The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹collegiateway.org›

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House Systems for Online Colleges and Universities

[A college is not a building, it is a social network.]Online higher education is growing every year, and every year it attracts more and more attention from the media and from educational commentators. In addition to the fully-online degree-granting institutions that now exist—from the for-profit University of Phoenix to the great-books-based Harrison Middleton University to the non-profit Western Governors University to the tuition-free University of the People—a number of distinguished brick-and-mortar campuses, such as those affiliated with the edX program sponsored by MIT and Harvard, are now offering “massive open online courses” or MOOCs that make on-campus lectures and certain other associated services available to anyone with an Internet connection. Independent MOOC developers, such as Coursera, Udemy, and Udacity, have also developed extensive online offerings in partnership with existing universities.

It might seem that the educational concepts developed here at the Collegiate Way website, with its emphasis on residential colleges and houses, wouldn’t apply to online environments, but this is not the case. Just as the collegiate concepts advocated here can be applied to house systems in secondary schools and to non-residential community colleges, so also can those concepts be applied to online educational institutions. The best brick-and-mortar universities in the country have established house and college systems, and the best online universities can as well. The online world, we should remember, has taken some of its most successful ideas directly from brick-and-mortar house systems: the house system at Harvard University had printed facebooks for decades before facebook.com existed, and facebook.com was nothing more than a Harvard undergraduate’s online re-imagining of that venerable collegiate-house tradition. Collegiate houses are the original social networks.

If we wish to design a house system for a degree-granting online university in order to enhance learning, promote academic success, and improve student and faculty retention, we should begin by looking at the four foundations of the collegiate idea. These four foundations simply call for the creation of small, faculty-led, permanent, cross-sectional societies within a larger institution, and so are not necessarily tied to the concept of residence at all. House systems and “residential” college systems need not be entirely, or even largely, residential, and they need not be curricular. The term house in these contexts, like the term college, does not designate a building or a curriculum, but rather a body of people. Houses and colleges have members rather than residents, and a house should be thought of not as a building but rather as an enduring network of member relationships, developed through long acquaintance in a stable community and through regular interaction—online or off—throughout the year.

Imaginative leaders of online institutions will find a wealth of ideas all through the Collegiate Way website that can be successfully applied, with a little creativity, to online house systems. The generative sequence for establishing a new collegiate house, for example, begins by assembling a social group of senior members, and this can be done online just as well as offline. (I have led as well as participated in vibrant online academic communities where the members feel as though they know each other well, even though few of them have ever met in person. That is the initial model to follow.) The organizational structure of traditional residential colleges can certainly be mapped onto online houses, and the objections one may encounter when establishing an online house system will certainly overlap with the easily answered objections one may encounter when proposing a traditional residential college system.

The medium is not the message: What current social media applications should be used for this work? Google+? Facebook? Twitter? The next iteration of Adobe Connect or the edX platform or the Canvas platform? That’s the wrong question to ask, at least initially. Any given software product will be obsolete within a few years, and within a few years new software products that haven’t even been imagined yet will exist. Institutions wishing to develop online house systems should first map out the social structures and the rhythms of life that they hope to create, and then look for software applications that can support them. Building enduring social structures and relationships is a recipe for success; tying oneself to particular third-party software applications is a recipe for failure.

[The Hogwarts Houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff]The establishment of an online house system, like the establishment of an offline house or residential college system, does not necessarily require any alterations to established institutional curricula. Although a portion of an online university’s curriculum could be delivered through a house system, it need not be. Houses exist mainly to support the co-curricular educational life of the institution, and the strongest house systems complement but are largely orthogonal to the academic departments. (Professor Snape is the head of Slytherin House in his co-curricular capacity, but as Potions Master his courses include students from Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw as well.) If I were organizing an online house system, the administrative elements I would distribute into the houses would be the university’s orientation programs, the student advising programs (so each student is personally looked after by an individual house fellow or tutor), some of the organizational elements of commencement, and some basic alumni-relations functions (because the strongest and most personal institutional attachment your students will feel will be to their houses).

Dunbar House: How large should online houses be? Future experience may clarify the answer to that question, but I suspect the number will be smaller than some people in the online world, with its love of massive courses, may imagine. For a traditional residential college at a university with a four-year degree program, the ideal number is close to 400, giving an annual turnover of about 25%. Keep in mind that online houses will be permanent, cross-sectional societies, into which some number of new members will be admitted each year, and from which some number will graduate. In a hypothetical four-year online degree program, I suspect the upper bound will in the range of 3 × Dunbar’s Number. The details of the interactive online architecture will be especially critical here, just as the details of brick-and-mortar architecture are critical to the success of a traditional residential college.

