Universities have become defined by technology. They invest in supercomputers and advertise their degrees in computer science. One can go through the whole of an OLE unit through a screen. Universities exist as much in ones-and-zeroes as they do in stained-glass and sandstone.
The rise in technology has made university fairer and far more accessible. When students would’ve once missed class out of illness they can read material from home. They can talk to group members or faculty over email, instead of queuing in corridors or trying to set up a meeting over coffee. Students can find journal articles; the level of information people can access has increased, and all this improves the quality of students’ work. We can submit to magazines or newspapers, or journals. I’m writing this on my computer — and my editor’s going to see it online; I don’t have to risk missing the deadline with stacks of hand typed writing. The computer, the printer and other technology have become a defining part of student life.
However, it’s untrue that technology has been totally beneficial. So much of the benefit of university comes out of being there. The incidental meetings, of going for coffee and chatting. The social side of university life is as important as the academic work, and staring at classes through a screen certainly makes that harder. There’s a risk, I think, that universities will walk down a slippery slope to the point that people will favour tuning in online instead of going in. OLEs and online lectures certainly have put a dent in the idea of university as a social place, but it remains the case that it is the only charge I can level against the technological increases in our universities: even that doesn’t seem to stick when you consider that tutorials are still in person and many subjects expect practical lab participation. Fears about ‘the death of universities’ are usually levelled by rose-tinted glasses-wearing relatives and family friends, convinced that the idea of university they’d formed in the 1990s was going to come crashing down.
Such an image died long ago, if it existed at all. Computers were just one of many things that killed it. Rising rents and the increasingly conveyer-belt nature of university means that the budding thespian or student journalist is living a vastly different undergraduate life to those in the 50s, or even the 90s. As housing around campus becomes more expensive, and university management ponders selling off affordable accommodation, students have become faced with longer commutes and rising rents. The image of undergraduates hanging around on campus, knee-deep in clubs and co-curriculars, is simply unrealistic for many students. Technology, however, only played a minimal role in this: the changes to university that forced this cultural shift were happening long before computers, and to blame everything “on technology” is an old-man-yells-at-cloud type of response that is reminiscent of a 19th century luddite smashing a loom.
With the development of a technological, online university, it becomes incumbent on the institution and on us to strike a balance between the convenience of watching a recorded class and the meaningfulness of going into campus and sitting in. Simple extensions need to be preserved, and recorded lectures need to keep being recorded. Technology has democratised the university experience. Yet, as we look into an online future, we can’t let the campus be forgotten. I still think that the physical part of university is the most important: it’s those long afternoons drinking coffee after a class, or seeing a friend stride over with a smile on their face. All of these things are what has stuck me since coming here as the truly valuable parts of being a student.
Whether it’s reading a JSTOR article, or borrowing books in the library, combining technology and physical campus life is an incredible opportunity because it allows us to get the best of both worlds — I can apply for a simple extension in one hand while pencilling in the Honi crossword with the other.
The fear that older people have expressed to me about uni “not being the same” since technology was introduced seems totally unfounded. Uni was never “going to be the same” as it was when they were here, and it shouldn’t be — institutions shouldn’t stagnate and fester. If it were the same, then coming here would have been a pointless endeavour.
What our current context gives us is an in-between space, at once online and in person, and I think that’s the ideal place to be.