27 January, 2011

The Graz block courses

One more exam and I'll be finished with all my winter semester courses here in Graz. Levels of difficulty of the courses have ranged from a joke to one of the hardest things I've done. I have to say that the railroad design course, with its 500 pages of German material, an oral exam and a ~100h project work - for which I had to learn AutoCAD - was the benchmark in the latter section. At the other end of the scale would be some of the block courses I've attended.

A block course is something I've only got accustomed to in here. Usually it's a three-day course from 9 to 17, followed by an exam a week later. These courses generally have a small amount of theoretical content supported by several group assignments completed at the lectures. Usually the course has a maximum of 25 students, as these group assignments are generally presented in class, and any more students would make the concept impossible. The key is that the assignments should arouse new points of view in the students and hence help to create a culture of discussion. Success rates have varied from course to course.

The joke for me is that I usually get 3 ECTS for a course like this, and even with all my good faith could I defend the proposition that such a course is worth all those credits. But still, for an Erasmus it's a good way to hog up credits and save time for travelling! Despite its uses, the above is not the only (or even the main) reason why I enjoy such courses. It is the fact that it's possible to get really into something, even just for a couple of days. And I've enjoyed thoroughly the discussions with students and professors that I've had, both in and out of class.

I've toyed with the idea of incorporating similar courses in the Finnish system. Replacing any mandatory courses with block would not work, but maybe in the Master phase these could be used to provide some basics especially to minor subject students. In my experience sometimes people just have to work way too much on minor subject courses in comparison to their interest level. Surely it would be best for all to be able to concentrate on what really drives them.

Another option would be to have small courses that try to give light to a certain viewpoint or methodology to have such courses. Especially it could work for contemporary topics, or topics which still lack enough scientific background research to be included in the present day course books. I'm sure that in Aalto we have enough skills to know what those kinds of topics are.

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