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Self-directed learning at The Alternative University

How students in Romania have developed a new kind of university designed around freedom

The Alternative University was founded in 2008 by five students from Politehnica University of Bucharest who, frustrated with the education system, decided to create a university centred around an autonomous learning experience for students who wanted to make an impact in the world.

“The Alternative University is a platform for seeding freedom-centred learning and work in Romania. We strongly believe in the freedom of every human being to choose for themselves and make their own decisions about life. We believe this is the way one can have a fulfilling life and can positively impact those around him through his work.”

– Cristina Cristea, CEO

Back in November, I visited The Alternative University and even on a Saturday the building was packed with students and budding entrepreneurs, buzzing with excitement. Here’s what I learnt. There are four components of The Alternative University’s educational model:

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Let’s look at these four elements in more detail.

At the heart of this educational model is the needs of the student. Unlike traditional universities, students can choose and propose what and how they learn. At The Alternative University, students elect modules to study along a four-stage development route: Self-knowledge, Active exploration, Projects, and Transition.

Recognising that most students come from traditional schools where self-directed learning is not the norm, The Alternative University has designed ways to support students in exercising this new independence and authority:

Learning to learn — in this course students learn about different styles of learning, tools to help them be effective self-directed learners, how to set goals and how to devise personal strategies for learning. When I visited, students were exploring ideas such as the habit loop from one of my favourite books, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

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Students’ notes from their learning to learn session

Coaching — every student is appointed an accredited coach, many of whom are alumni from The Alternative University, to support them in setting and achieving their learning goals.

Badges — students can earn badges (or ‘micro-certificates’) by prepare a portfolio of projects, activities and testimonials related to a particular area which they present to a board of professionals to be assessed. Examples of badges are “Volunteer legacy”, “Self-directed learner”, “Collaborator” and the super “Alternative” badge for those who achieve all seven.

Life skills — in addition to self-directed learning, students also take part in workshops, courses and meetings on four other personal skills: collaboration, communication and personal brand, critical thinking and habits and lifestyle.

Our brains are wired to be social and we learn best when we learn in social ways. It’s not surprising, then, that community is an important tenet of The Alternative University. As the university evolved, students have established learning communities which support and inspire individuals interested in particular topics. At present, there are four: Incubatorul de Afaceri (entrepreneurship), New Media School (communication and media), .edu (education), and SyncerSchool (management).

Students also gather once a year for a summer camp which organises days of activities around the university’s values of Collaborating, Kindness, Playing, Learning and Freedom.

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A speaker sharing her insights on one of The Alternative University’s Learning Days

Students develop skills through courses, workshops and training, mentoring and various other forms of learning. Instead of full-time lecturers, they learn from invited experts and entrepreneurs, and of course from each other.

In addition to the skills developed, students also participate in the brilliant Rent-a-Team initiative. The university partners with organisations to bridge the gap between companies with a skills or resources gap and students who want hands-on project work experience. Students are also encouraged to start businesses and NGOs as part of their studies — at present 21 have been launched by Alternative students. There’s a beautiful ecosystem at The Alternative University of graduates developing businesses and returning to share their knowledge and expertise with current students. One of the founders is currently travelling the world gathering stories of alternative educational models to compile in a book. Another graduate has set up Learnity, the first organisation that will apply The Alternative University’s educational model to high schools.

In 2014, The Alternative University became the first educational organisation to make WorldBlu’s list of Freedom Centred Workplaces.

The principles of freedom and equality are transferred further from the service we deliver to our students to the working environment. We do not consider ourselves a team of employees, but a team of entrepreneurs where each of us is equally involved in taking strategic decisions, where each of us can make his daily schedule. We believe it is the best way to keep us all engaged and productive without limits or constraints.
– Cristina Cristea, CEO

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The Alternative University has a number of corporate sponsors and partners who help subsidise the cost of students’ fees and provide resources such as loaning free books for the student library. As the university grows and matures, partners are putting more pressure on the institution to recruit a larger number of students and demonstrate that the startups incubated there are profitable. And whilst some organisations have come to value the initiative and maturity of Alternative University graduates, many more traditional companies are overlooking them in favour of alumni from more established universities.

It’s still early days and the university continues to evolve. They’ve recently moved from the dilapidated but well-loved Learning House to new premises. Many of the spin-off projects such as Learnity are still very young so it’s too soon to tell how those will fare but as more people graduate, more success stories are emerging.

My tour guides Ana Marica, Catalina and Horatiu told me they had all dropped out of conventional masters degrees before enrolling in The Alternative University. “We are the failures of the public education system,” they said — traditional degrees left them bored and uninspired. At The Alternative University, they were given the freedom to thrive and direct their own learning. Today, Ana Marica and Catalina work for 90 Digital as Head of Talent and Head of People Operations respectively. Their Twitter handle is Digital Romads (a play on the word ‘nomad’ and ‘Romanian’) because they have no permanent location and work from co-working spaces all over the world, from Portugal to Bali. Horatiu is Global Managing Director for Seedstars Academy, a program dedicated to empowering digital change makers to build companies tackling critical issues in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

I’ve long believed that if we are going to reinvent work, we need to reinvent education too. Education should be about lighting fires, not filling buckets and the more autonomy and authority we give to young people, the better equipped they’ll be for a fast-paced, rapidly changing business landscape.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like to follow me on Twitter via @disruptandlearn or check out my blogs on LinkedIn.

Written by

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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