Online Learning Is No Substitute for Campus Community Engagement

April 22, 2015

“Within 5 years the world’s best education will be available online and it will be free,” said George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen in a September 2013 interview. “Arguably that’s already the case.”

When I heard the claim last summer, I took notice. I was and continue to be an undergraduate with a love for online learning. I have watched dozens of lectures recorded on YouTube, enrolled in an unrealistic number of edX, Udemy, and Coursera courses, and taken a Codecademy track or two. But while I love digital learning, I also love the traditional campus experience, and I do not believe the former alone can suffice.

The public sphere is rife with claims that online education opportunities can subvert the American higher education system. The most recent barrage comes from Kevin Carey’s new book The End of College, which has generated many media reports and reactions. Missing from the debate are the voices of students: not just traditional college students, but digital learners as well. As a representative of both groups, I see the gaps in online learning.

While record numbers of students are attending colleges, they remain a relatively elite set of institutions. The costs of attending college are high and only growing, and student loan debt has expanded dramatically in recent years. Meanwhile, a treasure trove of learning opportunities is available online for free. Some see this as spelling the demise of the college; however, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) completion rates are alarmingly low.

Yet even if MOOCs had the demographic pull and (at least) the completion rates of American colleges, they would still earn the scorn of academics. Digital course companies and colleges support competing purposes of education. As Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana said in his opening address this year, college can be either transactional or transformational. Yes, some students will always approach college as transactional, but a digital education, I believe, is necessarily transactional.

The college experience consists of much more than courses: as I have mentioned before, campuses teem with opportunities for civic engagement. Colleges around the country host speakers, rallies, and student organizations like the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, engaging students in communities in ways an Internet connection cannot. Moreover, these communities extend beyond their campuses. By fostering student education and activism, campus organizations foster citizenship.

Colleges are anchored in diverse communities that provide ample learning experiences. My involvement with the Rethinking Communities project , which provides a framework for students to expand and improve their college’s impact in their local communities, leads me to question how to leverage these relationships. My most meaningful lessons took me into the cities beyond my campus. We can learn an immense amount by engaging in our local communities, and there is no opportunity for this type of learning in an exclusively digital college. My experiences tell me digital education falls short of developing and engaging citizens, and as a result, so does the claim that online courses will replace physical ones.