Informal classes offer laidback learning

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Two years after they were almost scrapped, UT’s informal classes are thriving once again and gaining popularity.

The classes, which are sponsored by the Thompson Conference Center, are part of a program that offers non-credit courses covering a variety of subjects to anyone who is interested. Course subjects range from writing workshops to physical boot camps and everything in between. Prices for the classes vary.

In 2010, the informal courses program faced an uncertain future when University Unions cut its funding. However, Thompson Conference Center coordinator Monica Mercado said the center took over the program, and it now boasts 400 classes and hopes to add more in the coming years.

Mercado said Internet marketing has helped the conference center revive the program and maintain its relevance.

“Social media, especially Facebook, and monthly e-newsletters have really helped,” Mercado said. “We’re now better able to inform people about an upcoming class being offered or the monthly lectures with University professors we offer.”

The informal classes range from two-hour workshops to 12-week courses, depending on the subject. Mercado said this format allows many people to fit them into their schedules.

“It really is a very unique program, because it can be taken by many people who lead very different lives,” Mercado said. “These courses give people the opportunity to learn from reputable and knowledgeable instructors and have a great experience on their own time.”

Although most informal classes are taught at the Thompson Conference Center, a number of them are taught at local businesses. Mercado said this allows UT to reach out to the Austin community.

“Austin boasts about keeping things local,” Mercado said. “That is definitely something we keep to heart and try to stay true to.”

Tom Gohring instructs several informal classes, including a Coffee Barista for a Day class at his coffee shop, Kick Butt Coffee and several martial arts courses at his dojo, Master Gohring’s Tai Chai and Kung Fu.

“It makes me feel great that people are interested in these courses and actually work to learn the skills they incorporate,” Gohring said. “People can walk in with no clue and leave as amateur baristas in the same day.”

Many of the informal class instructors have previously taught in formal education institutions. Brian Loflin taught photography courses at the University of California at Riverside from 2002 to 2005 and now teaches informal photography classes. Loflin said the difference between the two types of classes is the students’ motivation to be there.

“For informal classes, the scenario is totally different,” Loflin said. “Everybody is there because they find it as something they want to be there for, not because they’re required to.”

The classes do not offer course credit or grade the students, but Loflin said his students still take their work seriously.

“There’s no requirement or grades for the students,” he said. “They can just sit and have a good time if they want to. But more often than not, they’re very engaged because they want to be here.”

One of Loflin’s former students, Dolph McCranie, said the classes incorporate many fun and interesting aspects that formal upper-level courses do not.

“In two of them, we made little field trips into nature,” he said. “The informal classes were excellent. I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone.”

McCranie said the courses allow interaction between instructors and students because they create an open class environment and give constructive criticism.

Printed on August 31, 2012 as: "Informal classes back with Austin in mind"