Probably the most noted change is the ability of technology to affect how and where students learn. Until very recently, the history of higher education has been the movement toward a more community based educational experience. The earliest European universities began as collections of scholars who settled in one geographic location for the efficiencies this provided students to gather for lectures and tutorials. Learning in community was begun.
As economies grew and the need for higher education expanded, universities became more centralized. They also began concerning themselves with their students’ needs beyond pure academics. Dormitories were built, cafeterias began offering meals, extra-curricular activities were added to campus life. Learning AND living in community became a more efficient way to educate great numbers of students.
In recent years, technology has provided a way of educating that does not require either living or learning in community. Distance learning, most commonly in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), allows for the possibility of educational content to be delivered across great distances and asynchronously to individual learners. A good internet connection, in theory, can replace some – if not all – of the bricks and mortar campus experience. This technological reality has led some to speculate that soon the online world may literally cause the disintegration of traditional universities. Students will be able to pick the time, place and pace of their post-secondary education.
As distance learning has grown and developed, most of the debate about its merits versus traditional models have focused on economics and pedagogy. To me, however, there is an important and under-appreciated strength of traditional residential education that, ironically, is enhanced by the very forces that have given rise to distance learning. The technological revolution which has made MOOCs possible has also brought about changes in our lives and social interactions, especially among young people, that make continuing to learn and live in community more important than ever.
First, the social interactions of people, especially the young, are increasingly mediated by technology, leading to fewer personal interactions. We see children and young adults in virtually every public setting, walking or sitting side by side while texting, or in groups pulling out their phones every few minutes to check their social media accounts. We see it in college students gaming in their dorm rooms and bringing their media to classes. Simple conversations are often interrupted by the stream of information that flows from technology.
Second, technology allows and encourages young people with similar interests, social concerns, politics and worldviews to connect. Some of this ability to reach beyond one’s local geography is surely good—electronic pen pals around a shared passion. Yet it can also be provincial and narrowing. Technology allows all of us to be in self-reinforcing echo chambers, where we hear our own ideas and views repeated and reinforced, rather than tested and challenged, a process that is especially important as young people are developing their moral foundations. We begin to see those outside this circle, however defined, as “the other” and alien. We start to emphasize our differences rather than what we share as humans.
Third, there is growing evidence that millennials (loosely 23-38 year olds) and Generation Zs (loosely early teens to 23) are experiencing more isolation, loneliness and depression than older generations. The exact causes need further study, but Blue Cross Blue Shield researchers have found that depression diagnoses are growing rapidly among teens and millennials. A recent widely reported survey by Cigna found that young people were the loneliest among all the groups surveyed.
All these issues certainly need more research and those of us older than Generation Z and the millennials are hardly exempt from these concerns, but for educators, the focus is naturally on the experiences of recent graduates, current and future students.
I believe that the current model of undergraduate education which emphasizes learning and living in community (think institutions like Saint John’s, the College of Saint Benedict and St. Cloud State University), though developed for other reasons, offers some hope for those concerned with the social interactions and mental health of young people.
To end on a hopeful note, the Cigna survey reported that, “People who engage in frequent, meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.”
Social beings benefit from social interactions and a residential university experience can provide a community to foster those interactions—in and outside of the classroom. It is not, as they say, rocket science.
*Published in the St. Cloud Times “To a Higher Degree” column on June 24, 2018