Canadian students get a taste of liberation from southern neighbours

November 26, 1999

"Teach thyself" may become the motto of a university on Canada's west coast once it introduces five teacherless classes as part of a pilot project.

The University of British Columbia in Vancouver is launching what it calls "group-directed study" next semester. Students will design their course curriculum and lead class activities.

Neil Guppy, university associate vice-president of academic programmes, said the classes are to get students to engage each other in learning.

But Mary Russell, president of the university's faculty association, claimed the administration is using the courses as a cost-cutting measure.

The student-run seminars will be full-credit courses with professors acting only as advisers.

Classes are coordinated by a lead student who brings in guest lecturers and leads discussions. Cross-disciplinary courses are being designed to run in line with what Dr Guppy calls a "learner-centred environment" with students in charge.

Student-directed seminars are not a new concept. The University of California at Berkeley has been holding them for more than 30 years, offering credit and non-credit courses. While the courses fell out of favour in the 1970s, Berkeley professor John Hurst formalised the programme in the 1980s when he created Chataqua: A Centre for Democratic Education. Called DE-Cal, it now has more than two dozen student-

directed courses.

Stanford University also offers similar classes.

"Students want to take control of their education," said exchange student Vivian Hoffman, who designed the pilot project for British Columbia on the basis of her observation at Berkeley.

She said classes work best if students do not try to act as lecturers.

But for the staff association, Ms Russell said she did not like the fact that professors will be used as advisers but will not get a teaching credit for their work.

The university said that if the pilot project is successful, they may look at offering ten to 15 next academic year.

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