Meetups Are the New Universities Without Walls

Back in 1974, the year I started college, many schools offered some type of  “university without walls” program. They also were called experimental, alternative, progressive.  Although a few nontraditional schools date back to the 1920s, the idea became a movement across the country in the early 1960s.


Northeastern Ill. Univ. was one of 10 original members of the Union for Experimental Colleges and Universities founded in 1964.

In a university without walls, students could learn through experience in the community and larger world.  Sometimes students themselves came up with a subject and found a faculty sponsor. Often students weren’t graded. Even schools without a formal university without walls gave students credit for working or volunteering  in off-campus activities.

Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's attended a University Without Walls

The idea of engaging with the community was losing steam by the 1977, but you’d still come across the occasional university without walls course.  At Tulane, for example, where I went to college, the surviving ones were fun: one course culminated in an excursion to the Grand Canyon and another one involved sailing on Lake Ponchartrain.

Today, there’s, a website that captures the independent-minded spirit and organized chaos of a university without walls program.  In fact, their slogan sounds like a sixties chant:

“Do something. Learn something. Share something. Change something.”

The website enables people to form and participate in groups of shared interests.  There are no rules about how to structure a meetup group; each one does its own thing. Although the website provides space to post group messages online, meetups happen in the real world.

I belong to three meetup groups, all related to my work as a writer for websites. Last Wednesday evening I attended the first session of a new one for web content strategists. It was held in a office in the old Montgomery Wards building on the Chicago River, which, as one participant said, now looks appropriately dotcom-ish. For two hours a group of about twenty, the majority of us meeting for the first time, talked about what we’d like to learn, discuss and accomplish together.  It costs nothing to participate, except $5 for the parking garage. (That is not a typo; best parking deal ever.)

At a time when many people are re-inventing themselves because their old jobs no longer exist, serves as a modern day substitute for universities without walls.  But I can’t tell you what to expect. You’ll just have to try it yourself.

Note: If you’re interested in a history of the University Without Walls movement, read this.

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