As in brick-and-mortar house systems, very little within online house systems should be compulsory. A simple assortment of regular advising and orientation requirements and a minimal collection of forms to fill out over the course of a student’s tenure should cover most of the essentials. The life of a collegiate house—its vitality—should come from the fact that it is mainly a voluntary association: an attractor that draws its members into the life of the place, not a collection of administrative leashes that try to keep people tied in position. If the life of your house is a life of compulsion, you’re doing something wrong.

Philosophical contraindications: There are some settings, both online and off, where the collegiate house model will not apply. Since the house model is a way of arranging the whole life of an institution, and not merely the curriculum, universities or companies that are just seeking to enhance completion rates in isolated courses won’t find their concerns addressed here. Likewise, some online institutions might think it would be appealing to build their whole social organization around thematic communities for, say, all their business students or all their health-science students, but that kind of “theme house” is not advocated here; the collegiate house model I advocate is a cross-sectional model that values academic diversity, and it is not theme-based. And while the collegiate house model is suited to higher education institutions of all kinds, from research institutes to liberal arts colleges to professional schools, it nevertheless is rooted in a liberal-education outlook that sees higher education as something more than the transmission of factual information and the issuing of certificates. If this outlook is missing from your virtual campus or your physical campus, it’s unlikely that the house model will catch on.

Some educational observers may think that the kind of co-curricular life and the kind of member support that house systems provide are not needed and not wanted by those people who seek out online education. It is true that there will always be some students who don’t wish to participate in anything other than their curricular requirements, just as there are some faculty who only care about delivering their required lectures and then going home. But experience shows that many online students will in fact go out of their way to seek out co-curricular interactions with their peers. A group of students at Western Governors University, for example, who were looking for the kind of social interactions that a house system might provide, created through their own initiative an online WGU Students Forum—a lively conversational center and mutual aid society that since its founding has accumulated tens of thousands of messages. Similarly, online students in one of MIT’s early edX courses petitioned the program directors not to shut down the associated discussion board when the course ended, but instead to keep it active so they could continue their conversations and even use the board to teach one another new course materials that edX hadn’t made available yet. “The most surprising thing” to the program directors, wrote edX president Anant Agarwal, “was the extent to which the students were helping each other.... I think for anyone to offer courses online, they need to build a community.”

A collegiate house community reaches across and beyond individual courses, and is even stronger than a curricular community. And for anyone who wishes to build a house community online—an intentional and attractive network of enduring member relationships—the richness of the Internet provides almost limitless opportunities. The senior members of a new online house, for example, just like the senior members of a new house within a brick-and-mortar institution, should “seed” the community with one or two examples of weekly, monthly, and annual events that they themselves would enjoy participating in, and then let the system evolve. Establishing a regular, comfortable, predictable, enduring rhythm of life is fundamental, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. The initial “seed” events will set the tone and will attract a certain number of student members, and through these initial examples, other student members will see how to establish additional curricular and co-curricular events that cater to their particular interests. The character of all these events and activities will reflect the individual character of the senior and junior members themselves, and that is how it should be. Some of the seeded events will flower ephemerally, providing enjoyment for a season or two; others will grow into house traditions that will last for decades.

If I were the head of a new collegiate house at an online university, I would initially seed it with activities like the ones below. You can make up a different list of your own to add to mine, as can each house member. In all cases, the given event or activity would be announced in the weekly house newsletter and would be supported by a robust discussion system that allows the participants to talk with each other in real time, to post permanent comments, and to follow up at any time (including when they visit again as alumni 25 years later).

Shared experiences like these—week after week, month after month, and year after year—are the warp and weft of house life. They make one’s house not merely a collection of people, but a society to belong to.

It may be true that there will always be elements of residential college environments that can’t be fully recreated within online environments. But online environments can be incredibly rich in novel ways themselves, and sometimes their very immateriality gives them a positive advantage over material environments—the kind of advantage that radio has, in the old joke, over television: radio is the same as television, except the pictures are better. A famous young house-member once asked, ontologically, of his surroundings, “Is this all real, or is it just happening inside my head?” And his famous headmaster replied, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry. Why should that mean that it’s not real?

Nothing will ever replace the glorious materiality of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, and if I were a billionaire I’d endow a dozen re-imagined versions of it at residential colleges around the world.

Nevertheless, if I were a house master at an immaterial online university, and this was my house choir, I’d still be pretty pleased:


© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016