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Ben Nelson, CEO, Minerva Project

The PIE News met Silicon Valley citizen and CEO, Ben Nelson, to hear more about the capital-backed new university experience Minerva Schools at KGI which he hopes will revolutionise global education.

The PIE: Do you think there’s sometimes a schism between academia and technology?

If we are successful the education system will not be the same

BN: Yes and no. People generally think of technology as this thing that you bolt on to what you do: ‘if new technology appears, how can I put it to use doing what I’m doing? Reduce my costs, reach more people’ – whatever. It’s a very first generation type of perspective.

Our message [while at SVC2UK conference] was ‘think about it differently’. Rather then thinking ‘here’s who I am and now there’s technology’, the opposite should be ‘here is what I do. In what part can technology enable me?’

The PIE: And so what’s your background?

BN: I grew up in an academic household. I was the most curricularly minded. In my undergraduate years I had a little bit of an obsession trying to create a curriculum for future leaders, focusing on the need to use that education for the better of all of us.

My undergraduate years were largely spent trying to reform my university, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It got me to the idea that fundamental reform is impossible because there is no desire on the part of university to change. So I gave up.

The PIE: Where did the initial idea of reforming education come from?

BN: In my freshman year I took a full course on histories of universities and their relationships to communities. My university was founded by Benjamin Franklin – an amazing man, he was a polymath. Franklin’s perspective was that Penn would blend the practical and ornamental, as he would call it. So knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but then how do you apply it and do something useful with it?

I think most of these institutions were set up with that very noble goal in mind, to train the most important members of society.

People generally think of technology as this thing that you bolt on to what you do

A substantial part of America’s success can be attributed to this philosophy: that rather than educating you for a trade, I educate you for life. But part of educating you for life is educating you for a trade.

The PIE: So the ultimate ambition of Minerva is to export the US liberal arts tradition via new technology?

BN: The ambition is two-fold. It’s to propagate the concept of American liberal arts education, but also to create a situation in which universities need to embrace the concept of curriculum in the process. That sounds maybe a bit odd from a non-American perspective, because university curriculum is quite rigid, because you only study your major.

In the United States you need thirty-something courses to graduate, but only twelve to sixteen of them are in your major.

The PIE: This ties in with what about you said earlier about how you can achieve so much more if you think of technology as central, as opposed to a periphery.

BN: Of course. If you think of education from a constrained point of view, of our knowledge of how universities operate, the first thing you default to is a concept of courses. At best the content of one course is aware of the content of the other – if you want to take econometrics you would have taken micro-economics.

But if I think about education, I see how you master the material, through courses, individual study or other activities. That could be the body of a tutorial model. But even in the most elite institutions, the tutorial model is too expensive.

The question is how the technology can help make that model more accessible.

The PIE: So Minerva understands how students actually learn…

BN: There are two principles. The first is that teaching is better in small groups. You want a group of 15-20 students that are engaged with the subject, where everybody can participate.

The second principle is that you can provide the leader of each course with the information they need to tailor the education experience, which is where the technology comes in.

If I tell professors ‘here are the students, and by the way here is everything you need to know about all of them’… not only am I giving you a bid data dump, but as you hold your class you can see if, for example, Amy is struggling with this particular concept, or if Amy has not been called on in the last four classes to answer a question.

The PIE: And how does technology actually track who asks whom?

BN: We rely on what we call a human in, machine processing, human out. So we rely on professors in these small formats to access everything that happens to the students.

The PIE: And the professors are recording this in real time?

BN: Exactly. Even though all our seminars are small format, we have to have them done via live video.

If you want to build a curriculum, if you want to have one class influence the other class, and have intellectual development carry from one professor to another, and effectively have the tutor be the collective thirty professors you’re going to have in your four years, it could only be done using technology.

The PIE: It’s like a doctor having a history of patients’ notes…

BN: That is exactly it.

Far more important than the facility for the technology is an open-mindedness and intellectual flexibility to be able to move from a lecture to “active learning”

The PIE: I’m just wondering, would the age of professors collide with this youthful technology and ambition?

BN: Well, our founding dean is in his sixties and he has tremendous facility for this technology. Far more important than the facility for the technology is an open-mindedness and intellectual flexibility to be able to move from a lecture to “active learning”.

The PIE: So your technology-enhanced active learning is this moving towards the trend of flip-teaching?

BN: All classrooms used to be flipped seventy years ago – it was called doing your homework [laughter]. You would go home and read Odyssey and then the professor would interrogate you.

Over time, grade inflation set in. Students realised that if they didn’t read the Odyssey and they just said ‘I don’t know’, the professor would give them the interpretation. Students realised that not only do they not need to do their work, they don’t even need to come to class. So that’s why classes got unflipped.

The PIE: I’m not really familiar with the term grade inflation…

BN: I had a friend from Princeton who told me she went to 15% of her classes, and passed with flying colors. Grade inflation means that if you know absolutely nothing you get a B-.

The PIE: So standards have been slipping for 70 years, since teachers would check up on student’s homework?

BN: I think that’s clear. When I went to school in the 1990s, the statistic was that students at American universitites spent 20% less time studying then they did in 1960s. Today, students spend 20% less time studying than they did in the 1990s.

The PIE: So you feel you are empowering students to become better educated via Minerva?
BN: That is the entire point.

The PIE: And tell me about the global aspect of Minerva.

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