Why small is beautiful in education

Kelly Yang believes bigger isn't better in education, and no online course can replace the magic of meaningful discussion in a small class

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 4:01am

When talking about education in Hong Kong, "expansion" is the word on everyone's lips. It seems every school in town is adding a second campus or increasing intake. Last year, I made the opposite decision - to reduce the number of our courses, teachers and offices. After a year of expansion and the buzz of feeling like a big shot because I headed something with multiple locations, I realised that was all it was - a buzz. Not education.

It wasn't easy thinking small. I grappled with comments like, "Maybe you're just not a good businesswoman". But thinking small gave me the freedom to focus on what I care about most - teaching.

Call me old school, but quality teaching to me means a few children sitting in a room with an amazing teacher. These days, not everyone in the education world agrees. Many think that Massive Open Online Courses - which allow tens of thousands of students all around the world to enrol in a course - are the way of the future.

According to a recent survey of 1,345 college students by Millennial Branding, half of them believe students don't need a physical classroom and 53 per cent believe online colleges are reputable. Even the American Council on Education has begun certifying certain online courses as worthy of college credit.

Certainly, with student debt in the US at more than US$1 trillion, there's a role for these courses. They open up access to world-class courses that were once reserved for a small "elite". However, they cannot replace the kind of magic that happens when students learn face to face in a small environment. Mistakenly thinking they can is dangerous.

To find out more about the dynamics of small-size learning, I sat down last week with Adam Falk, president of Williams College, a top liberal arts college in the US. For the past five years, Williams has been ranked in the top three for best undergraduate institution by Forbes magazine. According to Falk, it's precisely because the school is so small.

The average Williams class is about 500 students. That brings the student-to-faculty ratio down to seven students to one professor. Unlike many of the big universities, like Yale and Duke, Williams is not trying to open up a second campus in Asia. It doesn't even have a graduate school.

It shows where Williams' priority lies - in undergraduate teaching.

"We have a very important job here at Williams - and that is taking 18- to 22-year-olds, late teenagers, and turning them into adults," said Falk. He believes the best way to do that is to have small numbers of students in live classes with teachers who are more passionate about teaching than research. Online courses are, at best, "sophisticated books".

That's because at its core, education is a human social activity, said Falk. How can you have any real discussion in an online course with 10,000 students?

I couldn't agree more. Education isn't like furniture stores or sausage factories - it's not wholesale. In the case of education, small is beautiful.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com