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In my opinion

How will our bricks-and-mortar universities survive?

They must capitalize on their strengths in personal interaction.


In a recent article in the Guardian Higher Education Network, Matthew Draycott argues that universities must adopt “disruptive technologies” or be left behind. In particular, he cites online courses, including free ones such as those in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MITx, which include “interactive instruction, online laboratories and student-to-student and student-to-professor communication.” Software such Adobe Connect already allows online students to ask questions of the instructor or make comments to the entire class or to specific students in the class while listening to the instructor speaking, and it accommodates breakout groups easily. Soon a student anywhere in the world will be able to log onto a relatively inexpensive online course, taught by one of the best instructors in the world using effectively limitless technical resources, without leaving home. Why would any student prefer to attend an (often boring) traditional university lecture at much greater expense?

The only way for our conventional universities to survive is to use our face-to-face advantage to provide a superior education. Better PowerPoint slides and more web links are not the answer; they can be provided even more conveniently in an online course where the student is already seated at a computer. However, other ways to exploit our face-to-face advantage have been identified by pedagogical research.

I am most familiar with my own discipline, physics, where 30 years of research has shown that students learn best if they are given a structured opportunity to discuss the material with other students while it is being taught. One such technique is Peer Instruction, in which students read the “lecture” material before class, with class time largely devoted to student-student discussions of concept-intensive questions provided by the instructor (see Peer Instruction by E. Mazur, Benjamin Cummings, 1996). The discussions are followed by a class vote for the correct answer (often with hand-held clickers which display the voting pattern to the entire class), and then clarification by the instructor.

Research has shown that the conceptual understanding of students taught interactively improves twice as much as when they are taught with conventional lecturing, even for superb lecturers (see Hake and UBC). The student-student interaction component is crucial to the method, as it casts students into the roles of questioner and teacher as well as the recipient of knowledge. It also forces all students to join in the discussion, rather than just the few brave enough to ask questions of the instructor. Instructors all know that we learn in a different, powerful way when we discuss ideas with our colleagues, and this is no less true of students. Moreover, student discussion is often most fruitful when not inhibited by the direct participation of the instructor, who must still play the crucial role of structuring this discussion to bring out the concepts most commonly misunderstood and clarifying misconceptions. Well-constructed questions create many teachable moments, when the student realizes the incompatibility between her understanding and the theory; e.g. that it does not require a net force to keep a body moving, in spite of what our intuition has told us since childhood.


There seems to be much less research on student-student interactive learning/teaching in the humanities and social sciences at the university level. However, one study that discusses the importance of peer interaction at the university level is described in Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds,by Richard J. Light (2001). It shows, not surprisingly, that interactive teaching yields similar excellent results in all disciplines. This book is based on personal interviews with 1,600 undergraduates at 25 colleges and universities. The interviews focused not on what students had learned but on which approaches worked best for them and what changes in teaching they recommended. The book covers a lot of territory in addition to interactive teaching, such as the importance of good student advising, the benefits from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and the importance for students of connecting their academic learning to their personal lives, all of which are best accomplished in a face-to-face setting.

As for interactive learning, the students interviewed claimed that learning outside classes is vital. When asked for an event that changed them profoundly, 80 percent of students chose an event outside of class. They also said that homework assignments that force students to work together outside class increase both learning and classroom engagement; those students who developed the most academically underlined the importance of “substantive academic work” that involved working with others, either students or directly with faculty members. These results are in accord with my 2008 study (A.J. Slavin, Can. J. Physics 86, 839-847, 2010) which showed that first-year physics students had a much higher probability of staying in the course if they worked with others on assignments or lived in residence.

What Making the Most of College is missing, because it was published 11 years ago, is a discussion of modern technology to achieve some of the goals of interactive teaching. For example, no mention is made of Peer Instruction. Nor does it mention recent tools such as Top Hat Monocle (developed by University of Waterloo grads) or Purdue University’s Hotseat, both of which allow students to provide real-time feedback to the instructor and each other during class and so enable professors to improve the learning experience. (Students discuss questions in class and can post responses to an online forum which is projected in the classroom. Not only are students very engaged during class, they post as much to the forum after class as during it!)

The closest to these tools discussed in Making the Most of College is probably the “one-minute essay,” which asks students, as they leave the class, to drop off a paper response to the two questions: “What is the main idea that you learned in class today?” and “What is the main unanswered question that that you leave class with today?” The instructor spends a few minutes reviewing these answers and comes to the next class knowing what students did or did not understand. This approach is essentially the same as that in the book Just-in-Time Teaching(1999), which uses a tool such as WebCT/Blackboard Learning System to ask the students similar questions of the pre-class readings, to help prepare the instructor to clarify problem areas. However, even without references to modern technology, Making the Most of Collegeis an important read and provides a multitude of suggestions for how brick-and-mortar universities can remain viable.

Given the enormous challenges from excellent online courses from anywhere in the world, it is clear that conventional universities must capitalize on the strengths of personal interaction if they are to survive. These advantages must be cultivated and advertised carefully; business as usual is not an option.


Alan Slavin is professor emeritus at Trent University. His 2007 article Has Ontario taught its high-school students not to think? is still one of the most-read articles on the University Affairs website.

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  1. Matthew Draycott / June 3, 2012 at 04:39

    This is an excellent build on my article, thanks, really enjoyed the points you make. I would love to chat to you (Alan) more about this area.