Is online learning challenging the sense and importance of physical place in higher education?

By Posted in - Events & Online Learning & Social Media on June 12th, 2015 0 Comments

Pickle Jar Communications warmly welcomes Tony Tysome as a guest contributor to the blog this week. Tony comes from a journalism background, having written for the Times Higher Education Supplement (now Times Higher Education) before setting up his own communications and media agency, Media FHE in 2007 and the HE intelligence service HEi-know in 2013. To find out more about Tony’s work within the education sector, visit or follow him on Twitter.

Recent research and reports on the student experience point to the importance of a sense of place and belonging for maintaining healthy satisfaction levels.

But as speakers at the British Council’s Going Global conference last week pointed out, the growing popularity of online learning coupled with use of social media in higher education is challenging the idea that the physical campus is the only place where students belong. The advent of MOOCs is just the latest manifestation of a trend where for an increasing proportion of students worldwide, the internet is the place they “go to” for their university educational experience.

At the conference, futurist Mark Stevenson warned that the speed of technological development was such that it will not be long before universities are seen as curators of knowledge and ideas, stored and communicated online, as much as physical places where these are imparted to students. This will be a necessary part of the evolution of universities if they are to remain sustainable institutions, he suggested.

More than 1,200 higher education leaders from across the world gathered in London for the Going Global event, yet even here the power of social media to share the information being disseminated and debates taking place was clear, as for a while #GoingGlobal2015 was trending on Twitter, eclipsing even the latest gossip on Kim Kardashian. Millions of Twitter impressions signalled a level of worldwide interest that reached far beyond the meeting rooms of the Capital’s QEII Conference Centre.

Yet despite this, it was impossible to ignore the fact that for the vast majority of delegates, there was no substitute for being there. For many, the chance to explore ideas and opportunities in face-to-face meetings with likeminded people from across the globe was invaluable. And if discussions at the event are anything to go by, it seems most felt the same way about what universities have to offer, despite the digital revolution.

In one session looking at the role of cities as centres of learning and innovation, delegates considered to what extent the sense and value of place was being eroded or enhanced in the digital age. It was clear that, perhaps especially for universities located in or near a city, the physical environment is still a key selling point. As one delegate from the University of Birmingham put it: “Place is still critically important. Our students want to come to a physical place where they can be with other students and go to lectures. Whether it is traditional or blended learning, there will always be a place for place.”

The fact that in recent years universities have been spending billions of pounds on developing their campuses is evidence enough of their firm belief in this. So are the futurists wrong? Millions of students across the world are signing up for online courses, but global student mobility also continues to grow. Clearly both bricks and clicks are vital elements of recruitment, but the added value of the digital world is its potential to augment the physical. What universities are already discovering is that their websites and online facilities, including social media, can be used to enhance that valuable sense of place and belonging among their students.

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