In general, there needs to be more alternative and experimental learning communities. Such programs provide two important benefits (possibly among others).
First, such programs help explore the space of learning strategies and learning environments. Westmont serves most of its students by providing an excellent education. However, we have little reason to believe that this is because the particular approach is ideal; given the lack of exploration of alternatives, a more likely explanation is that for the most part we get very good students who are already well suited to the traditional teaching framework. Even if the traditional approach is superior to alternatives, it would be reassuring to have evidence in the form of evaluations from trials with alternatives.
Second, a small fraction of the students who come to Westmont would be more suited to an alternative or experimental approach. Such students would directly benefit from an alternative learning environment that provided more freedom and responsibility.
The traditional approach to education carries with it a number of problems. Note, these problems do not preclude an excellent and thorough education; they simply represent challenges that suggest that an alternative might prove to be more effective at developing students into the type of people we hope them to become.
The following assumptions shape my thinking about what education should be like:
Can we conceive a modest response to the above problems that would be consistent with the above principles? Most simply, a group of faculty and students could gather regularly to think. Not to teach. Not explicitly to learn (although we would certainly hope and expect learning to take place). Simply to think and to try to think better by talking.
This could take on multiple forms. I could imagine any or all of the following as serving these purposes:
Open questions include but are not limited to: How to select students and faculty to participate? What form of reward (if any) should be provided to students and faculty, respectively? What form of penalty (if any) should be applied if students or faculty fail to live up to expectations?
What is it that we want for ourselves and our students? Westmont has a set of broad-based outcomes desired for its graduates. The success of an alternative learning group would be established if, for one or more of those outcomes, students demonstrate superior abilities (relative to students following the traditional program). In particular, I expect that an alternative program along the lines of what I'm imagining would tend to develop people (students) who are life-long learners and who demonstrate an enhanced ability to articulate what they are learning and why. Such people might also be better prepared to face the real-world problems they will encounter throughout the rest of their lives. But as an experimental alternative to learning, we may be satisfied if the approach does not deliver superior levels of performance but ‘merely’ serves students who otherwise fall through the cracks of the traditional system.
I don't know -- I need your help. If we want to do anything more than a super-read-and-feed, we need a physical space to serve as a center of gravity and perhaps some administrative support in the form of course release.
In order for an ethos of self-directed and self-motivated learning to take root and flourish, there needs to be a physical space that can become ‘home’ for faculty and student participants. In principle, our desired outcomes can come about without a dedicated physical space but in practice, they probably will not.
The other need -- support from the institution -- might not be as critical but will certainly be helpful. We might find several faculty willing to dedicate the time needed to advise students purely for the fun of it. However, the stability of the effort will be put at risk when the participating faculty become over-subscribed at random points of the semester.