On Re-inventing the University Experience

What does it mean to be a university of the 21st Century? 

Yet another education initiative is looking to not unbundle, but re-bundle a product often referred to as a college degree. Founder Ben Nelson, a tech entrepreneur from the Valley with no previous experience in the education market describes the system from a service perspective. Inflation has increased, serves 10% of market demand, and employs service professionals who have no training, are not monitored, and are not offered any penalty or reward for providing the service well. Besides, there are no standardized metrics to use for such a basis, anyways. This is the multi-billion dollar business of education. Now officially surpassing U.S. homeowners debt as the number one largest form of debt facing a new American-educated generation, the Minerva Project is aiming to compete with Ivy League schools to offer a 21st century education based on access and affordability.

As Nelson is quick to point out, 85% of Harvard applicants are fully qualified to attend. Harvard doesn’t have an 85% acceptance rate. Between facility costs and all other expenses it would require to serve all 85% of it’s applicants paired with the fact that accepting all students would be bad for the brand, Harvard can’t afford to, anyways. Besides, most students can’t afford the education. Minerva aims to change that in terms of recruitment, at least, by giving “no weight… given to lineage, state, country of origin, athletic prowess or ability to donate.” It doesn’t have the perfect formula yet, but with a lower overhead cost and current curriculum and the format it’s taught in outdated, much lower tuition rates will be a start.

Nelson has been quoted as saying that he wants to “create structures that are in place 100 years from now.” Are new structures still remaining intact for approximately the same amount of time as it’s been since re-inventing the Ivies (last attempted in 1912) what’s really needed? What’s clear is that a change in mindset is what’s really required in order to re-invent the structures we see crumbling and serve our exponentially-growing complex worldview. While the Minerva Project’s ambition to re-invent such an institution for the 21st century by turning the traditional model upside down combined with a belief that technology holds many of the answers is noble, it hopefully sees the limitations of such models and tools. It would be keen to remember that it is designing a learning process not just within a system but also for inhabitants of such a system.

Minerva recognizes curriculum is available anywhere, can be completed online on an individual basis and complemented with small online/offline seminars. This is where students can go deeper into conversation and potentially create synergies for collaboration. This is also where the educational initiative has the most potential to innovate. By re-inventing the classroom experience, Minerva aims to create “analytical machines.” With it’s non-traditional model, it hopefully also aims to develop individuals past the analytical machines coming out of the traditional Ivy League schools. If it really wanted to surpass the competition, it would strive to create not just analytical machines but whole, well-rounded individuals learning in community. Indeed, that may be the only way it can compete with such a model without turning into what it’s trying to gain independence from.

Nelson claims “students will have outstanding rhetorical skills, from debates to tweets to public speaking, what they call multi-modal communication skills.” How will it develop the emotionally intelligent communication skills also required of our world’s emerging and future leaders? This is a question that is yet to be answered and where the project seems to recognize the limitations of the classroom setting, online or not. Minerva promises all classes will “radically change the way you look at the world.” Students will be encouraged to live in different cities each semester and build campuses based on the local densities that emerge within the network of students.

Escaping the Ivory Tower

Assuming that besides the traditional model of education the project aims to re-invent, it will also borrow from a growing popularity in low-residency distance learning programs that are offering practitioners and students alike the opportunity to collaborate on various issues they work on outside of their respective programs. Gathering at given times over a certain period throughout the learning process has tremendous power for social and academic change. Borrowing from programs outside the already ancient Ivy League must also be considered in order to create the necessary collective learning and collaboration required for a new educational model to truly find it’s place in this era.

The project emphasizes that much learning will take place in the local settings by dedicating one day of the program to the locale the student is based in. How it will do this also leaves room for an incredible potential to train the world’s future leaders in how to collaborate to solve some of our globe’s most wicked problems. Isn’t that what a 21st century education for the best and brightest should look like? I’m not sure that can be simplified into the dedication of one day of it’s program to doing so. An education in the 21st century seems far too complex for that.

Bearing this in mind, the project would be naive in thinking the world’s future leaders have not already thought of how they want to change the world in parallel with theoretical and classroom-based learning. Perhaps they haven’t. Students will be required to complete a two-year project that creates something novel. The curriculum will be designed to create a solid foundation at home the first year in order to go deep in any given area over the next three years. Besides just drilling in basic knowledge during the first year, how will it create a personalized approach to the individual needs of it’s students?

While it seems to take the concern of the amount of social contact it will create between its students seriously — something some are arguing only a traditional university setting can offer—the Minerva Project would benefit in thinking about how to accelerate the professional trajectory of these students well before graduation day. Helping alumni find like-minded collaborators, attract funding, grant money, and fellowships is an ambition the initiative has. How much has it considered doing this in conjunction with the curriculum it aims to create?

