What will the future of higher education look like?

Innovation & technology 22 October 2019

How Minerva is rewiring higher education from the ground up


Koldo Echebarria [Director General, Esade]: We are living in difficult times, times of a lot of social, economic and political change. These are times that require not only competent and effective leaders but, also, different leaders. Leaders with values, leaders with a sense of their impact on society. And this is where we strongly believe that educational institutions have to play a role. Can we really address these challenges? Can we provide students with the tools they need to adapt to this world?

To reflect on all these issues, I met with Ben Nelson, who is the founder, chairman and CEO of Minerva, an institution that has re-imagined higher education from the ground up. I first discovered Minerva through an article in a popular magazine and was really intrigued by the concept. How did you develop this idea of Minerva as a new university for the times we live in?

Ben Nelson [Founder & CEO, Minerva]: Initially, the idea was looking at what a university should be providing its students. In the American tradition, there is this concept of the liberal arts education, and the funny or sad or both aspects of this is that practically no one on the planet knows what "liberal arts" means. When people hear that they think, "oh, that means poetry or literature", and, actually, it has nothing to do with that. 

Liberal arts were the disciplines or arts that allowed you to be free

Liberal arts were the disciplines or arts that allowed you to be free or have liberty. In the 18th century, when Europe was ruled primarily by monarchies, the concept of a country was that it consisted of the subjects of the sovereign king, queen or both.

In that context, subjects needed to be controlled and they had a particular life trajectory in service of the kingdom. If your parents were farmers, you were a farmer. If your dad was the town doctor, you were going to be the town doctor, right? There was this concept of perpetuation and universities served one aspect of that. And, of course, if you wanted to become a priest, you needed a separate education, because you couldn't be born into the priesthood; you had a separate track.

In the United States, the country's founding fathers thought they didn't want a society where the sovereign was the king. They wanted a society where the sovereigns were enfranchised citizens. In this model, you add this concept of having a vocation or training for much of your life. But, at any point during my career, I can be called upon by my fellow citizens to serve. For example, one day I might be a farmer and the next day be asked to be a diplomat, or one day I might be a shopkeeper and the next day a senator.

That concept of changing careers, of being able to serve, not just a vocation...

Koldo Echebarria: Being a citizen in the broad sense.

Ben Nelson: Exactly. This was radically new and they needed to form a different kind of universe, a different kind of educational system to enable that. And in the 18th century, as brilliant as many of these founding fathers were, we had a very limited understanding of both how the brain works and what you actually should know about the world.

The way in which American universities went about providing live arts education was an interesting attempt, but fundamentally flawed in many ways. It was about curating a whole bunch of classical content and saying "no" to other content and then you would be a well-educated person. And, that's okay, but certainly in the 20th century let alone. In the 21st century that model has started to break down. In the 1960s, students rebelled against this concept wholesale in the United States, and, effectively, it was thrown out. What it was replaced with was effectively nothing.

Students still study a subject matter in depth, the major, but spend substantially less time on it than they do in Europe, which is interesting. So you get a degraded version and then the rest of their time they basically do whatever they want. It's primarily edutainment. "Oh, I'm kind of interested in this and in that; let me take that course." And, as you say, many of those classes consist of lectures, which are very effective ways – as I once heard described – of getting the professors' notes transferred to the students' notes without passing through the brains of either.

Koldo Echebarria: That's right. There is no processing there, no judgement, no analysis.

Ben Nelson: Minerva was an attempt to think through how you can create a curriculum that actually rewires the brain, that gives you frameworks of thinking that you can apply no matter what you do, whether you're going to be that farmer, a diplomat or a doctor.

Minerva was an attempt to think through how you can create a curriculum that actually rewires the brain

Koldo Echebarria: What is your vision about how the world is evolving politically? Because the world isn't aligning. 

Ben Nelson: It's evolving in the exact opposite direction.

Koldo Echebarria: What is your reflection when you move your students to a country which doesn't practice democratic values? How do you approach that? 

Ben Nelson: For me, it's actually the broader thesis. The reason that I started working on this curriculum 25 years ago was because I believed that the population doesn't have those disciplines that allow them to be free – the liberal arts –, effectively winding up where we are today. This is why it became an obsession of mine 25 years ago. This is why nine years ago I started building Minerva. If you look at the world nine years ago, you wouldn't necessarily think it was going in that direction, but it's been going on for a long time. 

The perspective is that, if you take a complex systems approach, the reason that the world is tipping towards autocracy now isn't the same reason it was tipping towards autocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries when you had individuals seizing power. Now, it's actually popular autocracy.

