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Do Online Learners Miss Out on the Campus Student Experience

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In February, Universities Minister David Willetts urged the academic community to recognise that "online learning has the potential to be one of the UK biggest export opportunities". Our recent increase in application figures certainly supports that prediction.

But while many acknowledge his argument, some raise doubts about the issue of 'student experience' - questioning how an online environment can ever match the experience of 'going to' university. It is this issue, so the suggestion goes, that ultimately means online higher education is limited in its scope.

The point is indeed a common criticism of the online model, and one which I think deserves a little more attention. Here's why.

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The argument goes that students who study for degrees online miss out on the 'university package' - going to lectures, meeting new people, the social life, living away from home, independence etc.

Traditionalists suggest that these factors plus academic stimulation is what going to a UK university is all about. While online learning establishments may be able to assure academic quality, how can that 'experience' side of things ever be replicated in the same way?

But there is a fundamental problem with this view - it assumes a campus university experience that was true twenty years ago. Things have changed.

In 1984, just 8% of university undergraduates stayed at home to study. By 2011, this had risen to one in five. The desire, and financial ability, to live independently is diminishing.

Similarly, a recent poll by Student Money Saver found that 91 per cent of students were more worried about finding money for daily living costs than repaying student loans post-university. This has led to a dramatic increase in full-time students taking on jobs to afford their study.

80% of students now expect to have to work while at university with a quarter of these worried about balancing their time between study and employment, let alone how to fit in socialising.

So, it may be true to say that online students are missing out on 'the university campus experience' but the point is, so are many university campus learners.

What then of the suggestion that 'going to' university is important because it introduces students to more people from more walks of life?

This is, of course, true. But in an era where face-to-face engagement isn't the primary socialisation model for young adults - an online environment attended by students from over 150 countries, sharing views on academic and social forums, and via web-conferencing discussions, surely offers an equally beneficial melting pot.

The technology that is the life blood for online learning means that a student studying and working in Belize can debate business models with an undergraduate student from Huddersfield during a live web-based tutorial. If 'going to' university is about enabling new and valuable experiences then this kind of interaction has to fulfil the brief.

In fact, if more than fulfils it. Because collaborative, web-based interaction and working of this nature doesn't just provide a student experience - it provides life experience relevant to modern employment which is evermore global. And in today's world, that goes a long way

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