Our Universities: Earth and Ether

Universities must change if we are to continue serving our students. Evermore frequently, universities will be called to meet the specific needs of each student in a unique fashion. If it is properly integrated into the curriculum, distance education gives us great new opportunities to do just that.

“Just-in-case [is] giving way to the delivery of higher education just-in-time, and very soon to the delivery of education just-for-you.”

Molly Corbett Broad, Former President UNC


Remember when all universities had a residency requirement that went something like: “30 Credit hours of the last 36 credit hours must be taken on campus?” These requirements were in place so that students couldn’t game the system by transferring all but their last handful of credit hours to a particular university, to obtain a degree perceived to be of high value.

The universities’ interests were two-fold:

First, reputations are hard-earned. Universities must guarantee to the marketplace that their alumni embody the academic quality implicitly promised in their degrees. Judging this takes longer than a course or two.

Secondly, and more importantly, universities knew that their value to students is not merely test preparation and skills assessment, but, rather, the initiation into a life of learning that exists through, but also beyond, books and papers.

Introduction to such a life takes many forms, ranging from lectures to concerts and from casual conversations to heated debates. These are the grist of the university experience. Football games, fraternity mixers, even graduation ceremonies are the trappings of a university, not the substance.

A residence requirement is sometimes perceived as merely a university’s way of raising fee income; or guaranteeing job security for faculty and staff; or filling stadiums; or maintaining high-enrollment bragging rights among peer institutions. Instead, it should be defended as a purposeful, student-centered motive, because being embedded in a community of scholars provides myriad subtle opportunities for students to prepare for a life of meaning in the broader world.

The real value of residency requirements has always been that a good university creates an intellectual village, unique to a faculty, an institution, and a moment in history. In this environment, it is possible that a student may discover the range of people they could become.

Lately, institutions have begun using online classes as cost-cutting or income expanding opportunities without addressing the loss to students of the immediacy and richness of campus-based interactions.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Universities could use distance learning to open students’ intellectual exposure beyond their village walls. Like merchants of another age travelling along the silk trading routes, such relationships could facilitate the rapid and thorough dissemination of new knowledge.

Universities should require two kinds of residence – 30 credit hours on campus, and, for argument’s sake, 15 hours online. Students and their advisors could choose online classes that supplement the student’s course of study, preferring schools other than that from which they plan to graduate.

Dual citizenship: one on earth, one in the ether.

A student interested in a particular aspect of electrical engineering might take a course from MIT or Stanford. A student interested in the philosophy of John Dewey might take a course from Southern Illinois University, while another takes a history course through the University of Virginia. Students could access a wider range of classes and professors, thereby gaining a broader perspective on disciplinary excellence, and a new appreciation for how the particular genius of their home university relates to a broader academic community. And, by increasing the competition for upper-level students, we would promote innovation in distance education.

People are questioning whether the value of a university education justifies the cost so this is not the time to do anything that reduces a university’s perceived value. Online coursework, in itself, doesn’t offer the richness of experience that differentiates one university from another. But, a worthy goal could be achieved if distance education were used to extend a student’s network of ideas and relationships beyond the scope of their single intellectual village.

Online opportunities, if established thoughtfully, could expand the horizons of students and better prepare them for the life-long education, professional interaction, and experiences that define the contemporary world. But students’ and their families recognize a cash-grab when they see one, and won’t long tolerate it. They don’t like being played.

The highest priority of our universities must always be our duty to our students, who trust us to prepare them to step out into the world as global citizens.



One thought on “Our Universities: Earth and Ether

  1. Having been on both sides of distance learning — student and instructor — about the only positive thing I could say was that it was better than no education at all. However, this post gives a whole different outlook. If this were taken to its logical conclusion, distance learning courses could evolve into experiences different from but of equal value to the students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.