The President's View

The president of Fairfield University on higher education

Education is a Conversation

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There’s no doubt that  the world of higher education has been changed in recent years by new  technology. Not so long ago, if you wanted to discuss, say, the paintings of  Vermeer you would have directed your student’s attention to black-and-white  plates in a book. Now, each painting can be brought to the screen in stunning  color and resolution via the internet.

That’s just the beginning.  Increasingly, universities and colleges are offering online courses — even  online degrees — and there’s no question that there are enormous benefits that  come with the immediacy and scope that the technology offers. At Fairfield, we  post many lectures on the internet to be shared around the world. Many other  universities do the same.

Given that, wouldn’t it be better to put all  our energies into making our classes available via the internet to as many  students as possible?

Well, one of the principles that we believe in at  Fairfield is that education is conversation. In fact, it is a Jesuit principle  that we make sound decisions in our life out of a process of dialogue, out of  listening and being open, in the university, to a teacher. Something important  happens in the interaction between a student and a teacher.

There is an  exchange. Not just an exchange of ideas, but a process through which a young  mind is opened to a fresh insight and then directed through a tutorial  conversation towards a higher understanding. This is what a meaningful tutorial  conversation is all about.

That is one of the reasons why we keep our  student to faculty ratio somewhere in the order of 12 to 1. Those are small  classes, you’ll agree, but classes where we believe a spark can be ignited. We  think the “Aha!” moment, when a student really grasps an idea, is more likely to  happen in this more intimate environment  at a close-knit residential  school than in a big class, with hundreds of students taught by a graduate  assistant, or through a reliance on technical aids and online teaching.

Higher education should bring about a transformation of the student,  leading to a deeper understanding of the world we live in so they are equipped  to engage with the big problems, and have the confidence to bring about  meaningful change in the world.

Is this old fashioned?

Well, I don’t  believe so, and an interesting article in the latest Chronicle of Higher  Education by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University,  seems to support our position that small classes and the conversations they  engender are important to real learning. He cites recent research from the  Higher Education Research Institute that suggests that only 29 percent of  students reported studying more than 10 hours a week, and that 79 percent of  them reported turning in work that “did not reflect their best work.” Sixty-two  percent said they came late, and 44 percent said they fell asleep in their  classes (not likely to happen when your professor is looking right at you).

Studies also found that many students “never” discussed what they  learned in the classroom outside the classroom. In other words, a majority of  undergraduate students are not very involved in what they are  learning.

And yet, other findings show that 78 percent of first-year  students said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the amount of  faculty-student contact that they had. How can they be satisfied with their  teachers, and yet be so indifferent to what they are being  taught?

Bauerlein, looking at these statistics concerning students,  concludes thus: “In other words, they liked their professors, they felt  comfortable with them, but they didn’t much care to spend time discussing books  and ideas with them.

They didn’t realize that an essential part of higher  education takes place in conversation, in face time with professors, in the  give-and-take of one-on-one discussion.”

Certainly, at Fairfield we believe that education is a conversation. Any public discussion about how we can  streamline higher education or make it more productive or cost-effective should  not lose sight of the centrality of the one-to-one interaction of teacher and  student, the human relationship, at the heart of the experience.

Categories: General