A Free University? Retired Professor Believes We Can Learn Differently

Larry Smith believes we can learn to learn differently.

The retired professor of Social Change and Ecological Economics and Southern Door County resident is preparing to launch Free University, a no-fee, no-profit, participant-driven program geared toward those who don’t fit into traditional educational models.

“It makes university education accessible to anyone with time, energy, and capacity to communicate,” he says. “It’s a social experiment grounded in noncommercial participant management.”

If you find this idea a little difficult to envision, you’re not alone.

Ten years ago I returned to college to pursue my degree at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. I was writing for this paper, coaching middle school basketball, and bartending on the weekends, all while living in Sister Bay. It made for a chaotic schedule, and squeezing a full course-load into my week was nearly impossible.

Then I found an online-only course on Sustainable Development taught by Prof. Smith. Online courses were new at UWGB at the time, and I had no idea what to expect, but it fit in and enabled me to get to 12 credits so I signed up.

What followed was a re-examination of what it meant to learn.

Traditional grades, schedules, and exams weren’t part of the class. We never met in person, communicating via email and an online forum, where we discussed selected readings, news articles, and documentaries related to the subject. It didn’t fully make sense to me, and some students openly rebelled, unable to wrap their head around the idea of a class without grades and traditional benchmarks.

But soon I found myself enthralled, as did several others. I looked forward to logging in and seeing what information others had introduced to the class, and got excited when I stumbled across something that might further a conversation. We weren’t heading down a rigid, professor-driven track, but searching for truth and ideas collectively.

Prof. Smith chimed in here and there, adding ideas and suggestions, but for the most part, we were teaching each other.

Quality, respectful participation was the goal, but it wasn’t without rigor. One couldn’t get away with simply spouting off or peppering forums with unsubstantiated claims. We were held to a higher standard than pundits and Congressmen (sadly). We actually had to back up statements with credible sourcing and data.

Prof. Smith believes this format can be refined to work for thousands of other learners, especially given the skyrocketing cost of higher education. To get a degree today one must often take on crippling debt. Smith doesn’t think it’s necessary.

Door County, he says, is the perfect place to prove that.

“Door County has long traditions of collaborative learning and a well-educated and experienced population,” Smith says. “There are hundreds of single parents, immigrants, guest workers, retirees and others with limited time and resources to support formal learning.”

Course Would Redefine Credentials

FreeU, as he dubs it, rejects “legacy, time, and treasure-intensive credentials” in favor of individually documented competence. Smith argues that this could become more credible than traditional education, “and certainly less expensive.”

How it fits into a resume remains to be determined.

“The value to students is two-fold,” Smith says. “One, they learn a lot. Two, there will be a record of their contributions to the course.”

Smith envisions a class in which students would produce peer-reviewed reports which could be published in a variety of journals or publications. Perhaps a class focused on local government could tangibly impact real-world developments.

The class would likely present a networking opportunity as well, connecting individuals of diverse ages, career paths, and experiences who may help each other as well.

But the class will not be a step toward a traditional degree one can put on a resume.

“Over time, I see this building a market, a reputation that FreeU students are special,” he says.

The First Course

Smith has scheduled two organizing sessions for the first class. One at Greens ‘N Grains March 26, another at the Sturgeon Bay Library March 2.

Free University will start with a course chosen by organizing participants. Smith’s preference is to study the Earth’s Great Lakes, as he feels that it would be particularly appropriate for Door County residents.

The course will be coordinated through a combination of email, face-to-face meetings, and either a closed Facebook group or a Wiki tool.

“There will be some structured help for the students to get into the literature,” Smith says. “I plan on essentially conducting this first course. Out of that, a program for managing Free University will develop, which will essentially serve as the university’s course catalog.”

The length of the course is yet to be determined, but Smith anticipates a 6 – 8 week session.

Smith’s idea requires at least five participants to begin, though he’s hoping 15 – 20 take the plunge. Those people will ideally not be the type seeking just one answer, he says.

“This is a course that embraces ambiguity, dialogue, and questioning,” Smith says.

Free University Information Sessions

March 26, 6 pm

Greens N’ Grains

Soup and Supper followed by discussion.

Please call 920.868.9999 to reserve your spot.

7821 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor

April 2, 6:30 pm

Jane Green Room, Sturgeon Bay Library

107 S. 4th Ave., Sturgeon Bay

For information contact [email protected]