Place based vs. online learning – the future of higher education

StudentsThis past week, I attended a conference on innovation in higher education.  Given the conference  title, it was surprising to hear the resistance to innovation.  In a roomful of college and university presidents and administrators, there was clear anxiety over how technology is changing the higher education landscape.  With the rise of online learning, several participants—including one of the keynotes – expressed concern about the waning importance of “place-based” education – or the traditional higher education model where students got to and/or live on college campuses to receive their education.   If we are to believe Bill Gates , place-based learning will become irrelevant within a decade.

There is, of course, good reason for concern. College and campus life are often transformative experiences for students, helping many to excel and flourish in ways not otherwise possible in their home environments.  From an economic perspective, campuses are vital to local and regional economies as employers and vendors of services, especially in New England.

Yet give the economic downturn, it is understandable for students and their families to ask if a campus-based college experience is worth $35,000 to $60,000 per year.  Are the learning gains and potential job prospects worth this investment?  These questions have become even more poignant because of innovation – with every new wave of online learning that offers increasingly more sophisticated and dynamic educational experiences at lower cost (you don’t need to live on campus to take an online English literature course).  Moreover, research suggests that online learning results in equivalent—and in many cases better—student performance outcomes.

So even with the benefits of campus life, the return on investment for traditional higher education is an open question for many students and their families.  For colleges and universities with their buildings, facilities, grounds, and administrative overhead this could mean tougher times ahead.  But  it should also be a time of innovation. How should colleges revision and repurpose their campuses, become more integrated with their host communities, or embrace technology, by for example, combining online learning with real-word, apprenticeship-based education?   This is the conversation I was hoping to hear.  Maybe I have to go off-campus to hear it.


Jake Murray is the Senior Director of Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as an organizational leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.