Students can be as stubborn as they want – in a course created by themselves

Een bijeenkomst van een door studenten georganiseerde cursus over Harry Potter op Berkeley © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

She’s a little proud, of course. University council member Robin Wisse has done it. This spring, she penned an op-ed on DUB about her experiences at Berkeley, with educational modules run entirely by students. She could choose, for instance, between courses on the rise of populism and a course on House of Cards. She could learn how to build websites, or how to create a poetry magazine. Students also organized courses in collaboration with prisoners and homeless people. She felt Utrecht University should have something similar.

Now, that idea has been made reality. Wisse and fellow University council member Sven Rouschop have started the Edu-Challenge, in coordination with several UU staff members. “If you and one or two other students have a good plan for a course, you can come to us before February 1st,” Wisse explains. “The two or three groups with the best developed ideas and subjects will have the opportunity in the third period to spend ten weeks developing that idea into a course, under the guidance of an educational expert and an intern. You can also ask for additional help from a teacher.”

The goal is to create an actual university course worth 4 ECTs, which will then be taught in fourth period. The students don’t have to be the ones teaching the class. Wisse: “They can either ask teachers or external experts who have a lot of knowledge on the subject. The students themselves will remain involved in the course as organizers, and they can play a role in, for instance, guiding discussion groups.”

Perhaps we can learn something from the American educational models

The students who get the opportunity to start their own course, can use 7.5 ECTs from their freely usable ECTs. Formally, they’ll have to apply for an internship module at Organizational Science. The initiators Wisse and Rouschop managed to get the educational director for Organizational Science, Wieger Bakker, enthusiastic about their project. He agreed to run the experiment with the create your own course project this year.

“This fits very well into the university’s goal to increase the level of involvement students have in their own education,” Bakker says. “We all want to stimulate the community building at the university. That means we should also have room for experiments in that area.”

Bakker thinks perhaps we can learn something from the American educational models, in which a link to the outside world is often sought. “That’s something we want, too. The university stimulates students to do something in ‘social entrepreneurship’ or ‘community service’. Let’s see if we can take that a little further in our education.”

‘Pilot’ is the magic word

Wisse says her initiative fits in with the trend of students wanting to take matters into their own hands. She points out the enthusiasm of students during a brainstorm session at the university’s Educate-It program, which stimulates students’ involvement in their education.

The Edu Challenge website refers to several similar projects at other universities. “But there are also many examples available in Utrecht. In the history department, there’s someone who’s teaching a course in Russian history, outside of the actual curriculum. The participants learn Russian, and there are a lot of guest lecturers. And many honors programs incorporate similar elements. But we feel those are really only meant for an exclusive group of students.”

Although she was often warned about all the obstacles she would face, Wisse said her course was realized relatively easily. “’Pilot’ is the magic word. As long as you call it a pilot, a lot is possible. It only gets tricky when you start talking about gaining ECTs for taking a brand new course. Then things become about money, and about the question whether the university can ensure the quality of education. So it’s possible that at first, the reward for following one of these courses will be limited to a certificate.”

Students tend to follow the well-known paths

Educational advisor Karin Scager, of the UU’s Center for Education and Learning (COLUU), says developing their own course can be very valuable for students. “They’ll have to do in-depth research into the material. Then they’ll also have to differentiate between fundamental matters and secondary ones. And they’ll have to be able to explain exactly what they want to teach the participants in their course. We always say a teacher learns the most from his own education.”

Scager herself was one of the organizing parties of a student course in Biology thirty years ago. “Of all the things I did during my studies, I think that one has stayed with me the most.”

But Scager doubts whether the courses will  be educationally solid when students are in charge. The educational adviser gave advise to several academic honors programs on educational tactics that are activating, and was involved in two UCU courses in which students were able to shape their own education under the guidance of a teacher. (UCU teacher Tatiana Bruni recently wrote two elaborate blog posts on the Teaching Academy Utrecht University (TAUU) website about this ‘co-creation’ method, ed.)

Those experiences have taught Scager that students often struggle with educational goals of a course, and educational methods that suit those goals. “They often end up with what they’re familiar with from their own experiences, and what they like best: lectures, guest lectures and a paper, preferably written individually because everyone hates group assignments. That’s a shame, because projects like these are the perfect change to experiment more, to think more freely.”

Scager says university students don’t often look to the world outside the university. “They do have the tendency to read more, research more, know more. They’re often insecure and don’t easily feel like they could be an equal discussion partner. The difference with student from the Universities of Applied Science is stark: they’re much more prone to take action.”

Teachers involved in the new courses are tasked with paying attention to aspects like that, Scager says. “Teachers are given a new role. They become guides, or coaches, there to stimulate and encourage students.”

Students don’t believe it’s possible

Wieger Bakker stresses that students participating in the new project shouldn’t focus too much about what’s ‘normal’ at the university. “That’s definitely the challenge here: students are often swept up by the current of the organization’s way of working. And that’s something you don’t want in a pilot like this. You’re looking for new ideas. I hope students who will get the chance to develop their own courses will keep reminding themselves of the questions: what did I want to do again?”

Robin Wisse has faith in the project. “What I love about this project is that the university is really taking students seriously. Students can do so much, if you give them the chance.”

She’s mostly had enthusiastic feedback from students, although she has had to explain what the idea actually was. “Many students don’t believe I’m serious at first, that they could really make their own course.”

An information night about the project will be held on January 11th.



Tags: community