Given Minerva’s interest in educating any student from around the world who meets its high academic standards, many argue the project will have to create scholarship programs for students in need of financial aid, as well as secure favorable loan rates. Perhaps. The program, capitalizing on the high motivation from applicants looking to make their education, not just take it, should look into alternative financing models. This would make it possible to fund students learning path’s based on merit.

Imagining these young future leaders must be incredibly self-motivated regarding their learning, how will the project harness the power of a network of talented and ambitious students already applying the knowledge they are receiving in the “classroom” to the real-world? How will it help connect these promising individuals in a meaningful way to not only benefit their collective learning, but also collaboration across individual endeavors?

What if a student spent the first year not only learning basic knowledge anyone is able to obtain with a vast array of MOOC’s, but also charting out and sharing a personal learning plan for the following years alongside those prerequisite courses? What would happen if students met at different gathering points over the course of the first year to prepare for such an adventure? What if learning circles or verticals of knowledge based on topics strongly resonating with these high-potentials were created?

The answers that emerge from these questions should inform the curriculum much more than the creation of various departments as modeled in the traditional university setting. The project seems to be taking these factors into consideration as it develops a small group of beta-testers. A first cohort of 15-19 students will spend the first year of the program in San Francisco working to shape the curriculum, take a gap year, and then join the first official (much larger) class their sophomore year to graduate.

Imagining the collaboration potential these young leaders would have tackling global issues in a learning-based setting for an extended period of time and without the barrier of location is mind-blowing. Applying both theoretical and practical knowledge to real-world settings on a daily basis through a program like Minerva has the opportunity to serve as a vehicle that connects students to some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

The opportunity young leaders at Minerva would have to tackle these challenges first-hand from day one is something no other Ivy could claim. How much collaborative, project-based learning the Minerva will facilitate in those ‘one-day-of-the-week in the city’ field trips it claims will be part of the schedule could be the very thing that sets it apart from the Ivy League pack. Frankly, with so much potential to re-invent the current structure, does the Minerva Project even want to compare itself to something so disconnected from the world it wants to inhabit?

There will be no athletic facilities or science labs at Minerva. Some doubt Minerva will be able to build reputable science departments without laboratory spaces in which students can conduct experiments. Perhaps they are right, but does Minerva want a reputable science department or does it want to create a network of science departments consisting of labs across the globe? This is much more the kind of “department” the project seems to want to create as it re-invents the definition of what a department in a 21st century university even looks like in the first place. Connection to local pockets of innovation across all disciplines will be crucial to it’s success as an Ivy for and with the world. Furthermore, connecting it’s students to the world in a meaningful way will be crucial for the organization to thrive as a network serving a new generation discontent with the status quo.

Rather than place students in dormitories, as it suggests, why not connect it to the rising network of co-living spaces like Nest and the Embassy Network? Why not create it’s own network and merge with other mobile societies, global learning communities, and digital tribes of emerging leaders like the Sandbox Network? After all, we’re talking about educating individuals of the 21st century just as much as we’re talking about creating an education for this era. While Nelson has considered the challenge from a service perspective, not forgetting about the user (human) perspective is equally important. Such an undertaking will require a lot more community management on the human side of technology that can’t possibly address all needs of it’s students adequately.

The Limitations of Technology

Judging by the application, where applicants are asked to submit 1-5 examples of leadership, creativity, or initiative, the process takes on a slightly robotic tone. Applicants must choose one of the three categories for each example. They cannot choose multiple answers or enter in their own definition. This is proof that future technology employed in the program will have to go beyond the simple algorithms and even the small class sizes to really address the human need in the educational system.

Furthermore, if the Minerva project wants to truly cultivate great leaders — the ones applying to Harvard, Yale, and other Ivies — then it should also keep in mind that many of these people are the ones considering not going at all. These are the ones working to disrupt an industry, develop a deep personal practice required to serve as a spiritual leader, or any other ambitions a future leader — no matter what industry — may have. Doing so will be necessary to create the backbone for an education that trains students to not just think critically, but think critically about how they define success and chart an entirely new path forward. Bearing all this in mind while working to scale and truly create access for all are just a few of many things this audaciously bold startup will have to tackle.

“What concerns me is the care and feeding of 18 year olds who’ve entrusted us with their education, their futures, whose parents have put their money and their hopes in us. Getting that right is always on my mind.” The fact that, ultimately, the founder is concerned with this puts me at ease. As we tackle this huge challenge and attempt to disrupt and re-invent a dinosaur system, above all, we’re talking about going on a journey together. We’re aware we don’t know all the answers and we’re all learners— including the ones we’re entrusting our education with. As such, we’re the best judge of whether something is serving us and carry the responsibility to speak up and act when it’s not. In a world where everyone should have the ability to lead, we can only look inside of ourselves for true leadership. Teaching this important skill is what Minerva should really focus on when developing the leaders and creators we need today in order for our world to flourish tomorrow.