Alternative Education
by Karina Hanney Marrero

Two general currents of ‘alternative education’ strike me as immediately identifiable. On one hand, there are educational forums that earn the title ‘alternative’ for their adoption of experimental teaching methods, emphasizing participation but throwing away tests and marking in favour of open-ended learning outcomes. On the other hand, there are forums that tackle controversial topics and present unorthodox perspectives, yet are delivered through entirely traditional education methods, such as lectures, seminars, etc. These forums may exist within mainstream educational institutions and deliver degrees and certificates, even if intellectually they run against the grain of mainstream education.

While mainstream pedagogical approaches — with their emphasis on quantifiable knowledge and rigorous testing — can appeal to state education policies in their claim to legitimacy, important international NGOs are giving increasing credence to the value of alternative education, or at least some certain of its associated methods. One such group is the Organisation for European Economic Development (OECD), who describe their general aim as ‘to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.’1 Not afraid of challenging conventional wisdom on pedagogical matters, they offer a forum where governments can work together, sharing experiences and seeking solutions to common problems.2 The OECD’s scheme of ‘Recognition of formal and non-formal learning’ is accessible on the homepage, and lists factors for formal, informal and non-formal learning or ‘life long learning’. It states3:


Such a schema offers a useful outline of learning that falls outside the narrow purview of marking and testing that so preoccupies the educational system. However, as the scheme also touches on, the question of how to evaluate non-formal learning outcomes remains controversial. As a partial solution, the OECD goes on to suggest that: ‘[w]hether through the awarding of a full certification, a partial certification, a right of access to the higher education system or to any programme in the formal lifelong learning system or any recognised document (portfolio of competences, competence passport…): this activity makes the case that individuals engaging in a recognition process for their non-formal and informal learning outcomes must be awarded a document that has social value and is widely recognised so that they can benefit from it, now or later in life, when returning to the formal lifelong learning system or to the labour market.’4 This recognition system not only assists in evaluating students who acquire knowledge obtained by non-formal education, it creates an opportunity for members of marginal communities who have not had the opportunity to follow the traditional education path to share their knowledge and/or have their competence evaluated in the same fruitful manner.

OECD’s orientation resonates with the trend of free-choice learning through ‘personal mind mapping’ within museum studies. ‘Personal meaning mapping (PMM) is designed to measure how a specified learning experience uniquely affects each individual’s understanding or meaning-making process. It does not assume that all learners enter with comparable knowledge and experience, nor does it require that an individual produce a specific ‘right’ answer in order to demonstrate learning PMM, free-choice and lifelong learning alike can be viewed as an attempt in which alternative education seeks to adapt to the students field of interest instead of imposing the subject of matter. This educational flux assists in reconfiguring the formal education system by offering a more democratic approach in education. For interest, I’ve listed below are few organisations that focus on delivering free alternative education, in both senses of the term I’ve suggested.

the silent universityThe Silent University6 utilises a the traditional academic framework, lectures, seminars etc., as means to explore issues regarding immigrants and asylum seekers. But despite choosing their formal approach the topic at issue can be viewed as non-formal and related to the ideology of personal mind mapping featuring first hand entry point to the matter of immigration and asylum seekers.

More info at: http://thesilentuniversity.org/


220px-The_new_schoolThe New School in New York was founded by Charles Beard, John Dewey, James Harvey Robinson, and Thorstein Veblen in 1919 with a clear aim ‘to defy the intellectual constraints of traditional college education.’7 ‘Frustrated by the intellectual timidity of traditional colleges, they envisioned a new kind of academic institution where faculty and students would be free to address honestly and directly the problems facing societies in the 20th century. … They created a school of advanced adult education to bring creative scholars together with citizens interested in improving their understanding of the key issues of the day through active questioning, debate, and discussion.’8 The establishment of the New School took the notion of alternative education a step further, not only offering temporary singular courses for alternative topics but permanently instituting a school of higher education.

More info at: http://www.newschool.edu/


logo_iversityIn recent years online education has expanded, utilising the internets quality of sharing, accessing and distributing information within education. The iversity and the Open University, initially titled The University of the Air which strongly resonates with the digital data Clouds of today, offered a new type of learning, enabling people to develop their knowledge globally from the comfort for their own homes, offices or studios. These educational platforms, even though established and institutionalised, position themselves outside of the traditional setting of the educational lodging thus emphasising that educational ‘work is something you do rather than somewhere you go.’9 Although still focused on making a platform for established teachers to develop courses, this digital addition can be regarded as an educational ping10 which can be traced to an alternative educational source. Wanting to move beyond the existing teaching formats, enabling wholly new forms of teaching and learning, and developing new strands of open courses developed by individual instructors can be considered a step towards democratising education.

Open-uni-460x276Although still very much under development in the UK the digital educational environments have been seen to have their disadvantages. In an interview about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) with the Today program on BBC Radio 4, Cambridge University professor Mary Bead states: ‘I think there is a danger, you know its early days yet, there is a danger that what we will do is create a new division between the privileged few who actually get to meet their professors, listen to their lectures, who argue with them, who have their exams marked by their professors. And on the other hand the unprivileged mass, who just see some star professor on the internet, have an internet chatroom to go to, and have a computer marked assignment.’

Thus the advantage of online education being free, open for all consequently constitutes to its downfall for these same reasons,  thus making a deeper division between the students that can afford education and those who relay on open source, free online education. The ‘rich kids get taught by a professor and the poor kids get taught by computers.’12 Despite of this drawback, online education has great advantages and potential, enabling knowledge production with in various fields by using alternative methods.

More on iversity info at: http://www.open.ac.uk/

More on Open University info at: http://www.open.ac.uk/

Alternative education should be regarded as an addition within education instead of a substitute, moving away from the constant dualistic of either or. Evaluating non-formal education is of great importance, and the OECD scheme offers an adequate guideline for recognising its personal and professional effect. The examples given above outline the opportunities as well as the problems that can emerge when trying to reconfigure the traditional educational framework.

1http://www.oecd.org/about/ (11.3.2014)

2Ibid (11.3.2014)

3http://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/recognitionofnon-formalandinformallearning-home.htm (11.3.2014)

4http://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/recognitionofnon-formalandinformallearning-home.htm (11.3.2014)

5MacDonald, Sharon. 2011. A Companion to Museum Studies ‘Living in a Learning Society: Museums and Free-Choice Learning’ pp. 333.

6http://thesilentuniversity.org/ (11.3.2014)

7http://www.newschool.edu/about/ (14.3.2014)

8http://www.newschool.edu/about/history/ (14.3.2014)

9http://un.iversity.org/pages/about (14.3.2014)

10Oxford online dictionary: Computing Query (another computer on a network) to determine whether there is a connection to it.

11http://un.iversity.org/pages/about (14.3.2014)

12 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26431790 (15.3.2014)

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