customized degree programs - individual courses of studies

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andreas reichelt

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Mar 17, 2010, 7:34:45 PM3/17/10
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dear all,

as some of you know, nicole and I created our own study program / curriculum
(which we called mind, brain, behavior) and helped a few others to do
something similar.

since there was some interest in customized degree programs / individual
course of studies

> - documenting attempts (successful or failed) towards democratic higher ed. (e.g. customized degree programs
> there were a few ideas though, such as documenting attempts (successful or failed) towards democratic higher ed. such as customized degree programs (which - correct me if I got this wrong, Andreas R. - Austrian law says are a possibility but are often bureaucratic nightmares)

I'll try to briefly sketch the situation in Austria and our experience with
studying such a program (yes, this really is a brief outline of this topic ;-)


-> legal situation

Austrian University Law states that students have the right to propose an
individual course of studies based on courses from established degree
programs. The university will in practice accept your individual program if
you can get all the administrators of the study programs you took courses in
to sign off on your proposal (and provided it meets certain formal criteria)

One then obtain permission to study the program as one would any established
one. In principle this works on a case-by-case basis, that is, anyone else
wanting to study a similar program needs to go trough all of the same hoops;
although in practice "precedence" may help somewhat. Therefore, there are
very few people who 1. know about this option and 2. are prepared to put up
with the bureaucracy and risk of rejection involved.

[There are some almost-regular study programs which are not yet accredited
and make use the status of individual studies (some of them have hundreds of
students). However, there is usually a core curriculum which one needs to
follow - acceptance for these not-quite-individual programs is guaranteed
and fast.]


-> the system in practice

It is of course completely impossible to know in advance how one's
curriculum will look like or even what courses will be offered in a couple
of years. Most people have originally begun studying one or two established
programs and became dissatisfied for some reason. I was unusual in that I
knew all along that this is what I wanted to do, and enrolled in a number of
relevant programs and created my curriculum as I went along (getting
official financial support for one of the stand-in study programs can be
difficult...)

At some point about halfway through the program it is time to begin working
on the proposal and testing the waters with the study program
administrators, who will likely require some of their pet courses to be
included (but can sometimes be talked out of it if one has the stamina ;-).
This way one does not commit oneself to take specific courses - we simply
list the ones we have already completed, or at least have begun or know very
well. This still leaves enough time to clear the bureaucratic hurdles,
unless too many things go wrong simultaneously...

Unofficially, the relevant bureaucrats know very well that people who
propose a individual course of studies have likely finished much of it
already by the time they ask for permission.

For me, at least, the freedom provided by this arrangement (I had zero
compulsory courses in my whole university studies) was not the original
motivation behind the crazy idea of doing an individual degree. I started it
mainly because the kind of interdisciplinary program we wanted simply did
not exist here, but the component parts did. Along the way I realized that
regular students had much less of the kind of personal and intellectual
freedom I had, and only much later learned about democratic schools which
are broadly similar at least in terms of the culture of self-directed learning.

-> freedom on the top level

The kind of freedom one enjoys as an individual degree student is mainly the
freedom to choose one's own courses. (In a specific course, one has the same
freedom as anybody else, although in practice one may be more inlined to be
assertive and inventive...)

In this sense, an individual degree is somewhat reminiscent of the classic
(German) university model where one can almost freely choose courses from a
large catalog (similar systems exist in some programs in ivy league unis in
the states).

This means one can take advantage of the courses offered (which translates
into a natural interest in exploring every inch of the universities) and
there is ample freedom to make mistakes (say, take statistics classes too
late). This is the biggest contrast to regular studies, where students learn
statistics before they actually understand what they need it for. In
addition, one is not shielded from the general fragmentation and cultural
differences in academia and soon realizes that the different disciplines do
not live up to the basic academic standards cherished by the other
disciplines... (and you may be expected to live up to all of them, of course...)

In a nutshell, individual students develop the ability to evaluate courses
and to pick out and complete the ones that get them somewhere.

-> individual study culture: the need for a community

The biggest difficulty in being a "nomad" is to grow into the existing
communities which takes a lot of time and effort, especially because it is
hard to commit the time required to achieve acceptance in any particular
disciplinary culture... on the other hand, the process of socialization is
much more explicit, as are the rituals and "rites of passage" of a specific
discipline (taking anthropology classes helps as well ;-)

Orienting oneself, finding out about relevant courses and, more importantly,
finding interesting people is difficult enough, mastering the cultural
peculiarities is quite impossible on one's own. We had to create our own
small community which was difficult but highly rewarding. Lots of time went
into organizing meetings and talking about opportunities and challenges
throughout the universities... the time spent organizing the student club is
not officially part of our studies, though...

This is perhaps the biggest differences to democratic schools where there
are lots of kindred people, infrastructure, and time... ;-)


The difficulty in finding a community and sense of academic identity was one
of the reasons we pushed towards institutionalization. We were part of a
small team of mainly students and a professor which co-developed and
established a regular Master's program. While there is still some room to
choose (even customize) courses in the program, much of the original culture
is lost, and is increasingly replaced by the new student-as-consumer-culture...


-> the situation today

because of the "voluntary" switch to the Bologna-system, the situation is
now a bit more complex... while it is possible to do an individual bachelor
and, more likely, an individual master based on an established bachelor, the
time to apply and get accepted is much reduced which makes the whole process
much harder and riskier (we applied for diploma programs which are equal in
length to a combined bachelor + master)

Moreover, while we encountered a lot of problems in getting admitted to the
relevant courses (especially laboratory courses) these problems have now
become ubiquitous. In general, the courses of a given study program are now
much less open to people who study a different one, and far fewer students
ever leave their department... while we often could get into a course via
personal contacts to lecturers, this has been made more difficult because of
stupid electronic systems which make it difficult to admit and give credits
to students who do not formally qualify for a course...


-> ... and now for something completely different

Interestingly enough, in its previous incarnation (studium irregulare) a
proposal for an individual study plan had to include a written statement
demonstrating that the combination of academic disciplines makes sense.

In its current form, the law no longer requires a proposal to make sense but
they now want a qualification profile... This is a particularly clear
manifestation of the creeping economization of university education which
has intensified in recent years...


that's about it I guess... kind regards and good night,
andreas


Michael Sappir

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Mar 20, 2010, 10:32:08 AM3/20/10
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Thanks so much, Andreas. This was a fascinating read. Also a little sad towards the end.
When I was trying to decide where to go study, I was thinking of Germany and of the United States as possible places to go. One of the reasons I chose Germany in the end is that I heard about the wonderful system they had here before the BA/MA Bologna baloney, and it sounded like a really great opportunity to explore different areas. It's taking me a while to really realize how much it has changed, but I do feel it very acutely every time it's testing season...

Anyway, would you consider writing a short article about your experience? It could just be a more article-like version of the text you wrote here. We could put it on the website and/or in the Bulletin and Newsletter. I think it would be of a lot of interest to many people.

michael





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