Have students create their own courses

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Students are quietly losing the last ways of shaping their own eduation, says Robin Wisse. At Berkeley she found a remedy: there, students create and teach their own courses.

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In my four years as a student things in my department have quietly changed. The use of student-assistants has come to an end (link only in Dutch) and the independent study, which allowed students to study a topic of their choice with a professor, has disappeared.

These changes are part of a larger trend of streamlining and professionalizing education at Utrecht University. For employees, for example, more emphasis is placed on acquiring educational qualifications (Dutch: basiskwalificatie onderwijs), whereas students are expected to complete their studies in a timely manner.

Of course, one can only be happy that the university is taking steps towards running as smoothly as possible. At the same time, however, students are losing the last means they had of actively participating in their own education.

'Virtually no student contributes to the shape of their degree'

With this, we have arrived at the following picture: the university gives a student an education, and the student receives it. There is no longer a reciprocity here, and virtually no student contributes to the shape of their own degree. This is reflected in a lack of participation: discussions about education at degree-level are poorly attended, and few seem convinced that course evaluations are useful. Students that want to contribute are encouraged to focus on the student community, or to deal with policy as a student representative: education should be left to the professionals.

This attitude is precisely where Utrecht can be found lacking. At a university, a constructive attitude should be fostered instead of discouraged. Students should be made to view themselves as future leaders in society, as people that are able to give valuable input and initiate projects that can be taken seriously.  And education is precisely something in which students should be allowed to play this role. A university that doesn’t use the talent of its own students in shaping their education is not living up to its potential.

'The university should encourage students to take initiative'

It’s time, then, to turn this situation around. Utrecht University should give its students the opportunity to actively involve themselves in what they believe good education should look like, and encourage them to take initiative in their own learning paths.

‘Sure, but how?’ is a question I never quite knew how to answer. Until I started my exchange at UC Berkeley last August. There, students can create and facilitate their own course. The courses, for which actual students receive actual credits, are usually 3-4 ECTS and cover an incredibly wide range of topics: you can learn about cancer research, climate change policy, west coast swing dance, bit-coins and the rise of populism. Alternatively you could learn to build a website from scratch, or learn to publish a poetry magazine. There is also a range of courses with a focus on social challenges, in which students work with incarcerated or homeless people in addition to their weekly meetings.

In Berkeley, the programme is a huge success: last semester knew 212 student-initiated courses. This amounts to more that 212 weekly study-oriented meetings driven by a genuine interest in the subject, not merely by the need to pass a course.

'Taking courses outside one's own department is normalized'

By offering these courses, Berkeley deals with a whole range of themes Utrecht is still very much wrestling with. Taking courses outside of one’s own department is normalized and made more accessible: the courses are often introductory, are facilitated by a peer and are smaller than a regular course. It is also a fantastic way of preparing students for working life, in which leadership skills such as taking initiative and working independently are increasingly more important. Additionally, these courses provide a way of contributing to the university for students who do not want to get involved in student societies or student representation. Lastly, these courses function as a bridge between university and society, both as a platform for discussion and as an actual start of social projects.

Of course this structure contains the necessary safeguards to ensure the quality of education. Students prepare an extensive syllabus (including the criteria for passing the course and a week-by-week plan) and need to have this approved by all involved parties (a professor, the department, the exam committee and the board that runs the programme). Additionally students can only take the course Pass/No Pass, in order to avoid partiality in grading.

More important than these safeguards is the trusting attitude the university takes towards its students. Here, the university counts on the student’s ability for self-reflection: a student that takes it upon herself to create a course will be someone who can do so successfully.

Only in a university that takes its own students seriously will students be able to get the most out of their education. I sincerely hope that my own university will consider this beautiful idea.

Ideas like these are nothing without support. Want to stay informed or perhaps even help develop this idea? Please send me an email at r.wisse@uu.nl.

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