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Campus vs. Online: Where is the future of education located?

Can there be a loftier topic than the future of education? When considering that technology is playing an ever-increasing role in education, specifically the use of online learning tools, what the future of education looks like is a question many educational historians ponder.

Specifically higher education institutions, and particularly those with a strong, or historic, physical presence in the form of campuses, are trying to establish what role the campus-based experience will play in the educational paradigm of the future.

They proceed to further explore what the intrinsic value of campus-based physical learning spaces is, how they can maximize their reach — and impact — by blending online material with an actual campus experience, and what types of students do the varying models apply to and attract.

Traditional higher learning institutions are confronted by a rapidly changing learning landscape. Where once high school graduates had a “College or Bust” mentality, today’s high school graduates have a surfeit of higher education options. This diversity is driven by:

  • advancements in online learning system design,
  • rapid roll-out of broadband world-wide,
  • the changing dynamics of the labor market and
  • what many consider to be the prohibitively high cost of the traditional college degree.

All these factors impact on an institution’s relevance and marketability. They are being forced to consider the costs of constructing and maintaining the buildings and facilities of physical campuses when contrasted with the changing needs and demographics of their student body.

When students have alternative options to HE

The vast majority of students opt for higher education in order to achieve skills and credentials that increase their opportunities in the labor market. In other words, to get a better job.

Increasingly this is possible without a college degree. Online coding academies are a prime example of students receiving intensive, high-quality training complete with industry-recognized certifications. Graduates can go on to six-figure salaries in highly profile positions at sought after software companies.

Some students question the value of spending four years studying a Computer Science degree, and are tempted by the granular focus, flexible model, quick turn-around and lower cost of doing specialist study online. A 2012 Economic Policy Institute report revealed that only 40% of US “software engineering, programmer, or computer scientist” jobs were filled by computer science graduates.

It is certain that the face of higher education in computer sciences has changed dramatically. And some might argue that the slow rate of response from traditional universities has marginalized their role in this very important sector.

Going online: a wise direction for HE institutions?

This brings us neatly to the issue of the bottom-line. Thirty years ago subsidies for higher education institutions were generous, sometimes as high as 80%. Today that figure hovers more around 20%. This simply means that universities need to do more with less, and expanding enrollment, without a correlated increase in cost, is the holy grail of a traditional university’s marketing strategy.

Online learning is naturally the way forward for many universities seeking to maximize existing assets. By digitizing their curricula and implementing a learning management system, universities are maximizing their significant investment in academic staff and content development. Just see what we've done for Adler College.

In a marketplace that unfortunately features many predatory, low-quality online courses, traditional campus-based colleges have strong educational brands that add validity and certainty to their online products. In addition, online courses that lead to a prestigious degree offer the university the opportunity to reach a far wider audience: seniors looking for life enrichment, professionals looking to improve specific technical skills and students from other parts of the globe.

It also allows universities to develop learning products that are more affordable than the traditional campus-based degrees, creating another line of academic products that appeals to a wider range of students.

To conclude: blending a brick-and-mortar brand with online learning offers universities a host of revenue options that will in all likelihood lead to many more campus-based colleges blending their on-campus and online offerings.

Student profiling must have more weight

Another aspect to consider in the debate between online and campus-based education is the profile of the students. Most pedagogy experts agree that the predictable routine, controlled classroom environment and socialization inherent in a bricks-and-mortar campus are invaluable for younger students (age 18 to 25). It is however equally true that for older students, those that perhaps already have families and jobs, getting to a physical campus is an obstacle to learning.

A higher education institution, seeking to expand relevance and market-share, must consider the changing demographic and profile of their student body and therefore offer more flexible solutions for the more mature student, while at the same time acknowledging the nuanced value of having younger students immersed in a physical learning space that is for the most part designed around interaction and socialization with other students.

It is worth noting that only 15% of higher education students in the US are full-time online students; the rest study via a blend of online and campus spaces. Whether this reflects the slow rate of change in higher education, or the immovable relevance of physical learning spaces, remains to be seen.

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