A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called “Reasons for Residential: Some Thoughts from a Professor and Administrator on the Abiding Benefits of a Residential PhD Program.” I’ve used this in a couple of lecture scenarios but have not yet published it anywhere, though I hope to get back to it. Partly I’ve delayed because I’ve wanted to keep thinking about this complex issue.
Why should we continue to value and promote on-campus, residential, life-together education in this age of high expenses and convenient online and modular options? This is a question I have been thinking a lot about for the last three years as I lead our large part-residential/part-modular PhD program at Southern and as I think about our plans and goals for the future.
Only time will tell and wisdom is vindicated by her children (which also means it can take a while), but I remain convinced that there are numerous tangible and intangible benefits that come from maintaining a traditional residential program, despite the costs and in the face of the great convenience of other forms.
I thought about this whole issue again a couple of days ago when I saw this article on the surprising survival and even thriving of the local bookstore, despite the dire warnings that the big box world of Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember them?) and the online giant Amazon would destroy local bookshops.
This has proven to not be the case: “4 Reasons Why Independent Bookstores are Thriving”
The reason this article reminded me of the residential issue is because in my paper I actually used the analogy of bookstores and anticipated precisely this phenomenon — that over time, despite the warnings, the localized experience will win out. One of my “Reasons for Residential” is that residential education can put great emphasis on mentoring the whole person not just educating the mind. I illustrated this with a comparison of Amazon, B&N, and the local bookstore. Here is my argument taken from my original position paper:
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“We can helpfully analogize our options as educators with three possibilities for the sale and purchase of books – Amazon.com, a physical Barnes & Noble store, and the local, independently owned and operated bookshop. I love Amazon, as millions of others obviously do as well. It is not only a one-stop shop for nearly anything one could need, but it also serves as the quickest bibliographic source for many as well. Amazon offers books, both digital and paper, quickly and efficiently, conveniently and cheaply.
This is today’s online education world, or least what online education hopes to be and is growing toward. With a little technological investment and marketing savvy a school can ship off massive amounts of content at extremely low cost, especially employing a phalanx of part-time workers (many of whom are PhD students at other, traditional schools). This efficiency and profitability does not necessarily mean that the quality of the education is low, but at best it means one has to work especially hard to make it so, and at worst, it is a great, profitable method for mass-produced degree generating.
Both students and teachers would agree that personal mentoring and development of the individual is certainly not the goal or driving force behind online education. Rather, it is convenience and speed of earning a degree or certificate. Some rare, exceptional online programs or individual teachers may indeed make an effort to personally relate to their students, but this can only happen on a small scale and can rarely go beyond the level of online dating. Again, this analysis of online education is not a condemnation overall. In many ways online content delivery makes a lot of sense, especially for certain kinds of information and certain necessary settings. I myself have been involved in a lot of online education at the Master’s degree level. But we should not act as if it is somehow just another way of doing education; it is a method of delivering content, but this is not the same thing as education unless one defines the latter entirely in cognitive terms, with no affective or relational aspects.
Largely because of Amazon and similar developments in commerce, the brick and mortar chain stores are in trouble. Borders Books famously went bankrupt and closed down in recent years and B&N is struggling too. No one knows for sure, of course, but it looks like the chain bookstore is going to have trouble making it as things stand.
Why? Because what B&N offers over its main rival Amazon is not much, certainly not enough to make it competitive and profitable enough. What does B&N offer over the convenience and cost of Amazon? Maybe a place for meetings for the local chess club or German speaking society; the place one can run in to on a Tuesday night at 8:45pm to buy the Hemingway book that your teenager was supposed to read for Wednesday but neglected to; the ability to pick up a boxed book set on How to Play the Harmonica from the clearance section as a last minute birthday gift for one’s nephew. These small advantages are not a sufficient business model in an age of online commerce.
By analogy this is precisely what we’re seeing in many educational institutions. The brick and mortar school that is primarily a way to communicate information and provide some knowledge-skill development doesn’t offer enough of an advantage over online education to pay for the expense of building rental, utilities, library resources, insurance, food service, and security, let alone professors’ salaries. As a result, many have closed and many more will likely close. Various attempts have been made to slash tuition prices and cut teachers’ benefits and campus amenities to make ends meet, but you cannot run a business selling clearance items with demoralized staff in a smelly and dilapidated store.
What about the local bookstore? Despite initially having a difficult time of it and contrary to the doom and gloom predictions of the Amazon-effect killing all local business, the local bookshop is doing better than ever. Or more accurately, some local bookstores are doing better than ever – the ones who are thoughtful and intentional in offering something that neither Amazon nor B&N can provide. The failure of the big chain bookstore is, as we noted, that they are trying to do with half the effectiveness and ten times the cost the same thing Amazon is doing – delivering books. But the local bookstore that has survived the initial Amazonification and B&Noblizing of their area has been the shop that doesn’t try to compete with these behemoths or play their game.
Instead, they offer a high quality product, located in a place, providing a community, including caring and motivated experts who guide and inspire and friends who converse, all in an ambience of beauty. In short, they create community and mentoring. They offer the same products that Amazon and B&N do, not always quite as conveniently, but with the added benefits of space and relationships.
It is not difficult to see that this is just the same for the educational institutions that are surviving and even thriving today. They are places that, due to size and/or sound financial management, have survived the initial problems of the financial crisis and the threat of technologically convenient online education, and are doing what the best educational institutions always have – providing a place in which cognitive, affective, and relational education occurs. Campus development, morale of professors, community activities, meaningful mentoring relationships – these are the practices that wise and thriving schools offer, in addition to high quality content delivered by experts in knowledge and pedagogy.
The lesson in all of this is that any institution of higher education that values something more than online content delivery and wants to thrive must stop trying to go the B&N route of competing with the Amazon’s of education and instead do what they do best – educate the whole person through mentorship. Mentorship requires all these best practices just noted – a physical place, committed time over the long haul for ideas and relationships and experiences to germinate and gestate, excellence in teachers who are supported financially and encouraged in morale to enable them to devote time to developing expertise in their field of study and in pedagogical techniques.
To commit to this route as administrators and trustee boards there must be a longer-term vision than the next year’s profitability. Higher education in the States is a business, necessarily, in that bills must be paid and therefore profits must be generated. But experience shows that any business or school that loses the focus on its mission and becomes driven by perpetuating the organization will, ironically, lose both its mission and its organization. Higher education – and especially Christian Higher Education – must remain committed to its vision of academic mentorship (= education), even if this means some lean years or some re-allocation of resources or some less than profitable quarters, because in the long run this trajectory alone will provide a long-term solid foundation and fulfill the calling of the university.”
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That is what I originally wrote and still stand by it. I don’t want in any way to communicate, however, a disbelief in the value of online or modular education (including at my own school where I think we do it VERY well!). My point is not a ludite, “good old days” argument. Online and modular education can be excellent and it is here to stay. Rather, I simply want to make sure we are thinking about these big and important and pressing questions with the right categories, not just pragmatism. Particularly, we must consider the issue of education as mentoring.
Back in the “Why Local Bookstores Are Thriving” article they give four reasons for the surprising trend:
(1) They offer an experience; (2) They curate and recommend in a human way; (3) They’re diversifying their offerings; and (4) They foster community.
Not all of these match precisely with what I have argued above, but there is a striking similarity and significant places of overlap. I will continue to wrestle with how to work out all of this in real life educational environments, as I hope my readers who are involved in education will too.