Reinventing Curriculum

Face-to-face Universities Absolutely Still Have a Place!

Full Disclosure: Two tenured professors writing a blog praising their universities may sound a bit self-serving. If what we wrote wasn’t true, then yes,… but what we say here is absolutely true! <Smilely face goes here.>

Online — for all things, online — certainly looks like the right side of history. Undergraduate higher-education, in particular, is definitely moving in the online direction. Online courses are more flexible for students  and they tend to be lower cost. Online courses provide a greater variety of subjects. Online.... Online.... But wait: taking courses at a university is only 20% of the value of a university. OK, 25%. In what follows, then, we present an argument for what we see as the real value of face-to-face universities.

See the Future

The University of Michigan is building a facility to test flying robots (sometimes called “drones”). And, UMich has just built a facility to test robots swimming under water!

  • "Michigan Engineering is now the only engineering school or college in the country — perhaps in the world — with access to cutting-edge robotics test facilities for land, air, sea and space,"

At University of North Texas they are building … well, we can’t say publicly just yet. Grrr!  While UMich and UNT can claim that they uniquely are providing amazing resources — that uniqueness is momentary; universities are constantly building new facilities. Building new facilities is in the DNA of universities.

Now, facilities are a necessary condition for seeing the future, but not a sufficient condition. What face-to-face universities offer is this: undergraduates can work with faculty, and their graduate students, in those state-of-the-art facilities, "rubbing shoulders," the tried and true method for learning, to see tomorrow — today!

Video-conferencing is a wonderful technology. But, short video-conferences do not replace rubbing shoulders over an extended period of time, with smart people, in an amazing facility. Video-conferencing is a real challenge with diverse groups — groups made up of individuals who speak different languages, have different customs and cultures. Rubbing shoulders, though, with individuals who come from another part of the world, helps to develop trust and companionship.

Sadly, in our experience, not enough undergraduate students avail themselves of these shoulder-rubbing, facility-using opportunities. Taking courses gets in the way!  But, those undergraduates who do work on projects, with faculty mentors, are truly taking advantage of what their face-to-face university uniquely has to offer: seeing the future.

Be the Future

At the University of Michigan, during the 31 days in March 2018, there were:

  • 369 lectures, including approximately 12 CEOs (e.g., founder of IDEO), 9 musicians, 12 writers and poets, federal and state officials, chaired professors, and 1 Justice of the South African Constitutional Court.
  • 130 presentations related to careers and jobs.
  • 61 conferences and meetings (e.g., Washtenaw County Autonomous Vehicles Expert Panel, Palestine and Native America: Settler Colonialism and Indigeniety).
  • Sporting events, rallies, film screenings, etc., etc., etc.

At the University of North Texas, during the 31 days in March 2018, there were similarly hundreds of lectures, career presentation, meetings, etc., etc., etc.

An undergraduate at these two universities can see amazing individuals from all over the world, virtually any day of the week. (There is nothing special about March, 2018.) And, if the undergraduate has some gumption, he/she can probably meet with any of those amazing individuals. And why not? Those amazing individuals are on campus precisely to speak to — and rub shoulders with — members of that university community.

Inspirational. Motivational. "I can do that; I can be that." Again, sadly, in our experience, not enough undergraduate students avail themselves of these shoulder-rubbing opportunities.

The Internet has changed and is changing everything. Online is indeed the right side of the future. But still, there is a place for face-to-face universities where undergraduates can rub shoulders with amazing individuals and take advantage of amazing facilities in order to see the future, in order to be the future.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at