of the best ways to learn are through emulation and by observing others who have succeeded, such as alumni or leading figures in the field. Ideas need to be tested by transmission, articulating them into words or trying them out on peers.

While attendance at timetabled subject lectures is largely declining, it is striking too that our special public lectures regularly fill the lecture hall with close to 500 people. Almost all the material we cover in these lectures is available online, but the power of collective participation means that presence is desired.

After all, most campuses play several roles. They help individuals develop and deliver good teaching materials. Not many MOOCs are developed and delivered by individuals sitting in their log cabins.

All the MOOCs I know of are developed by people who work in social contexts where the inquiry into knowledge is the core business. By far the majority work on campuses. It is on a campus that ideas are tested and socialised effectively, with bodies of knowledge accessible in unstructured ways.

The campus experience also plays a role in cohort progression from adolescence to adulthood. From sports clubs to tribal initiations, all societies and cultures develop mechanisms to guide and develop young people. Campuses provide alternatives to regimented combative training, which has and does dominate in some cultures.

The future campus

The future campus will emphasise social spaces above formal spaces, but large lecture halls will not disappear. Large lectures will be special events with special speakers. The places beyond lecture halls too, like study areas or service places (such as coffee shops), will be significant places for learning.

Even the places we just pass through now will be important. Spaces will be configured to support chance encounters and small-group discussion. Additional facilities will appear in these places; for example, screens on which you can project your material to share it with a group. These changes will lead to places better designed for casual encounters.

Campuses are not necessary for all forms of learning. Access online or in pop-up locations may suffice for some, and isolated log cabins may work for others, but for the foreseeable future, the physical and synchronous experience of the campus will be an irreplaceable one – an experience supplemented but not replaced by online.

While it might be argued that the classroom or lecture hall can be replaced by a MOOC experience, it is often the spaces between the classrooms that are the most powerful for learning and research.

* Tom Kvan is dean of the faculty of architecture, building and planning at the University of Melbourne in Australia. This article was first published by The Conversation and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.


Classroom interaction is critical to sound learning. An interactive computer screen exchange is a workable substitute but remains a secondary choice.

George J Gliaudys Jr on the University World News Facebook page
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