In support of smaller-scale learning

Bigger isn’t necessarily better, at least when it comes to the university experience

I just read this article by Margaret Wente, which got me thinking about my school. She brings up a number of good points about a shifted focus in the post-secondary education system — a focus on articles, not students. Graduates, not undergrads. Classes the size of small towns, it seems.

I, quite frankly, can’t figure out how anyone can learn in a giant lecture-style setting. Actually, I’m lying; I can’t relate to it. A situation where I read and see someone talk from 20 rows away, rinse and repeat twice a week and never discuss the material almost seems to defy the purpose of university.

Why bother leaving your room? Listen to podcasts of lectures. I could even download lectures from universities around the world and do the reading and listen to them and learn just as much. A friend of mine, before I left for university, suggested to me that if I ever had a bad prof for a common course, to check podcasts from other universities. Why even bother joining any one university when you could theoretically pick and choose among professors from universities around the world and never even see them?

This trend concerned me when I read this post by a mom of two university students about her son and daughter’s swine flu protection plan:

“They’ll be doing two of their electives by distance education and, with the exception of two labs – where their physical presence is required – their other courses could easily be done by podcast if necessary.”

Darn those pesky labs — if not for them her children could spend all year in their residence rooms mainlining caffeine and Tamiflu. I think we’re all forgetting what I think is the most important part of the learning experience. It all comes back to that same reason why King’s students return: community. A growing, learning community of academics, one that starts in first year with an intense year living, eating, and learning together, complete immersion in learning.

Imagine: professors, TAs and undergrads all living in the same place. There would be class lecture/seminar/discussion-style classes, but then those discussions would spill out of the classroom and to the dining hall. You’d challenge your professor’s position over a drink in the campus bar. You would find common ground somewhere like the dining hall, or even the chapel because in this community, everyone is learning and learning from each other.

This is exciting. This is my experience of school, every day. At the University of King’s College, the faculty don’t live on campus as they used to but they may as well, they’re around so often; I see them in meal hall, in the bar, on the quad, at club and school functions. My biggest class this year is 25 people, since I take all courses offered at King’s and none through the King’s-Dalhousie partnership. I just find this a stimulating, exciting way to learn.

So, “Big Five”, here is what I propose to you. Smaller, not bigger. Be inspired by the Oxfordian model, the one we aim for at King’s. Our education system needs work, and I believe this is a better direction.

I can’t really speak to the experience of attending a large university like Queen’s or U of T, because that isn’t my experience, but I do encourage you to avoid isolating. What is the point of being a part of a community of academics if you never access any of this? And I do include other students in the category of academics. So take small classes, introduce yourself to your professor, go to tutorials, get involved in clubs, in student government, but please, please engage in your university.