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A Day in the Life of the Future (Online) College Student

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By Jill Rooney

What does the future look like for online college students? With the explosion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) -- including today's announcement of U.C. Berkeley joining edX, and Coursera adding courses from 12 universities, including CalTech and Duke -- the one fact we can say for certain is that online higher education is here to stay.

These are not just big names being added together: the numbers also tell the story. More than 6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, according to a Babson survey [PDF] for the Sloan Consortium.

While some wonder whether this is the end of traditional higher education, others are considering what an average college student's life will be like in the future. In his Atlantic article Selling the College Experience to Students Who Take Classes Online, Conor Friedersdorf imagines a future in which savvy colleges and universities take advantage of new technologies to expand their operations across the country through virtual branches. Theoretically, these branches would offer some physical locations, where elite colleges could “leverage a respected brand into a profitable events business.”

He provides a description of “Yale West,” in which students in southern California could take advantage of networking possibilities such as “the monthly cocktail hour at the Soho House in West Hollywood, the group surfing lessons offered each summer in Huntington Beach, the ongoing lecture series, and the promise of a Culver City based student recreation center and study hall.”

Another such prediction Friedersdorf posits, just a couple years away:

The University of California decides on a new push to integrate its distance learning students into locally based intramural sports, a Web based student newspaper, and locally based black, Latino, and LGBT supporters, for starters. Go to a soccer field in San Diego on a Saturday and you might find students enrolled at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz, but living in Mission Beach, squaring off against one another, and later that night watching a highlight of the match that someone captured on a smart-phone and uploaded to the University of California Extension Learning Gazette.

Such a reality might resolve one of the more frustrating contradictions of campus life for many undergraduates: being confined to campus environs narrows students' experiences to only that specific region and prescribed lifestyle. A more broadly interpreted definition of the idea of a “campus” could turn the whole world into a learning environment. A college experience rooted in online courses that take advantage of all the possibilities of program enrichment that exist within larger communities could benefit students in untold ways.


Opportunities to diversify course curricula are also ripe with possibilities. In many ways, the actual work of a college student will probably not change all that much: Students will certainly have to work at their computers, listen to lectures and read chapters, conduct research, write notes on material, and write papers and take exams. Regardless of what new technologies emerge, there will still be plenty of work to keep students busy.

But what will likely change is the experience of learning. Imagine, for example, an online art course taken by students from around the country. The professor could choose a theme, such as “Family Life as Depicted in 19th Century Paintings,” and students could visit their local art museums to find examples of the theme in real artworks. Students could post images of the paintings they find (with permission, of course), and share the works of local artists to the student body at large. The shared images would probably run the gamut of works by local artists to those done by the great masters, depending on the museum the student visits.

Certainly there would be more diversity than one would find in a standard art history text; plus this would allow students to compare many different aspects of the work, such as regional themes. Such learning experiences may not only be more engaging than listening to the standard slideshow/lecture format of most art history courses.

The average school day for a future college student may then be more than just consuming knowledge by sitting in front of a computer, which seems to be the most envisioned common scenario about the expansion of online higher education. As Friedersdorf pointed out in The Atlantic, colleges in the future will likely use the flexibility of online learning to explore many different ways to expand their physical campuses across the country or even the world—and hopefully, their faculty will do that as well.