Monday, October 12, 2020

The Virtual University, 6pm Thursday

Discussion of "The Virtual University: Study, Community and Connections in an Age of Remote Learning", will be held online 6pm AEST Thursday 15 October 2020. This is hosted by the ANU Learning Communities at the Australian National University. I will be joining the panel to talk about my ten years experience as an online student and educator.

Here are some questions provided by the organizers to prime the discussion, with my preliminary thoughts:

1. What does the campus as a place mean to you? Would you consider it a space or a place, and why?

A campus is a place where ideas can flourish. 

2. Why is it important or meaningful for a space such as a university campus to be imagined and experienced in particular ways?

A campus is a space where students, staff and anyone interested in ideas, can meet to explore mutual interests and challenge each other in a safe environment.

3. Could you describe your experience of the campus in five words?

Important casual conversations in corridors.

4. Do you think traditional campus space is necessary to deliver and/or receive a high-quality university education? Does the physical campus space still matter for the subjective student and staff experience or has the COVID-19 pandemic proven to universities that online modalities can be equally, if not more, effective?

A campus is desirable, but not essential for a university. To learn how to provide excellent education online, in 2013, I enrolled as an international online student of education, at a university in Canada, 14,000 km from home. I have never seen the Canadian campus, or another student face to face. I only met two of my professors, when we both happened to be on the same continent for conferences. Despite this, I received a better educational experience online than I have ever had on campus.

As Pirsig wrote: 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,  Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006
"... the real university exists not as the physical campus, but as a body of reason within the minds of students and teachers ..." From Chapter 13, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, 2006

However, as an online student I experienced crushing loneliness and longed for a face to face experience. What I suggest we can do is blend the best of online and face to face experience. My rule of thumb is a student should be on campus for about 20% of their studies.

As part of my international studies in 2017 I identified a risk to Australian universities that the flow of international students to Australian campuses could be cut off without warning due to an regional crisis. This risk remains due to the deteriorating geopolitical situation Australia finds itself in.

5. Do you agree that the campus is symbolically significant to students and staff who are yet to actually attend, and who cannot return to, campus? If so, why?
A university campus is a useful and powerful symbol. It gives a focus and identity, not just to the institution, but to staff and students. But that symbol can be fostered without spending a lot on land, or buildings. A good example, is the Torrens Building in Adelaide, which is shared by several international and Australian universities. Each university uses a photo of this impressive sandstone building with their own banner outside, neglecting to mention it is shared by the others. 

6. The famous sociologist Henri Lefebvre wrote that “space is permeated with social relations; it is not only supported by social relations, but it also is producing and produced by social relations” (Lefebvre, Elden and Brenner 2009, 186). In this era of remote work and learning, do you think the campus space is still a social space in the way Lefebvre describes?

A campus can be a useful adjunct to foster social relations, which are essential to effective work, research and teaching. However decades of research and practice with the online university has proven it is possible to have meaningful and productive social relations between academics and students who have never met face to face. What is key to this is having both staff and students trained in how to work online: this is not something which comes naturally to people. In my previous career as an IT professional in government, I helped introduce the Internet and the web to public administration. Considerable amounts of work were required over years to have this idea accepted and to train staff in the skills required.

7. Much research on education considers two main spaces in which education occurs-on campus, and off campus which is often referred to as ‘remote’ or ‘distance’ learning. Do you think this language needs to be reconsidered, and do you think the binary between on-campus and off-campus learning is now more complicated than simply presence or absence?

As remote online learning becomes normal, the language issue will sort itself out. In my previous role I helped introduce email to government. This was so successful, that within a few years "mail" came to indicate email, and it was necessary to refer to "paper mail" for the other type. I expect the same will happen with "education", where this will indicate distance remote online learning as that is normal and something face to face will have to be qualified. 

In designing courses I no longer distinguish between on and off campus, and assume distance/remote is the default. With this approach I design for online asynchronous delivery, with synchronous components added. The latter can be online via video conference, or in a classroom, with no change to the educational design. I used this approach for designing the education I delivered last year. This year when COVID-19 struck, I just had to replace the face to face components with video conferences. There was no need to change the learning materials or assessment.

8. Could you describe in five words how you foresee your experience with the campus in the near future, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

Gradual Voluntary Return to Campus

In April I proposed a gradual return to campus using blended and hybrid learning. We could start with small groups of students and gradually increase the size, as conditions allowed. This should be at the discretion of the students and staff. Those who cannot, or do not want to, return to campus can be linked online. No student or staff member need be compelled to return to campus even after the COVID-19 emergency has passed, as there is no compelling educational or work value from being on campus. Also I have suggested that lecture theaters be decommissioned and replaced with more flexible flat floor spaces for a more active learning style. 

In 2008 I gave my last lecture, moving my teaching and assessment online. By 2019 this had become routine. I am happy to supplement online learning with a classroom experience where possible, but this is not essential. My approach is "Online Plus Campus".


Lefebvre, Henri. 2009. State, Space, World : Selected Essays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Accessed October 1, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

This presentation contains images that were used under a Creative Commons License. Click here to see the full list of images and attributions:

ps: An online symposium 'This changes everything?'! Australia and the post-pandemic world is being hosted by the Australian Studies Institute at the Australian National University, 22 October 2020. I will be speaking on "Higher Education in the Post-pandemic World".

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