Home > cultural commentary, education, learning, training > Cafes and munches – a new strategy for education outside traditional structures?

Cafes and munches – a new strategy for education outside traditional structures?

This is really just a brief note. The higher education sector in the UK is going through a period of more than usual austerity, and the funding of universties is about to be substantially shifted to students who will later be are faced with massively increased student loan debts.

In the face of this, part-time distance learning degrees may well become a much more viable, thinkable option for many intending students. It’s not exactly a ‘study at your own pace’ and ‘pay as you go’ model these days, because once you commit, you may be expected to complete a module within a defined period of time and complete your degree within a specified time period. That said, a degree that can be completed while working and where study materials can be delivered online may be attractive for many people.

Distance learning degrees these days aren’t the solitary pursuit they were in the past. There are online discussion forums, tutors available by email, phone and Skype, webinars, and in some cases even lab situations can be recreated in Second Life.

The book situation is easier as well, in the UK at least. Institutions offering degrees should have facilities enabling access to journals via ATHENS, and inter-library arrangements enabling students at any one institution to visit university libraries elsewhere. As many books go online, university libraries are making arrangements for online access to them. Though Google Ebooks is still in its infancy, Amazon, Alibris and other portals enable buyers and sellers of secondhand print books to connect.

What’s missing from all this is face to face human contact. And that may be the key factor that remains a barrier to distance learning. Places like the Open University have for years – decades, even – solved this by running summer schools, but if you’ve got a job and a family that’s a hell of a commitment.

There are halfway houses, though as far as I know distance learning providers thus far haven’t experimented with them or explored their possibilities.

One is the idea of the ‘munch’. Munches – informal meetings in pubs or cafes – started in the US, where they were a way for computer geeks with broadly similar interests to know that at a particular time and place every week or month, people like them would be hanging out. Just about every subculture and specialty interest you can think of has, or has had, its own set of munches, meets, moots, gatherings, community evenings, or whatever name the particular subculture wants to apply. They’re informal: one or two organisers who will show up regularly and maintain a discussion group on a social networking site, and maybe some regulars who become sociability stars, paying specific attention to new attendees and performing a ‘meet and greet’ function. For those in distance learning, the likelihood that they’d find someone else studying the same programme as them in the same place is perhaps quite low, but the likelihood they’ll find others facing the same issues and questions is high – and the simple fact of knowing that there are other people around them who are also involved in the same activity is often a support in itself.

Another is the idea of the informal university. When I was a student, which is now some years in the past, there were spasmodic, occasional ‘pub universities’ in which someone or some group made an informal arrangement to run a seminar series in the back room of a pub. It was, perhaps, the French who developed this idea most fully with the Café Scientifique and Café Culturel (NB these are UK sites and the latter is a link to one near me – there doesn’t seem to be a specific national website for Cafe Culturel that works. But here’s a regional one for the northeast of England). These run, not just in France but the UK and many other places as well, and usually comprise a seminar series run in a café once a month. Often the scientifique and culturel – and maybe philosophique and politique as well – are run by the same group of people at the same place, at different times.

There are two places near me that run such events though they seem at the moment not to be as well publicised as I think they should be. In fact there appear to be around 60 running up and down the UK at the moment. Many of the speakers are invited lecturers from local universities, and often the topics are those of current interest that have attracted some media attention. Again, where these exist they’d be an ideal place for distance learning students to plug into and meet people who, again, may not have precisely the same interests as them but would certainly be able to hold up their end of an academic conversation and be interested in what other academics/students are doing.

So what can I say? While these types of events, whether munches or cafes, have historically been dependant on individuals taking informal initiatives, maybe round about now, when more traditional education is feeling the pinch, is the time for distance learning providers to put a bit of institutional support behind these things. They’re largely run at already-existing venues, glad to support them because they bring in people who buy drinks and food. Their expenses are covered from a small entrance fee, and they’re run by volunteers. What they need, really, is simply public statements of support, advertising on student materials and institutional websites, and maybe a little seedcorn money or expenses for volunteers would come in handy. The return might even be better support for existing students and maybe even some new ones. How about it?

