Why Summer Schools?
Summer as a time for learning
On Monday 30 June 1947 the one-time warship Marine Jumper sailed from New York harbour with 800 students on board bound for different summer schools in Europe. 221 of them were heading for Oslo and the first summer school for American students organised by the University of Oslo. The summer school was an enormous success, and this summer it is ready for its 70th session. Up through the years more than 30,000 students from approximately 150 countries have spent six hectic summer weeks at the International Summer School, which has been the name of the school since 1958. Here they have studied Norwegian language, culture and society, as well as subjects such as peace research, human rights, international health, gender and equality, arctic studies, energy and sustainable development.
For many of these students, the time at the ISS has been a watershed, both academically and on the interpersonal level. This is primarily because the teaching is interwoven in a holistic programme, which also comprises cultural events, excursions, and for most of the students, also sharing rooms at Blindern Dormitory. This creates an excellent learning environment. Students thrive, and that is reflected in their academic achievements. Almost 100% of them fulfil all course requirements, and can go back home with academic credits in their luggage. So there were good reasons for awarding the University of Oslo Prize for Excellent Learning Environment to the ISS in 2009.
Summer schools in an international perspective
In Norway there is no tradition for going to school and studying in the summer. Summer is a time for holiday and summer jobs. In many countries it is not like this. Several American universities run summer semesters, both for their own students and for high school pupils, a tradition that started at Harvard as early as 1871. In Britain Oxford established its summer school in 1910 and Cambridge in 1923, offering programmes both for British and overseas students. On the continent summer schools have not been that common, but in recent years well reputed programmes have been established, e.g. at Copenhagen Business School and Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In Norway summer schools have also gained ground, not only at the University of Oslo. Today we find summer schools at the universities of Bergen and Agder, at the university colleges in Southeastern Norway and Oslo/Akershus, and at the Norwegian Business School, with international students as their primary target group. The summer school idea has also caught on in other parts of the education sector; the stunning success of the summer school for primary school pupils in Oslo is a very good example.
Why summer school?
One might ask what makes the summer school concept such an ideal and successful arena for learning.
Part of the secret lies in the possibilities for academic concentration that it opens up for through so-called block teaching, where students work with only one subject in a condensed and limited study period. Block teaching can of course also be practised in the regular semesters, but in summer schools it is the norm. Knowledge is rooted in a special way when students meet for lectures and seminars every day. They are immersed in the material and are not distracted by other activities or duties. Not least, language studies are efficient when you are immersed in the language through conversation and writing exercises on a daily basis. It is a question of sink or swim, and most students manage to keep their head above the surface and find that the intensive teaching and training keeps them afloat.
Something else that characterizes summer teaching is the integration of theory and field studies in the learning process. This is also something that can be done in any teaching context, but in a summer school it is the rule rather than the exception. When you are in Oslo, you do not sit and read about Munch’s art in a textbook in a classroom. No, of course you study it in front of his paintings, in the Munch Museum or the National Gallery. A good summer school should be built around a profile that highlights the place or the institution where it is located. Why come to Oslo to attend a summer school? If the motivation is interest in Norwegian language and culture, it goes without saying that it is the ideal place. But also subjects that are not directly linked to Norwegian issues should reflect something characteristic of the place or institution. It makes sense to study peace research in the city where the Nobel Institute is located and the Nobel Peace Prize is presented every year. It is attractive to study Arctic issues at the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics, one of the centres of excellence at the University of Oslo.
A summer school furthermore represents an opportunity to gather students from countries and milieus, e.g. in America and Asia, that prefer to send their students abroad in the summer rather than in the regular semesters. In many cases a Norwegian university can appear as a more attractive collaboration partner if it can offer a summer school as one of its programme options. A summer school can also be an ideal study programme for students from universities in parts of the world with which a university does not have many bilateral agreements, e.g. in Africa or Eurasia.
The dynamics of summer schools
What gives a summer school a special dynamic, is that students voluntarily choose this study option based on a feeling of extra energy and an intensive wish to learn more and to learn something new, during a period of time when they could have enjoyed sparetime and holiday. When their fellow students in addition, come from some 100 nations, as is the case at the ISS, it opens up for a unique learning environment which makes studying fun and exciting. The many extracurricular activities also contribute to this, whether they are cultural events or excursions. It is really not correct to call them extracurricular activities, for learning happens all the time, not only in lectures or seminars.
Summer is therefore a perfect arena for learning, and it should be used and developed even more actively and creatively, both in higher education and other sectors of the educational system.