"Sui Generis" College

Nov 27, 2007

Jeff Pulver asks the question of “How would You Reinvent College?

You probably know by now that I think the formal education system is broken, and I’m glad to see more and more people challenging it. And I just can’t resist the invitation to add in my thoughts on this. So if I had the chance to build a “Sui Generis” College, this is what it would be like.

My college would be all about opportunities. Giving students opportunities to pursue and explore what they are interested in, to let them forge their own path.

The first thing I’d implement in order to achieve that is the policy of 20% time. Like what Google does. In my college, students will be allowed to pursue whatever they want in 20% of their time. It’s something I mentioned in an earlier post, and I’ll just repeat it here. “If a student is interested in business, let him use that time pursuing a business opportunity. If he’s interested in music, why not let him use that time maybe composing songs? For students interested in drama, how about letting them plan and produce their own performance? If he’s into soccer, let him spend that day creating their own freestyle tricks (maybe even record a personal instructional/showcase DVD).” Let them explore their own path, and give them the freedom to. This segment would be ungraded, of course.

Secondly, I would let students hold their own classes. If the students have something they are interested in, or something they are passionate about, let them hold a class to teach other students (or even the faculty). Something similar to the unConference rules, where anyone can host a session, I’d allow students to run their own class. It would firstly pass the responsibility to the students themselves, to take charge of what they are doing. And it would also train them in terms of public speaking and presentation. And even management skills (because teaching isn’t just about talking and presenting, is it? It’s just as much about interacting with the people in the class.)

Thirdly, and again in accordance to the unConference rules, I’d want to introduce the “law of the 2 feet” in my college. Students would be allowed to leave classes (quietly, of course) if they feel they aren’t learning anything from that session. They wouldn’t be forced to stay in any place or follow a fixed schedule. It would be in their hands. If they aren’t learning in one class, let them go to another class and explore. Students wouldn’t be required to have registered in that class or anything. I would go so far as to say students won’t be required to register for class. Attendance wouldn’t be compulsory. Students would be required to be on campus during specific hours, and during those hours, they can attend whatever classes seem interesting. If nothing appeals to them, they would be free to just hang out in the corridors and talk. It would encourage discussion and conversation, and help build community.

A fourth policy I would implement would be a regular party/social event. Maybe monthly or so, where the school would just host and run a gathering. Just get a hall, with drinks and snacks, music in the background, etc. I would do this almost as a class, part of the curriculum, perhaps (students could be required to attend a certain number of these parties before they graduate). The purpose is to allow students to interact with each other. So many people have talked about how one of the biggest advantages of college is the people you meet there. I completely agree with that, so my college would explicitly encourage and mandate that interaction.

Fifthly, and finally, a lot of this would require a very different grading system. Having no fixed classes would mean that standard exams are impractical. Students would each have a mentor who attends to them individually and helps them in their education. And they would be graded with narrative evaluations and comments from their peers and faculty, instead of letter grades. A narrative evaluation also reduces the fear of failure among students, and make it less about beating others and getting the best grades, and more about learning to the best of their ability. This isn’t exactly a new feature, but that’s definitely one thing I would have.

Of course, all these would require a very good admissions office and faculty. Students admitted would need to be self motivated. So, my admission process for students would be similar to how 37signals recruit their staff. Quantitative grades would be of low priority in admission. The majority of the admission decision will be based on qualitative things, reviews from others, the student’s past work, interviews, written essays. And of course, a quick Google search to see what they stand for, and what they are known for. As for staff and faculty, they would be required to be professionals in their field, and also go through a similar qualitative review to ensure that they will help build the community and encourage innovation and creativity among students. They have to be devoted to the students and to education.

My college would be something like that. It would be all about giving the students the opportunity to explore and the encouragement to try new things. It would be about truly being who you are and having the freedom to pursue your passions. Oh, and on that note, I would have Personal Branding courses as well, in my college.

Now, who’s willing to give me a building and/or cash to support this? Haha. If so, you can send cash via Paypal to derrickkwa@gmail.com

But on a more serious note. What about you? How would you reinvent college? What would you do to make college worth the time and money, such that you would wholeheartedly want to go there yourself, and send your kids there?

Sui Generis Weekly #1

Nov 7, 2007

Well, I announced last week that I would start a podcast soon, so here it is! You can subscribe from here. I’ll integrate the subscription into my blog as soon as possible, once I figure out the best way to do it.

Anyway, here’s the first episode of Sui Generis Weekly (yes I know it’s not the most creative name, but I couldn’t come up with anything else. If you’ve got ideas, all suggestions are welcome). It’s currently hosted on Podango because I’m having trouble uploading to Ourmedia (which is also why I didn’t manage to get it up last night as I wanted).

Covered in this podcast:
– PodCamp Boston
– Personal Branding Talk by Mitch Joel
– Google OpenSocial
– Android and the Open Handset Alliance

It’s not the best quality and I know my voice isn’t that good either, but I promise that over time, as I get more used to doing this, I’ll get better.

As mentioned in the podcast, all music was from Natalie Gelman, an awesome artist who’s definitely worth checking out.