Speakers queued up to eulogise the many advantages of studying digitally: It could progress at the student’s pace, not the lecturer’s; work could be done in the comfort of home (or indeed anywhere) when the student felt like it; they were not shackled to rigid timetables or forced to expend money on transport; it was generally easier and cheaper.
Research was produced to show employers were beginning to recognise the value of online degrees as being equal if not superior to those gained at a traditional university and that the increasing popularity of MOOCs meant that students could have access the world-class lectures rather than having to rely on the quality of the institution they were attending.
One contributor even predicted that by mid-century there would no more than 10 bricks-and-mortar universities left on the planet.
This being an online debate I suppose I should have expected a heavy bias towards online activity, and in fact I agreed with much that was said. MOOCs are and will continue to be of tremendous value to mid-career professionals seeking additional qualifications; to parents looking after children at home and to those whose circumstances meant they missed out or disregarded tertiary study earlier in life and who are trying to catch up.
Yet for those who are able to attend university at the ‘normal’ time of their lives — immediately or shortly after they complete their secondary education — choosing the online path to qualifications will mean they are missing something precious.
Universities are, and always have been, more than just places of learning, more than a pathway to a qualification. My argument goes to the heart of what an education means.
For me and my contemporaries, lectures never ended in the lecture theatre. Often debates continued in someone’s quarters, well into the early hours, usually with the lecturer taking part and occasionally with the contribution of a distinguished guest lecturer — politician, business person, entrepreneur.
On one of these occasions among my fellow students was a future Anglican Bishop, a Member of Parliament, and an individual who spent his career reporting on conflict around the globe
I simply cannot see the cut and thrust; the bouncing of arguments around the room; the interjections, serious, comic and asinine, replicated in online chat rooms regardless of the broadband speed.
Mixing with so many new people from around the country and overseas is a deeply enriching experience, helping to shape opinions and challenge prejudices. These are the days when characters are formed and lifelong friendships cemented.
Several of the friendships I made were with people outside my course of study which I met in pubs or in the various clubs and societies I joined. I know of one individual who changed the direction of his study based on the influence and personality of a fellow student. Years later he confessed he was so grateful for being convinced to change course away from a career he now knew would never have suited him.
This, I believe is what education is all about, and why I passionately hope that online learning and MOOCs are a complement, not a replacement, for the formal university experience.