In a recent post on The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf imagined a future in which online higher education was not only the norm, but an area in which ambitious entrepreneurs could carve out new areas of profit and innovation. In “Selling the College Experience to Students Who Take Classes Online,” Friedersdorf posits that “selling ‘the college experience’ to students taking their courses online is going to be a major growth industry over the next decade” because the “college experience” is highly marketable. He presents an alternate scenario in which major universities set up satellite franchise s and create extracurricular activities in cities all over the nation. Contrary to those who envision college students never leaving their homes, continuously streaming their education in darkened rooms and causing their desperate parents great consternation over their permanence, online students will take advantage of “a desirable social space” created for them, including ping pong tables and partnerships with health clubs that offer hot tub access.
With all due respect to Friedersdorf’s humor and imagination, his position assumes a dangerous and inaccurate stereotype of what college campus life is all about. When he argues that “college students will continue to value hanging out among, networking with and sleeping with other college students – and that providing a means of doing so will become a competitive enterprise in the online learning space, with an attendant amenities arms race,” he inadvertently adds fuel to the arguments made by critics of higher education who criticize the college experience as merely an exclusive playground for “elites” who value partying more than learning and force tax-payers to foot the bill for the maintenance of their playgrounds. His vision of a marketable social experience to go along with online education trivializes the actual purpose and values of campus life.
I’m not denying that for many students the freedom from parental supervision is one of the great draws of residential campuses. Far from it, as during some semesters my own undergraduate college campus experience included more Grateful Dead shows than actual class time (and I’ve got a transcript that shows the results of those priorities).
But even the most cursory glance at an average episode of “Jersey Shore” shows that young people do not need a college campus to “hang out with, network with, and sleep with” anyone else. Though those experiences would certainly be very easy to market and replicate for online students, those are the aspects of the college experience that should be of least concern when discussing alternatives for online students, who are just as serious about their academic goals as any other college student.
Rather, I am concerned that Friedersdorf’s vision unintentionally promotes an odd de facto segregation of college students into specific identity-and consumer-demographics. Beyond the value of the intellectual events that bring diverse students together on campus, college students learn much about the world when interacting with their fellow campus denizens. There’s no denying that online education offers opportunities to expand the classroom, as I explained in a post on Mind/Shift that explored the possible ways that Friedersdorf’s model of combining online and real world activities could be transferred to academic areas.
But even something as minor as watching a group of scholars interact in the afterglow of a scintillating guest lecture can provide students with a crucial lesson in professionalism and collegiality that they might not get if their learning is strictly online. All students should have equal access to such lessons, because the daily life of a college student provides an entire education in citizenship and community. The creation of any programs to supplement the college experience for online students should include more than the kind of social activities illustrated in Friedersdorf’s piece.
For example, sitting in class, sharing a dorm bathroom, and eating at the same dining hall table with people of different races, religions, political persuasions, and nationalities can be an education in itself, an immersion course in cooperation, tolerance, and mutual respect. Students can learn, on a smaller scale, how to function within and enjoy the great variety of human existence that defines the larger world. I heartily concur that it is necessary for the well-being of individual students to be able to join with groups of students who share their goals, values, and experiences in a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment, as in the examples of separate religious, athletic, ethnic, and LGBT meetings in different cities suggested by Friedersdorf. I do worry, though, that the promotion of such meetings as the only substitute for direct daily engagement with those who differ from us may sadly function as a limiting self-selection process that polarizes communities rather than brings them together.
Finally, academic success does often increase for those who live on campus. A National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) showed that while the academic performance of most first-year students is not affected by their residence choice, “among Black students, those who live on campus have significantly higher GPAs than similar students at the same institution who live off campus with family. Among students attending liberal arts institutions, those who live on campus also have significantly higher GPAs than comparable students at the same institution who live off campus with family.” With graduation rates of Black, Latino, Native American and other minority students significantly lagging behind those of their white colleagues, this information on the campus residential experience is too significant to be dismissed. We should think twice before replacing the diversity of campus life with targeted activities for virtual learners.
Clearly, Friedersdorf’s article raises important questions about the changing nature of college life in the Internet age, as many more students turn to the often more affordable option of online education. But there is much more to the learning experience on a college campus than social events, and those lessons tend to emerge from the function of a college campus as a social laboratory. Like all laboratory experiments, any new manifestation of college life in the Internet Age should be thoroughly and carefully thought out. What will emerge, hopefully, will be a blend of the best aspects of online and campus academic life, from which students will have even more opportunities from which to choose.