The winner of the Battle of Concepts is Delano Keuter. This Master’s student of Electrical Engineering at the University of Twente beat the competition with his concept for a SURF Online Learning environment (SOL). Delano’s story is an excellent example of customised education, on which he will be conducting a session at the Dé Onderwijsdagen conference on 10 November.
Delano’s idea tackles the question of: How can ICT be used to personalise higher education? His answer – in the form of the SURF Online Learning environment (or ‘SOL’) – offers a vision of the future of studying and the education system in the Netherlands. This blog is based on discussions with Delano Keuter, Lieke Rensink (SURFnet) and Alexander Blanc (SURFnet).
What is the idea behind SOL?
In Delano’s concept, higher education institutions would narrow their focus to solely developing content – their area of expertise. Organisational and practical matters would be left to the SOL. Students would be members of the SOL, where they could select the subjects in which they want to be certified. Instead of completing a specific set programme, you pick and choose your own curriculum. And it wouldn’t matter any longer whether that subject is taught at institution A or institution B: an SOL student is free to source their knowledge anywhere.
Master’s to measure
In Delano’s case, the Master’s programme he wanted – a combination of engineering and arts and music – simply didn’t exist in the Netherlands. So he designed his own. And with his examination board’s approval, his curriculum was good to go! Putting it into practice sometimes proved tricky however. Among other things, the timetables couldn’t possibly accommodate his combination of courses, leading to occasional overlaps and problems working on collaborative projects. As a consequence, Delano had to do much of it online and through independent study.
Changing the education system
Delano’s vision is based on personal experience and is an example of customised education. But factual implementation of his concept may require some massive changes to our existing education system. For institutions, his vision could represent a savings in costs as it would eliminate a large share of their administrative tasks and enable them to concentrate purely on knowledge development. Yet what would it mean for the current system of funding, under which institutions receive a set sum for each student that graduates? With a pay-as-you-go system for courses, higher education would suddenly be completely accessible! But what if students then all decided they only wanted to take a certain course at the University of Groningen? Would that hurt the reputation of departments elsewhere? And how would Groningen handle the capacity issues that would inevitably arise around exams and student advisement? Obviously, these are questions that would require further deliberation in order to uphold standards of quality. As students do more of their learning online, studying will become less tied to particular locations. At the same time, it demands more personal initiative and perseverance from students. Their focus then shifts to the learning process itself; whether you pick route A or route B no longer matters, it’s whether you make the grade that counts!
Where to start?
For Delano, designing his own curriculum made it easier to figure out what he wanted to do after his studies. Supporting students in that search and teaching them to think outside the box could be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, not everyone has the freedom to pick and mix their Master’s subjects this way.
Adding electives to an existing Master’s
Delano says that he could also have opted for an existing Master’s programme, as they often incorporate a substantial amount of freedom to choose different courses, which can then be supplemented with additional electives. The thought and logistics that go into designing a complete, customised Master’s curriculum can in itself already help students to think more carefully about career possibilities and their ideal future.
Open education and MOOCs
Another possible starting point is open education and MOOCs. If all existing MOOCs were to be made available via a single platform, students could easily find and take online courses. All MOOCs included could then be given a designation of quality, or – better yet – some form of official certification.
Electives at different institutions
Yet another option would be to develop an easy means for students to take courses at various institutions, for instance to fulfil their programme’s elective requirement. At present, taking a course at another institution is very difficult due to:
1. the complexity of the registration process and
2. the question of whether your own institution will actually award the full credits.
What Delano didn’t know, is that a similar concept already exists: the custom-choice platform Kies op maat (https://www.kiesopmaat.nl/). So there are still plenty of gains to be made here.
Student life flies by, so how can we help students to think about how they spend their time at university and what they study? Delano is an ambitious pioneer and would have appreciated a hybrid form of study – the possibility to shape or complete a programme in his own way, without being bound to follow route A or route B, as long as he made the final grade! Let’s get to work to make this possible.
If you have ideas you’d like to share or any questions about this blog, visit Dé Onderwijsdagen on 10 November and visit Delano’s special session on designing your own Master’s programme <in Dutch>.