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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Explore our documents:
- Work is in progress on the 5 core documents of our ongoing open sourcing effort:
- Overview of our learning model (0% ready)
- Alt.Uni.Ro-Self-Determined-Learning.doc (60% ready)
- Alt.Uni.Ro-Community-Building.doc (5% ready)
- Alt.Uni.Ro-Communities-of-Practice.doc (10% ready)
- Alt.Uni.Ro-Real-Challenges-Real-Stakes.doc (0% ready)
- About the Alternative University through different lenses:
- Student Guide 2014
- Article written by a visitor and friend of the university “Self-directed learning at the Alternative University”
- Decât o Revistă: Universitatea Alternativă (romanian)
- Our core sources of inspiration:
- Imagine a school … Summerhill (movie)
- Accepted (movie)