With advances in technology and shifts in the demographics of people attending university, the campus experience is changing. We’re taking a look at how students have traditionally experienced university across the globe, and how that’s evolving in each region.
In the UK: not all living away from home
Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education, Lancaster University
The dominant image of the UK campus experience is of students in their late teens or early 20s living and socialising on the campus of a long-established university.
However, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) paint a different picture. In 2013-14, around one-third of full-time students lived at their own or their parents’ home and one-third of all students were aged 25 or over. Around 15% of the student population were distance learners, with around one-third of these based wholly overseas.
HESA do not collect figures on the number of students studying in private institutions, but a survey in 2012 suggested there were around 100,000 students at private institutions. This represented around 4% of the 2011-12 student body.
Part of the reason the dominant image remains unchallenged is that these different kinds of students and experiences tend to be located at different kinds of universities.
The researchers in the Social and Organisational Mediation of University Learning (SOMUL) project identified three different kinds of student experience based on the levels of student diversity at an institution and the extent to which students' experiences were shared or individualised.
The danger of the dominant image of the young student living away from home, as the SOMUL project recognised, is that higher education experiences that fit with it are often assumed to be higher quality than those that do not. Our research in the quality and inequality of teaching in undergraduate first degrees clearly showed this is not the case.
While technological developments have changed the experiences of students studying at a distance, for other students it seems that it has been integrated into their experiences without changing them fundamentally.
This is similar to what happened with television in the 1970s, which was thought to have signalled the end of the traditional lecture. While it did offer higher education in a new form to students engaging with the programs made by the Open University, the experience of most students did not greatly change.
In the US: the digital age isn’t necessarily bringing us closer
Karen Sobel Lojeski, Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society, Stony Brook University
Just outside the main student activity centre, information tables line collegiate quads featuring everything from ceramics classes to geology clubs. However, while on the surface this sociable scene still plays out in one form or another across the country, the campus experience is changing.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2012, approximately 12.5% of the 21 million or so enrolled undergraduates attended online classes exclusively – meaning they missed a “real-life” campus experience altogether.
However, for the 75% or so reportedly attending traditional classes entirely, technological tethers are also impacting campus life on the ground one way or another.
The increased use of web-based lecture technologies like Echo 360, for example, is designed to enhance students’ learning experience. Research shows it is perceived to be highly beneficial by those who cannot attend class – providing them with flexibility and multiple learning options when emergencies and other life circumstances prevent them from being there “live”.
On the flip side, an unintended consequence is that some students see web-based lecture technologies as a way to justify surfing the web while in class because they can always go back to the “replay”. However, while this often leads to a negative impact on grades, it can also change the trajectory of social interactions inside and outside the classroom – fuelling a sense of being “alone together”.
For example studies show that depression and anxiety among college students is rising significantly, creating what the American Psychological Association calls a mental health crisis on campuses across the nation.
On the one hand, social media can benefit student sufferers by keeping them regularly connected to family and friends – easing worries and providing comfort. On the other hand, social media can contribute to the psyche’s catastrophic thinking by creating an increased sense of isolation called virtual distance. Whether the student is walking down a crowded campus thoroughfare staring at a screen or curled up in their dorm room looking at Facebook friends’ “highlight reels” making them feel more lonely than ever.
The bottom line – technology is impacting campus life on both sides of the ledger in ways that can enrich as well as detract from precious encounters with new knowledge and friends.
The lesson for our youth is that even if you spend a lot of time with your computer companion try to also throw some clay on a wheel, slip down a watery bouncy slide or mine minerals from shoe boxes with like-minded collectors for as Carly Simon sang a long time ago, it is still the case for your generation that “these are the good old days”.
In Australia: spending less time on campus
Jason Lodge, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne
University students in Australia usually stay close to home to go to university. Rural students predominantly stay in rural areas to study and city dwellers tend to stay in cities.
Australian domestic students are less likely to live in dorms or on campus than students in other parts of the world. They instead tend to live with their parents or partners.
While the situation is different for international students studying in Australia, the living arrangements and mobility of Australian domestic students has remained relatively stable. The same may not be said about their actual attendance on campus though.
A recent report from the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education highlights some changing trends. Students appear to be spending around the same amount of time studying overall but are spending less of that time on campus.
Students also indicated they were less engaged with their peers than students in the past have been. Instead they appear to spend much more time on the internet or studying alone.
Data in the same report also indicate that students are increasingly using technology to study. However, the notion that these technologies mean they can spend less time on campus was not shared by a third of the sample.
These data challenge the argument that Australian students devalue campus life in favour of online content. The available evidence instead suggests that a complex set of factors drive student decisions about where and when they study.
This is perhaps not surprising given that the student body in Australian higher education is far larger and more diverse than it traditionally has been.
Australian university students also have increasing commitments outside of study including work, family and carer responsibilities. These obligations force them to make strategic decisions about their study habits. This includes deciding whether it is worth making the trip to campus despite whatever value they see in being there.
Jason Lodge works for the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC) at The University of Melbourne. The SLRC is funded through a Special Research Initiative of the Australian Research Council.
Paul Ashwin receives funding from the Higher Education Funding Council England and the Economic and Social Research Council
Karen Sobel Lojeski does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation