Meet Two Leaders Trying to Reinvent College

Digital Learning

Meet Two Leaders Trying to Reinvent College

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jun 29, 2018

Meet Two Leaders Trying to Reinvent College

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

Today we're starting out with a big question: What would you do if you could start a college from scratch?

For most people, this is merely a thought exercise—how to keep the good from the best of traditional methods, and take into account all the tech and the changing workforce and student needs of today. But two recent guests on EdSurge Live, a monthly video-based discussion series, have surprisingly concrete answers to this question. In fact, they both took the unusual step of actually going out and starting completely new colleges, with new models of curriculum and services.

Michelle Jones was a faculty member at a traditional college before she started a nonprofit two-year college in Portland, Oregon called Wayfinding Academy. (She's also held the title of magician for an ideas festival in Portland, which is another story in our longer article on the school.) The goal at Wayfinding, in a nutshell, is to flip the curriculum to put the focus on helping students find out what they want to do with their lives, and the academics are underneath that.

Our second guest, Ben Nelson, first dreamed of rebooting higher education back when he was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania, where he did a research project on how to reinvent higher education. But then he pursued a career in business, first at a strategy consulting firm, and later working his way up to CEO of a tech company called Snapfish, which did photo sharing and hosting and printing and that kind of thing before Instagram existed. These days he is founder, chairman and CEO of the Minerva project, which is a four year college aiming to provide an elite education for a fraction of the usual price and in different ways with a lot of new ideas on curriculum and delivery.

You can watch the complete discussion [coming soon], or hear a podcast version. Or read highlights below, which have been edited and condensed for clarity. To sign up for our next discussion or to see an archive of past episodes, visit our show page.

EdSurge: If anybody out in the audience came to your campus for a day, what would be the three biggest differences compared to what they might be used to that demonstrates your philosophy of education?

Jones: Two guests just walked out the front door who came for the first time to visit from a local high school—the head of school from a local high school and one of the faculty. The top three things that they would probably notice right away is that it feels more like a community than a school of some sorts.

We have a lot of things that are set up to be really focused on being a learning community. Everybody knows each other very well. There's a lot of personal conversations, hallway conversations. Today is one of the students birthdays and so her faculty member brought in a cake for everybody to share in celebration of this student's birthday. So things like that.

I think that no matter what day you visit, you would see a bunch of different community activities going on. We have one building, so everything happens in this one single space.

The second thing you'll notice is that it doesn't look and feel like what you would expect a traditional college to look and feel like. Unlike many other colleges, we've chosen to have a lot of focus on community and college being woven together, so we want students to be able to live out in the community and bring community in and have that be permeable in as many ways as possible. Students live nearby, within walking distance, biking distance, busing distance, but they don't live here on campus.

And I think the third big thing you'll notice is that students are in charge of most things, and/or at least have significant input and decision making capabilities in almost everything. Students are in charge and we're not. We're here to help them to do what they're here to get out of this experience.

EdSurge: What about you, Ben. What are three big differences at Minerva compared to traditional colleges?

Nelson: So if you look at San Francisco, which is where all the students start and spend their first year you would see very different things. I would look at kind of three distinct times that you could visit: In the mornings between Monday and Thursday, you will notice that almost everyone is in their residence hall, [tuning into their classes which are all taught online.]

Basically there is a webcam pointing right at their face, and they are animated and talking with a bunch of their other classmates and their professor during class time. In their first year, class time is coordinated, so all students have classes four days a week, Monday to Thursday, 9 am to 10:30 am and 11 am to 12:30 pm. And that's a little bit different.

In the afternoon or evenings before any of those class days is another odd thing—you'd see all of our students studying. And that's a crazy concept in higher education today, so one of the fascinating little factoids that I came across when I was an undergraduate 25 years ago is that students at the same institution spend 20 percent less time in total on their education than they did in those institutions 25 years before, and that's remarkable because seat time is exactly the same. The demands of higher education have been really plummeting over the last few decades, and a lot of that is manifested in students not showing up in class and not bothering to do the reading until it’s time for a midterm or a final in a cramming and reading period. Our students have to show up to every single class prepared, and so it is a very intensive environment in that regard.

Then the third time period in which you could come and see something totally different is for example on a Friday or Saturday or Sunday or further in the evening. You will see the residence hall empty and that is because the students are in the city. They're living as you would if you were in your first job out of school. So rather than having kind of a constructed campus environment that kind of curates everything that the students should have in their lives, we really try to get them to live in the real world. Yes, we'll find some interesting opportunities and co-curriculars and events, but pretty quickly our students find their own paths and really take advantage of being in the city. That's yet another thing which is not typical of a normal undergraduate program.

What is it that really put you over the edge and led you to decide that you really wanted to make your own college? And why did you decide that you couldn't do it in the setting you were already in, at a traditional college?

Jones: I spent 15 years as a traditional college professor, and the courses I taught were in business departments—usually organizational behavior and leadership courses. So sort of the soft stuff of business. And I would usually teach juniors and seniors, so people who are getting ready to graduate, who'd completed most of the curriculum. And what finally tipped me into deciding to create my own college was listening to them. Years and years and years of listening to them. They'd get to my class, which was a lot about the things that Wayfinding is about now, so "who are you? What are your values? What impact do you wanna have on the world? How do we get you started doing that? What's the best path to get from here to there? And what's the first few steps you can take to do that while you're still here?"

And they loved it and they thought that was great, but they got really angry because they felt like why didn't somebody ask me this at the beginning of my college career? Why am I only being asked at the very very end, "what do I wanna do with my life?"

I was able to change my courses as much as I could as a faculty member, and sit on cross-campus panels. I was on the faculty senate kinds of things, and faculty welfare policies committees. But it wasn't enough to change the overall environment in which these students were feeling like when they got to the end, they owed a lot of money, they wished somebody had asked them before, with intention, and helped guide them on how to get started on their life after college. So after years and years and years of listening to those frustrations, and following up with questions and things like "what would you do differently, if you had your own college?" And listening intensely to their answers, I decided that I would just give it a try and start my own.

Ben, you have the business aspect in common, but you were not a professor yourself at any point. How did you end up leaving the business world to make up a college from scratch?

The curricular elements of it really were germinated when I was an undergraduate, and it was actually driven out of a course I took my freshman year about the history of American Higher education and how universities relate to their society. But as part of the history that we read about universities, I realized what the role of the university was.

The first institutions of higher education, Harvard, Yale, that were started in the United States, or in the colonies at the time, were effectively teaching people how to be priests. But when the founding fathers were starting to think about what this new society was going to be all about, they realized that there was a radical idea. The idea that you weren't going to be born to serve a sovereign, where the people themselves are the sovereign. And people have liberty. They're free. And in order for you to have the responsibility of liberty, you had to be trained in the various arts of a liberated or liberal society. Hence the ‘liberal arts.’ And the reason for that is that when the population is the sovereign, people within the population are asked upon to serve. That means that you could be a farmer or a doctor or a merchant, and then, the next day, you could be a senator or a judge, or a president. And the founding fathers understood that we needed a society that could have individuals as citizens that could transfer their knowledge and wisdom from one discipline to another.

That was the entire point of American higher education. Franklin called it practical knowledge, Jefferson called it useful knowledge, but that was actually what universities were supposed to do. When I was an undergraduate and discovered that, and then looked at the curriculum of my and every other university in the country, no university was doing that. And I figure that that's a problem. That if the foundation of our representative republic relied on a practical transferrable liberal arts education, and there were no institutions that were offering that kind of education, perhaps we would be facing a governance crisis, or in general a leadership crisis across sectors in this kind of environment.

So I tried to do something about it as an undergraduate, and failed, because it turns out that many universities aren't necessarily driven by student-outcomes as their first and foremost design principle. And then when I went into the business world and saw that because of advances in technology, you could create new institutions from scratch. Much like Michelle's perspective, I thought, ‘why don't you actually leverage technology to create a new kind of education? [We want to] demonstrate to other universities that [you can innovate even] with all of their constraints. We ourselves are heavily constrained—we're in a four-year, non-profit, accredited, hundred percent of our professors are PHDs, we have aeat-time 120 credit hours, majors, minors, electives, everything about Minerva is exactly like any other university in the United States on the surface. But in the content and core of what we do, everything is completely different. And that was really the point.

[Audience question] when you look at designing online learning today, and trying to improve a high level of efficacy with your results, are there any studies or research that you're pointing to that says "yep this is the right model" for companies or universities to think about as they try to scale something similar?

Nelson: Everything we do at Minerva is based on an enormous amount of research. Not done by us, but done broadly in the science of learning. Overwhelmingly it has nothing to do with online versus offline. It has everything to do with how the brain works and how people obtain information.

In fact, it is so large that we wrote a book about it, that effectively references every piece of research that we've used and, to my knowledge, is really the only manual on how to build a university from scratch that's out there. It's called Building the Intentional University.

And if you want to characterize it, the two most crucial are one, in the curricular structure, it is the literature and understanding of transference. Which is, how do you actually teach habits of mind foundational concepts that you can apply in multiple contexts?

And the second is how the brain actually retains information, which is all about deprocessing, making, using associations. There are 16 broad principles that we've brought together to put it down, but really, the core element is if you deeply process what you are ingesting, you will remember it, and if you don't deeply process it, no matter how much you tell yourself, "Oh, I need to remember that, I need to remember that, I need to remember that," it will not be burned in your long-term memory.

[Audience question] With that said, is there anything that online could do better, then, as a way to kind of, approaching or achieving what you said around transference, as well as the deprocessing piece?

Nelson: So, yes. The reason that we use technology as opposed to just doing it offline, is that online has two advantages. One which is substantial, and one which is crucial. The substantial advantage is we have developed a method called ‘fully active learning,’ which makes sure that everybody in the classroom is deeply processing at least 75 percent of the time, which requires quite a lot of engagement, and making sure that people are doing secondary activities that are also involved with deprocessing.

A quick example is, let's say a professor asks a student to answer a question. That's what we refer to as semi-active learning—because now effectively a lecture has passed from the professor to a student, and every other student is just trying to absorb information, and won't succeed. But a simple technique, which you can do offline as well as you can do online, is to make sure that in a small classroom environment, everybody knows that halfway through the answer, the professor will cut off the student, and ask a second student to complete the thought, ask a third student to rebut, and a fourth student, maybe one of the first three, to finish the rebuttal, that is also cut off halfway through. So in a 15 or 16 person class, everybody is paying attention—they have to deeply process.

Now, where technology comes in, is that you can actually use technology to track, over the course of a 90-minute class, how much talk time every student has had. So, technology enables you to do fully active learning better than you could without technology.

The more crucial element, which you cannot do offline, is this idea of effective transference. Imagine you're a typical university, you gather the faculty senate, and you say, "We have determined that we must ensure, given the current state of affairs in our country, that every student understands evidence based claim evaluation." Right? And set forth all ye professors, and add evidence based claim evaluation to your courses, to make sure that students, once they graduate, have that core skill deeply etched in their brain. Right? Faculty wilL agree, and say, "Wow, that seems like a good idea." Half of them will ignore it, of course, and go back to lecturing, and doing the same thing. A quarter of them will attempt to do this, but really will fail, but a quarter will, which is plenty, such that by the time the students graduate, they will know that one skill, right?

Technology enables you not only to introduce these concepts in a systematic way—to ensure that every class actually goes through and introduces these concepts—but can ensure that transference occurs for every single student a number of times, on each one of these areas, so that they become true habits of mind, or foundational concepts, which is really the two types of things that we teach. We had to actually design an entire system [to do these].

Michelle, I’m struck that Wayfinding Academy holds courses in person, without any online learning. How do you change teaching when everyone is sitting in a room, and you don't have the computer to help steer things?

Jones: Everything that we do is face-to-face and in person. So, we'll utilize technology to do things like bring in guest speakers from around the world—for example our current students are in a course called The Good Life, and one of the things the faculty member has done there is Skyped in people from all over the world to talk about what that concept of what a good life looks like and sounds like and feels like in different cultures all around the world. But we've intentionally chosen not to have our curriculum online.

So technology doesn't play a huge role, other than it supports all of the backend systems of everything we ever do. And we're small enough that we are able to have our faculty, we work with them individually as we hire each one of them, to talk about, and we've now created a guide for new faculty, on what tips and tricks for success at teaching at Wayfinding. We have a whole segment on there on how to create an inclusive classroom, so that students, no matter what lived experience they're coming from, feel like they can participate meaningfully in every conversation that's happening. A lot of the conversations our students are having are very hard conversations for anybody to have, but especially when you're in your early to mid 20s. They're talking about a lot of systems of oppression, and social-justice issues, and they're very hard conversations to have. We want to make sure that everybody can sit in a room together and respectfully disagree with one another on really complicated topics, or be able to admit, "I don't know very much about this, it's not my lived experience, but I look forward to learning from the other people in the room."

We found that our faculty tends to be content experts, but also mostly facilitators of conversations among students, and nudging them, and shifting directions, and introducing them to new ideas. We found that technology doesn't necessarily enhance that. The more remote you get the people from each other, the harder it is for them to have those conversations in an authentic way, where they feel genuinely heard and seen and included.

[Audience question from Cali Morrison, associate dean of alternative learning at American Public University System]: I made note that both of your institutions are on the west coast. And then the older version of this idea of finding your own way, Evergreen State College, which is in Washington. How does this translate for places that maybe aren't so A) liberal, and B) technology entrenched?

Jones: Wayfinding happens to be in Portland because it's where I live. But before this I lived in New Mexico and before that I was on the east coast. I lived in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and I grew up in Texas. I'm familiar with a bit of what you're talking about of west coast/east coast sorts of comparisons to the culture and ways that people view higher education.

I think that it makes sense for things like this to start in places like Portland or San Francisco that have sort of an entrepreneurial openness to them because you'll find a lot of folks who say, "Hey, that's a great idea, how can I support, how can I get involved, how can I be part of what you're doing?"

In my vision, the Wayfinding Portland campus will always be pretty small. We intentionally got a building that will fit up to 150 people—staff and students included—and we don't intend to ever get any larger than that at this location. The idea is in three to four years we will have maxed out the use of this building and we would open a second location someplace else.

I've been in a lot of conversations with folks in Santa Fe about that being the second location. It's very, very different culturally than Portland, and it'd be a whole different set of things. And I've also talked to people in Nashville, who think it could work there, San Diego who think it can work there. There's been a few folks in Vermont who think that Vermont would be perfect for one of these.

I think the idea, though, is that it can be customized for each individual place. Most of our students here at Wayfinding didn't come from here. They came from all over. They moved from all over the country to come to Portland to do this, and I think Portland was part of the draw for them, but I don't think they would have just come to Portland without Wayfinding. I think the key is going to be for scaling in different locations, and finding other interesting locations people would want to go to for particular reasons.

Ben, what is your perspective on this?

There are great new things starting all over the world. East coast, west coast, etc. And yes, perhaps on the west coast some of the more radical things start. But to me, the real question is existing institution versus new. Existing institutions are much, much better placed to adopt and follow and improve upon rather than try to create something from scratch. It is very hard in the DNA of an existing institution to do something truly radical and from scratch that will be successful, so look and copy.

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