Peer-to-peer culture

January 1, 1990
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Research-led teaching on campus is the best option for academics and students, argues Ian Young

There is much rhetoric about the link between research and education. Indeed, it is often claimed that it is essential for universities to encompass both. The evidence, however, does not support this position: there are many fine teaching-only institutions that offer students an excellent education.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are significant advantages to the research-led approach. For this to be true, research must be at the core of the university mission. This is clearly the case at the Australian National University, where our strategic plan states that education will be research-led.

We satisfy a number of conditions to make the plan a reality. For starters, teaching staff must be active researchers of international quality. This ensures that the curriculum sits at the cutting edge of knowledge. It also means that students are imbued with a culture of discovery. In today’s technological world, information is everywhere: the real challenge is to determine its quality. The educated person of the future will be the one who can critique this information and research its validity. Hence, research skills will become synonymous with education.

The fact that an institution produces world-class research does not mean that its pedagogy will be research-led: students need an environment in which they can interact with top researchers. In this regard, the size of the institution is critical. I do not believe one can have such interactions in a university of, say, 40,000 or 50,000 students. Although the institution may produce quality research, is it really possible in such an educational environment for students to develop real research skills or experience research culture at first hand? Again, this is something that ANU sees as an important element of the educational experience. Although growing the size of the institution may have financial advantages, it would change fundamentally the way students interact with their teachers. To develop research attributes, it helps enormously to be immersed in research activity.

As any good educator knows, only a small fraction of learning occurs in the class or laboratory. Peer interaction is critical. The best universities attract the best students, and in many respects the teachers just need to steer them in the right direction and ask them challenging questions. Great students learn much by interacting and debating with their peers. In a similar manner, great researchers develop by peer interaction. Therefore, the environment in which students learn is critical.

Here, a residential experience is hard to beat. Total immersion 24/7 in an environment that challenges gifted students enhances learning and development. This is one of ANU’s great strengths. Whereas almost all Australian universities are “commuter” campuses, our institution has a very large percentage of students resident on campus. As a result, education does not stop at the end of a lecture or tutorial: it continues through debate with one’s peers or in the many public evening lectures delivered by noted visitors.

So research has many positive effects on education, but I believe the reverse is also true. As a researcher myself, I know that my most productive years came when I was actively teaching, too. The need to continually test yourself against gifted students keeps you on your toes. You sharpen your ability to explain complex concepts and to better understand the issues yourself. This clarity of thought enhances both the quality and the impact of research.

If one looks at the institutions that regularly top the world rankings, they all have the attributes described above: high-quality research, a relatively small population of outstanding students and a residential experience. The environment created in such universities enhances research and education. Although other types of institution can do well in the rankings, the evidence suggests that they do not make it to the very top.

Ian Young is vice-chancellor and president of the Australian National University.

 

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