Oxbridge: Innovative or Outdated?

Thirty years ago, I had the good fortune of studying abroad at the University of Oxford. I recall the time fondly, especially after a recent visit to England and a few days spent in Oxfordshire, strolling the grounds of Harris Manchester College with my family.

This trip down memory lane reminded me of the experience I had in the University of Oxford tutorial system, a unique pedagogy not widely used outside of Oxford and the University of Cambridge (Hence, the term Oxbridge). The classroom in the tutorial system is replaced with students being taught one-on-one with a faculty member. The sessions are called tutorials.

Once a week, I would meet with my professor in the tutorial. In between, I would attend open lectures at different colleges in the system, as well as read assignments and, then, write a reflective paper on the assignments. Each tutorial started with me reading my paper aloud. After, the professor provided critical feedback, engaging in discussion about the main ideas in the paper, as well as sharing his or her perspective on the subject matter. Typically, the format followed this order: challenge, criticize, educate, and encourage. Each session ended with a review of assignments for the following week and, after a courteous farewell, off I went.

Is this pedagogy an outdated approach to teaching and learning that widens the divide between faculty as sage on the stage and students as vessels for absorbing knowledge? Or,  is it an innovative approach that founded personalized learning and self-directed study?

The tutorials did not empower faculty to serve as mentors, nor did they necessarily create a strong, personal bond between student and professor. While the open lectures delivered knowledge by university scholars, knowledge is ubiquitous and available online today unlike the creators of Oxbridge could have ever envisioned. Even in the UK, the tutorial system is not the adopted pedagogy by other universities. Though, I really enjoyed the experience. 🙂

While Oxbridge was innovative in the 1100s, the tutorial system is outdated in today’s times. Yet, we can learn from and repurpose the tutorial system, bringing it into the 21st century. The personalized experience can be personalized and content delivery modernized.

While higher education is undergoing a slow disruption, trace elements of the past will always remain, meaning Oxbridge isn’t going away, nor are liberal arts colleges or fraternities. However, more commonly innovative will be universities in which the faculty are mentors, knowledge is found by students not fed to, and learning is measured not by seat time, but by acquired competencies. Maybe even Oxbridge will begin to make adjustments and move back into the innovative category, or not.