Covid-19 has disrupted our lives in many ways. Some of us have been away from schools and universities for months now and had the chance to see how much we miss (or don’t) passive institutional learning. In these times of disruption, each of us can either wait for things to settle back to a normal or make the best of this and reinvent a few things here and there.

Education is long overdue to be reinvented. If you feel it’s time to free your learning from the control of grades, exams and compulsory curriculums, read on.

Invitation: Create your own university

We, at the Alternative University, created and self-governed our own university for a decade. From where we stand, what is happening to our educational systems is a blessing in disguise for learners of all kinds. In these times of disruption, maybe, just maybe, some of us can free our learning from the control of industrial era bureaucracies. 
If you’re like us, you’re probably looking for ways to not go back to the old “normal” where schools and universities are equated with learning. Real learning is so much more and often the opposite of lectures, grades & exams! It can be playful exploration, an intense passion or a casual conversation on a street corner. Often it happens in the presence of meaningful relationships, intrinsic motivation and being a part of a community. It is powerful in real-life and in real projects, where we face fears, conflicts and failures and where the results of our efforts matter. And real learning can be a simple web-search, an adventurous learning journey, a fun game or a collaborative peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge. 

But real learning also involves people gathering. Are we stuck with schools and universities as the only gathering places for learning? Do we need to endure the life-draining normal of compulsory learning just so we can learn together? Our answer is: NO! We know that learning spaces of a different nature can be created. We believe that we can reimagine our learning as a collective act of freedom and self-determination and come together in collective spaces that we own and bring us alive. For this to be possible, two structural changes are needed: individual learning to be self-determined and the collective learning spaces like schools and universities to be self organized by learners.

University is the best place to start with challenging institutional authority on knowledge and learning. A university’s business is “higher education” and they are in fact the highest authority in our society on what is to be learned, how to learn it and from whom. Imagine if these places would be owned and governed by learners. We invite young people of all ages to join us in playfully challenging the monolithic authority of conventional universities and create our own. We believe that small groups of friends or neighbours can co-create vibrant learning communities in a competent way and the resulting web of people-powered learning environments can mesh-up and become world changing. It will not happen overnight but these times of disruption are a good moment to break ranks with bureaucratic institutions and start planting the seeds of post-bureaucratic, distributed and people-powered collective learning systems. 

If you are ready to go beyond contemplation, pledge to create your own university and join us in a conversation about how that can be done.

Our Story

Long time ago, when some of us were students of romanian public universities, we became activists for a more “student-centered” higher education. As we did not succeed in making public education student centered, we created our own university.

For the past 10 years, The Alternative University has been a project created by learners, for learners. During this time, we had our doors open for young people like us, idealistic and a little misfit, who felt that there needs to be more to life and learning than what school has to offer. More than 600 young people declared themselves students at the Alternative University and together we have built a learning space and a community which helped many of us mature and find our place in the world. 

In 2019, we took time to reflect on where each of us is standing and how the university has helped us find our paths in life. We’ve realised our university is transitioning towards a new chapter, that of becoming an urban tribe – an informal community dedicated not only to learning but to all that living means. Together we are now organizing parties, building businesses, schools and even a new type of village.  

Although we are not functioning as a university anymore, we believe that our experience in designing our own university is something worth sharing with people interested in the adventure of starting their own autonomous learning project.

What we can offer

We don’t intend to sell anything. We want to open-source what we know and make it freely available as an instrument for unschooling. We are now in the process of mapping, documenting and making open source all the processes, practices, learnings and trials of the past 10 years. We expect this to take us quite some time. These will be available for anyone to access and re-purpose to their needs. But we know that there is a lot of tacit knowledge that can’t be made explicit in a document. Both until and after everything will be available open source, we are offering our support, knowledge and time to learners out there interested to self-design their learning and self-organize their own learning spaces. We are most used to working with young people and youth organizations. We can easily imagine ourselves working with youth groups that have the intention to start their own university, learning project or to transform their organization into a learning organization/community. But whoever you are reading this, if you feel we could be friends, we encourage you to drop us a line. What are the big questions in your life right now?  And don’t forget to take a look through our resources below.

Our model for a learning community

We found it useful to model learning as a balancing act of a topspin. Our four core-principles of how learning happens are mapped to four points on the topspin. It is a practical-oriented model that we used to organize our learning community. It can also be used as a lens to organize and balance an individual learning journey.  

Communities of Practice

Meaningful reflection can be a solitary act but most often is a social process. We see relationships as the core ingredient of a persistent reflection space. Rather than focusing on teaching, books, theories or concepts we strive to nurture relationships and an ongoing conversation around a shared practice. A book can be seen as a relationship and a conversation. A discipline can be seen as a community of practice. From this perspective, we choose to see learning as a process of advancing from the periphery to the center of a community of practice.

Self-Determined Learning

Each member of the learning community is responsible with what and how they want to learn. There are no grades, no exams, no diplomas or any other way to direct one’s learning from outside. Learners in our community design their own “curriculum”, set their learning goals and take full responsibility to accomplish them. This also means they will change their goals as often as they need and many times will fail in reaching their goals if they don’t find enough intrinsic motivation for them. In time, this leads to dynamic pathfinding and an emergent learning process fueled by intrinsic motivation, curiosity or relevant needs in one’s life. 

Community Building around Shared Values

The physical, virtual and social environment in which a community grows can make the difference between nurturing, rich learning paths or dry, lifeless ones. That is why we have put conscious energy into creating the conditions for our community to gather around and manifest values such as Collaborating, Daring, Freedom, Learning, Playing and Kindness. Over the years, we have witnessed how important the following aspects are in creating a nurturing learning environment: (1) a sense of belonging to a group of people who share the same values as you; (2) creating the conditions for people to feel safe, seen and welcomed as they are; (3) a general focus on relationships and the sense of friendship that learners can develop. To foster them, we have explored a wide range of community building events, celebrations and games.

Real Challenges, Real Stakes

We have noticed that when learning is anchored in what is happening around us, it is even more powerful, impactful and efficient. If the community can be a safe space for you to try things out, learn and develop your skills, finding a real challenge or stake can both accelerate and deepen the quality of your learning process. The possibilities to put ideas into action are endless: volunteering, freelancing, (social) entrepreneurship, working in the civil sector, etc.

The dynamic balance of a learning environment

We choosed the topspin as a unifying metaphor to ilustrate the dynamic balance that needs to be pursued in any learning community between the four type of spaces. The top (North) corresponds to the idea that learning must be self-determined, because that is where the top spin gets the impulse to start. The impulse needs to find some “grounding” in the learner’s environment, so the bottom (South) represents the idea that one’s growth needs a fertile social, physical, natural and virtual environment. North and South need to be aligned: if the learning intention is anchored in both the individual’s values and in what the environment rewards, the learning process has a supporting axis from which the energy comes. If that energy is balanced and spins fast between a space of action in the real world (East) and a space of reflection and improvement (West), powerful learning happens. As a learning architect, you need to make sure that all the four principles/learning spaces are enacted and the top spin is in a dynamic balance. The model can also be seen as an interplay between four types of energies: the energy of individual pathfinding (blue – hiking solo on a mountain top), the energy of belonging and celebration (green – a festival/celebration), the energy of action (red – a construction site) and the energy of reflection and conversation (yellow – people gathered around a fire for storytelling). You can find below the documentation of the concrete way in which we implemented this model over the course of one decade.

Explore our documents: