Lately I've been reflecting on my lack of connection to the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education. I resently spent some time back at the University of Victoria, and very fondly remember my time wondering the halls of the Engineering Office Wing (effectionity known as the End of the World). Even as an undergrad, I was part of the academic community. I knew most of the professors in the faculty. I felt welcome to knock on anyone's door and ask a question. People were happy to talk about their research and answer any questions you might have.
I've completed two and half years of a PhD at the University of Ottawa, and can count on only one hand the number of professors in the faculty that would recognize me if they saw me in the hallway (OK, that may be a bit of a stretch, maybe 7-8 professors might recognize me!). I feel very little connection to the faculty, and I don't feel comfortable with knocking on anyone's door to ask a question – even when I know that person!
So, what has change? The biggest change since my undergrad days is the World Wide Web. I graduated with my B.Sc back in 1995 – before the "information superhighway". We had the Interent for email, and would often email professors, but this was not the norm, but was unique to Computer Science and the Faculty of Engineering. Most students did not have email back then, and libraries required you to be physically present to take out physical books or read material on microfiche using special machines. You had to be there.
I did my masters online, and yet I still felt the connection to the university. Royal Roads University made an explicit effort to build learning community in each course. We felt that we could reach out to any of our professors at any time – even after the course was over. This was part of the culture. It was online, but it was still a community.
At the University of Ottawa, and I suspect many other face-to-face insitutions, they are loosing the sense of academic community without realizing it is happening. More and more both students and professors are taking advantage of the flexiblity the Internet provides and working from home or other locations that are not their campus offices. Email and the Internet means that you now need to "make and appointment" if you want to see a professor. Often, when you walk through the halls, you are met with empty offices and closed doors.
What face-to-face insitutions can learn from online insitutions in this age of the Internet, is the need to make community explicit. Community will no longer happen just because you share a physicial space – especially as people are no longer tied to the physical space. Community sustaining activities need to be made explicit, or else community will fade away. Unfortunately, what I am seeing is the sense of academic community fading away without an awareness that it is happening. Without conscious care and feeding, the community will be no longer.
Are you faculty or student at a face-to-face institution? Are you seeing your academic community fade away? or perhaps, is it already gone? What does your university to help nurish the academic community?