Koldo Echebarria: It's the people delegating power.

Ben Nelson: Exactly. After starting Minerva, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of rivals. It provided great lessons about working with people you disagree with and all the rest. But, to me, the big "aha" moment describes how Lincoln handled the Civil War and made colossal mistakes, I mean, just unbelievably bad decisions. Then he had six months to think about it and correct his course.

In today's world, you have no time to react to anything

Think about that in today's wars or World War II, how, even less than 100 years later, let alone in today's world, you have no time to react to anything. As the world is becoming infinitely faster and more complicated, more complex, education is getting worse. This is a recipe for disaster.

Koldo Echebarria: Let's move on to another topic of our times which is technology. Everything is wired through technology; technology is the deus ex machina for everything that we can talk about. How would you read technology and technological disruption in Minerva?

Ben Nelson: Minerva wouldn't exist without technology. When I first started thinking about the Minerva curriculum, it was in the context of the university I was attending. The user interface browser didn't exist. This was 1993. I couldn't even imagine what role technology could play. So the way I initially thought of the curriculum was very different than what existed, but it was traditional. As I went back to the endeavour nine years ago – in the world of internet and data-mediated environments –, it allowed me to think about an institutional design from a perspective of effective curricular delivery.

Technology allows you to create a scaffold and curate the intellectual development of the student over time

This was very different before because, in a world where we needed to get students into a classroom with a professor, the unit of delivery was the class. That really was the only way to do it. But in a world where technology and data follow students, all of a sudden education didn't have to be institutional. And this is radical, because, in most historical contexts, education was institutional. In the 19th century and the better part of the 20th century, the vast majority of your time in college, you went through a core curriculum and that is because the institution had come up with a pathway of intellectual development. But the proliferation of information has broken that down.

Koldo Echebarria: It has broken the monopoly of knowledge and information. It has spread it all around. You can choose, and it's free.

Ben Nelson: That's a great thing. The problem is that, delivered offline, you don't lose any kind of institutional thumbprint. Of course, the way professors deliver a course and the insights they generate – by the way, not just the professor's but your peers' – will shape your educational pathway. But, at the same time, technology allows you to create a scaffold. It allows you to curate the intellectual development of the student over time. That is a revolution.

Uber, Lyft, EDI, etc., these are companies that thought ahead. It's a relatively simple solution: rather than waiting for a taxi and hailing it on the street, you order it on the phone and have it come to you. Now, how it's implemented, whether it should be with taxis or individual drivers (there are many debates either way), the point is that technology was designed for the purpose that it was built for. Nothing more, nothing less. And, yes, the product improves over time, and you add features and functions.

Koldo Echebarria: There was a theory behind it.

Ben Nelson: Exactly, there was a theory behind it, and it is technology at its best. Figuring out a solution to a fundamental friction in the world. And that's the same perspective in education. Not how we use technology to deliver the same education that we do offline in incrementally different ways... 

Koldo Echebarria: ... but, also, what the educational needs we have to solve are and how technology can help. The same can be said about the role of teachers which, before, was constrained by the lack of technology and its limitations. How do all these technological possibilities have to rewire the teacher as well?

Ben Nelson: Much to your point, Gutenberg did not reform teaching enough. It is shocking how resilient that has been. But professors need to stop "professing." The lecturers need to stop lecturing. The nature of the term needs to change, because their job is a process of intellectual development. It is to coax deep processing within students.

Koldo Echebarria: It's no longer about transferring things; it's about developing others.

Ben Nelson: And the fact of the matter is that professors don't get trained on how to teach. If you look at the path to becoming a professor – they go to school, university, get their PhDs... At no point do they take a course on how to teach.

Koldo Echebarria: Let me ask you something about the classroom which has consisted of this professor that professes and where accumulating people has been the technology of education for centuries. What is your view of the classroom? I understand that you make classrooms transparent, that you record everything that happens and that helps students learn about how they have been doing. It's a very interactive classroom, with no lectures. Tell us about this format.

Ben Nelson: The physical limitations of an offline environment are vast. Unless you have a camera pointed at every face – having cameras all around you at different angles, having voice recognition so you know which student is saying what... If you have an interactive classroom where its goal isn't to transmit information but to enable student application of that information, if students don't get feedback on how they apply, that's a bit of a moot point.

Koldo Echebarria: That's right. Father Pedro Arrupe, a former Superior General of the Jesuits, referred to the crucial role that excellence plays in education. And he indicated that our students should also be open to the science of the times in harmony with the culture and problems of their surroundings. These words still inspire and motivate those of us working in education.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.