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.