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Are the Ivies at Risk?

Basil Enwegbara

There is today a growing debate about the future of education -- that is, whether distance education will replace current residential learning. The debate has become so intense that it is drawing the attention of presidents of some of the leading centers of learning like MIT. Recently, President Vest made his own thoughts public. In one of the classes I participated in recently, distance education was also one of the dominating arguments. And this was driven by my nonresidential classmates, participating from NASA and Ford Motor Company. The argument could not even be avoided in the MIT class of Rebecca Henderson, a leading expert in technology strategy. As the debate becomes more and more intense, so does the confusion.

Although there is no doubt that given the growing impact of digital machines, the Internet, and the World Wide Web as the new instructional revolution, distance education has come to stay. At least it could serve the growing needs of those who cannot afford the time or the means to reach the geographic location of their university of choice. A careful examination of the realities on the ground, however, will convince us why distance education still has a long way to go, and could not be seen even in the near future as a serious threat to the present residential education system.

First, without residence, the student is constrained by low access to the magic of the classroom. Here the classroom learning maximizes the student’s learning capability as he or she looks up to fellow students for competition and comparison.

Second, without residential education, students tend to lack access to the vital education of on-campus extracurricular activities, including physical education and social and cultural interaction. It is certain that most students with interests in public life tend to build and reinforce such a life career and leadership as they become transformed by the cleansing forces on campus. Participating in numerous campus student associations is one of the media that help students discover their talents. This way, the school plays the role of a family, a community, where everyone has immense opportunities to interact freely, and openly question the things they believe are the ills of the society, as well as support issues that appeal to a better society. It is mostly through residential education that students can easily come together to champion social change.

Third, if it is true that education is a civilizing force that could be used to build and improve togetherness and cultural empowerment, then residential education is the most reinforcing and invigorating part of civilization. Group interaction in a classroom environment -- discussions, problem solving, and brainstorming, for example -- occur more in face-to-face mode. This produces a positive outcome resulting from the intellectual synergy, as a student shares new ideas and experiences from other students in class, in the library, in the common room, in the association meeting, etc. in a nonlinear way. Of course, this goes a long way to expose students to other cultures and social realities to enhance their learning experience. In fact, when students each bring their analytical perspectives into the classroom and share their multiple perspectives in a group interactive session, the group environment can trigger new patterns of understanding built on the foundation of shared emotions and individual perspective.

Also, as the educators, faculty and administrators frequently interact with the student, not only do they easily become mentors to the student but also they tend to use their privileged positions to continuously help the student redefine his or her identity. Students also go through new processes of identity negotiation with their professors, administrators, and peers. This process of negotiating identity can never be fully controlled by forces outside residential education. Within these interpersonal spaces where identities are constantly negotiated, residential students, faculty and administrators tend to generate power that challenges structures of social and moral inequity. Distance education, therefore, not only tends to weaken these forces of identity negotiation, but it also tends to generate all forms of distractions from friends, family members, and community groups with great social and economic intervening forces.

Finally, for those learning processes that are research intensive, the availability of libraries and laboratories must not be traded for virtual learning that tends to constrain easy access to these vital educational facilities. Take the student that must continuously monitor his or her laboratory experimentation for example. In order to maximize the benefits of such activities, such a student must also be a residential student. Or if not, how could the student conduct his or her multiple library-based research work? Students involved in multilayered research activities are better educated when they are close to a multilayered library and laboratories, and can continuously access these specialized educational tools to guarantee success.