APRIL 4, 2018 | ALEX USHER
I’ve recently been reading a fascinating book entitled Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education which essentially is an operating manual for the Minerva Schools (if you have never heard of, or have forgotten Minerva, I did a write-up of it back in 2013). What everyone remembers about Minerva is the sizzle – students move across seven cities in four years (San Francisco for a year, followed by one term in each of Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Taipei and London) and all classrooms are electronically-mediated. But underneath all this is a quite sophisticated underlying curricular exoskeleton that is well worth examining.
The most interesting part of the Minerva approach is the design of its curriculum. Originally formulated as a revision of liberal arts education at a relatively prestigious eastern university, it is a fairly radical re-think of how undergraduate education is delivered. It consists of six basic building blocks.
A first year comprised entirely of four “cornerstone” courses which only teach “habits of mind and foundational concepts (HCs)”, which sounds somewhat less out of place in the US than it does in Canada, because it’s what replaces the “gen ed” component of the undergraduate program.
A set of three “major core” courses common to everyone in a major (of which there are five: Arts & Humanities, Computational Sciences, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Business) to give them a grounding in the major approaches to problem-solving in the chosen disciplines.
For each “concentration” (every major has a half-dozen or so, with names like “Philosophy Ethics and Law”, “Global Governance”, “Earth’s Systems”, etc.), there is a set of nine required courses, arranged according to a matrix.
Students may take any elective they wish, but no course is offered only as an elective. One person’s elective is someone else’s required course.
Final-year senior tutorials which involve small groups of 3-4 students grouped together by their research interests and who jointly, along with a faculty member, design the content of the tutorial.
A capstone research project conducted over the last two years of the program.
But underlying all of this is perhaps a more important point: that they are determinedly not teaching content. The whole idea behind Minerva is that what they are really doing over four years is teaching the HCs introduced during the first-year courses. If you’ve followed the defence of the humanities and liberal arts over the past decade or so, this makes complete sense: the basic defense of these fields is precisely that they teach habits of mind (or, more forcefully if not entirely accurately, “how to think”). But whereas in most programs this is supposed to happen by some kind of osmosis while learning about critical theory/renaissance history/phenomenology/whatever, at Minerva they try to teach those things directly.
This is an interesting approach. I’m not 100% sure it works – in fact, in the K-12 system there’s a fair bit of evidence that trying to teach meta-concepts like this doesn’t work – but it’s never really been tried before in higher education and so if nothing else it is an interesting experiment.
Now on to the way they teach. There’s a lot of focus on what’s known as active learning, which is basically a way of saying “no lectures” and “flipped classrooms”. They seem to have developed a moderately sophisticated teaching e-platform called the “Active Learning Forum,” which is meant to allow the professor to control the 90-minute class (give pop quizzes, take polls, divide students into discussion groups, etc – basically it sounds like Zoom with bonus functionality). But what’s really interesting is the intense focus on lesson planning and course development.
All courses are developed using the same framework, called “Course Builder”. The framework forces course designers (profs don’t own curricula at Minerva – courses are very much common property) to not only build learning objectives – mostly framed in terms of those HCs – into each course description, but into each class and indeed each activity within each class (usually two per class. Students are rated according to a rubric for each HC in each activity in each class, and are given feedback very quickly afterwards. This can all be done electronically because of the way the Course Builder interacts with the Active Learning Forum, which is may be the best use I’ve seen of a learning platform in higher education (though the downside is all the teaching has to be done through the ALF e-platform even if the teachers and students are in the same physical location, which honestly seems a bit goofy).
There’s other stuff to know about Minerva – read the book! – but that’s the basics. The financial model is essentially: no gyms, barely any classrooms, no research and very little administration. They claim they can break even at roughly $15,000 US per student (room/board/books not included) with an enrolment of 1500 students, which seems wildly optimistic to me, but other serious people have claimed it’s possible so who knows?
It’s not a design you’d want at all universities, of course, but I can see liberal arts schools getting pulled towards at least some elements of this model if it turns out to work. And, again, though I’m not convinced about the wisdom of all of these ideas, I think the basic outlines here of a general re-design of teaching and curriculum will spread across the academy over the next couple of decades. In particular, their emphasis on much tighter curriculum designs to meet much more explicit learning outcomes and greater use of electronic resources in teaching are due to spread. Over the next two days, I’ll flesh out how I think this is going to play out.