  1. April 9, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Interesting article. One point that more people should be made aware of, is how many universities are at least partly the product of Trade Union colleges (set up to educate the sons and daughters of the workers). The people whose hard-earned cash went to build these institutions, now find they have been seized from their children and given over to middle class kids at £9,000 a year. An utter outrage.

    • April 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm

      Yes, there was some TU involvement in some cases – also of course philanthropists from the 1800s who often had an outlook that today we seem to find alien, of an egalitarian and almost socialist world-view held by businessmen who used part of their profits to fund philanthropic works as a form of egalitarian, long term self-interest. I blogged recently about the Masked Booksellers, who were another example of the same phenomenon.

      There’s still TU involvement in a few cases – of course the Workers’ Educational Association (http://www.wea.org.uk/) still exists, as does Rewley House in Oxford which was formed as a partnership between Oxford University and the WEA (it has since become the university’s Department of Continuing Education).

      Alas, universities have found themselves having to operate almost exactly like commercial corporate bodies and despite claims about how students from poorer backgrounds will be offered assistance, I fear the worst.

  2. April 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    This sounds wonderful. Naturally, the buisness owner would want the munches to be held at a time when the cafe’s sales are slow, so as not to ‘compete’ with their regular customers.

    And I’m wondering about students who live too far away to compute to a munch. Could the session be recorded??? Maybe, even YouTubed??

    In response to ‘floppy,’ here in America we have a program called No Child Left Behind. This sounds like a noble idea, but in reality here’s how it works: Classes are slowed down to the level of the dumbest kid in the room. Now, we have students graduating high school who can’t run a cash register that doesn’t tell them how much change to give back, let alone go to college. Sometimes I mess with them by handing them a few odd coins after they’ve rung up my purchase. I watch their faces go slack.

    When I get really paranoid, I wonder if the government is intentionally trying to dumb-down a whole generation.

    Sorry, Jon. I’m derailing your post again.

    • April 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm

      I think the usual deal with these kinds of gatherings, whether Cafe Scientifique or your local science fiction appreciation society, is that they run on something like a Monday or Tuesday night when a bar wouldn’t expect a lot of regular trade – I’d add that local to me, a poetry live performance event recently started on a Monday night and the pub suddenly found it got well over 100 people through its doors on what would otherwise have been a dead night. On a side-track, I get the impression live poetry has suddenly become the new big thing on the cultural front.

      The idea of munch-type events isn’t necessarily that it’s a seminar but a lot of one-to-one interaction. But certainly Cafe Scientifique type things could be Youtubed. In fact I’ve just been to Youtube and discovered a lot of them are, from at least half a dozen different Cafes around the world. It wouldn’t surprise me if even more are on iTunes as podcasts. So you could see that as a ‘proof of concept’ – a lot of stuff is already out there and freely available.

      Just in relation to your last point, I don’t for a moment think governments are intentionally trying to dumb down a generation but it does seem to me it’s been the unintended consequence of a lot of educational policies and organisational shifts, including, in higher education, the whole ‘modularisation’ thing which actively discourages students making connections between areas of knowledge. The original idea of it was to make movement between courses and institutions easier because individual modules would all have some defined equivalence – but I’d be interested to know whether, in hindsight, that was either desirable or even widely used by students. The difficulty is, of course, that nobody is now going to dismantle the modular structures that took much effort to put in place but equally, trying to work with it to achieve integration of student knowledge – broadly speaking, the ‘academic fluency’ that was regarded as a key outcome of studying when I was a student – is extremely difficult and almost has to happen outside and beyond formal study.

  3. April 10, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Hun? You went all academic on me.

    Yes, there are grumblings in American that the ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy has ruined the education system.

    I have gone to college as a regular student, and I have audited classes. I dare to say that I learned more and enjoyed the audited classes by astounding margins. While auditing, I was not there for a grade, a degree or a diploma. Learning in its simplest form is listening.

    I might also add that I learned more about medicine just by watching and listening to doctors talk to each other than I ever did in class.

    Anyway, I’m all for a munch. I have big ears and I like beer.

    • April 10, 2011 at 4:12 pm

      Am I showing my biases? I work mainly in the higher education/adult training sector (when I’m not writing fiction). But I’m sure the policy issues have parallels all the way through the education sector, like the No Child Left Behind policy you refer to.

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