Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO, Minerva

Minerva Project is a pathbreaking educational innovator, providing top-tier higher education offerings to its flagship Minerva Schools at KGI and other educational and corporate partners. Founded by Ben Nelson in 2011, Minerva’s mission is to nurture critical wisdom for the sake of the world. Building upon the best traditions of liberal arts and sciences education, Minerva is committed to preparing global leaders and innovators for the complexities of the 21st century. Minerva provides an exceptional education at a fraction of the cost of other top universities.

A new standard of quality education was introduced in summer 2020 by the Minerva Baccalaureate. It is a new interdisciplinary high school that provides a transformative four-year curriculum for students seeking to accelerate their high school education and benefit from a collaborative online learning environment.

Ben Nelson is a visionary with a passion to reinvent education. Before Minerva, Nelson spent more than 10 years at Snapfish, where he helped build the company from startup to the world’s largest personal publishing service. Prior to joining Snapfish, Nelson was President and CEO of Community Ventures, a network of locally branded portals for American communities.

About Minerva

Tell us about Minerva. You were extremely successful at what you were doing before entering the education business. What drove you to take on a revolutionary project like this? Why take the risk?

I have always been interested in education, even back when I was in high school and college. The idea of reforming higher education emanated from a course I took in my first semester at university. The basic premise was illuminated by what a Liberal Arts education is, which is being able to educate citizens in the various disciplines (or arts) to have liberty – hence the liberal arts. The liberty to choose one’s life path (as opposed to being a subject of the crown or the cross) means you have learned broadly applicable, transferable skills. So, I was dismayed by the fact that our entire system of government is dependent on a type of education that does not actually exist.

And so, if we are going to have a free society anywhere in the world, you have to change the way you educate people.

I spent my four years as an undergrad trying to fix my university, but failed because there was no interested party who wanted to advocate for a more rigorous approach to education necessary for the long run benefit of society. So when I graduated, I gave up. But the idea never left me and after nearly fifteen years of seeing the outcomes of a society that hasn’t been educated in systematic thinking I decided I need to do something about it. That’s what led to building Minerva as an ideal university to set an example for all others.

What are the benefits of the Minerva approach? Why do you offer undergrad students the option to study in 7 different cities throughout the program?

Minerva has reinvented everything in the higher education system, from what it teaches to how, where and who it teaches it to. The curriculum (the what) is based on contextualising the four systems of thinking- formal, empirical, complex and rhetorical- that underpin core competencies such as critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communication and collaboration. We sub-divided these competencies into 80 learning outcomes which we ensure our students build intuitions around that allow them to apply them in useful ways no matter what situation they find themselves in. The pedagogy (the how) is based on decades of research in the science of learning. It ensures that students engage in deep processing and making and using associations for the vast majority of class time, relegating knowledge acquisition to out of class time. All this learning takes place (the where) in a virtual learning environment, designed intentionally to enable the kinds of curricular, pedagogical, and feedback systems that have led to the kinds of educational outcomes that distinguish Minerva from every other educational institution in the world. And finally, we admit (the who) students based on their competence without relying on any external standardised testing or other measures that advantage the wealthy.

Our own students at Minerva Schools at KGI spend the first year in San Francisco and then spend the next three years in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hyderabad, London, Seoul, and Taipei. We believe that in order to prepare students for the world, you do not sequester them in a plush campus behind gates, but you give them the opportunity to navigate the world. Rather than being offered a cafeteria, a gym, and other campus amenities, our students have to learn to navigate new cities, new cultures, and new languages to find ingredients to cook and places to work out. It is part of their learning journey where they start understanding the importance of cultural contexts and acquire a global mindset—it is yet another dimension of re-contextualisation that is critical in attaining wisdom.

Let’s talk about evaluations in Minerva. Is it true that there is no grading, and there is no comparison among university students? Do you think you can apply the same logic to K-12 education?

There are no high-stake exams at Minerva, but there are definitely assessments, evaluations, and feedback. Students are graded on the depth of their understanding, implementation and, most importantly, breadth of application, in other words, how they can transfer each learning outcome to new contexts. Exams and other high stakes summative assessments measure how much information a student has retained at a particular point in time which the science of learning has shown do not reflect long term learning. In the Minerva philosophy, students are given feedback after every written or oral interaction they contribute, thus ensuring continuous progress. This applies to our own students, as well as students at our partner organisations at the high school, college or professional levels.

What is the proportion of students from Latin-American and the Caribbean in the undergraduate program? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What potential do you see among these students that has not yet been realised?

Around 10% of our students come from Latin America and the Caribbean. Perhaps the best reality that Minerva has demonstrated is that a student’s country or region of origin is far less determinant of their personal traits and capacity than a host of other factors. I couldn’t tell you about the distinguishing challenges or accomplishments of our Latin American students any more than I could tell you about those characteristics of our tall students. Because Minerva does not have a student body population where any one region or country is the majority, every student may face an initial culture shock from living with such a diverse community. However, this initial change is also one of the greatest benefits of Minerva as students are able to see the perspective of a wide range of cultures in addition to the seven different global cities they live in during their four years. Students of any nationality who have the drive to improve themselves as learners and who embrace challenge as a means of personal growth are well prepared for the Minerva experience.

Perspective about K-12 education

What was your experience like as a K-12 student?

First and foremost, I think it is essential to break the myth that K-12 is anything more than an artificial construct. Heaven forbid if anyone’s Kindergarten experience resembles any aspect of their 11th-grade experience. Having said that, my K-12 experience was very different throughout. I went to three elementary schools in two different countries, but I always was ahead of my class. My middle school experience continued that trend of checking the boxes better than most but feeling less and less challenged. By high school, I realised that the primary function of the school was not in educating but in certifying, and I decided to make the most of that. By befriending various teachers and administrators in the high school, I got excused from a number of low weight courses and substituted them with new courses or independent studies that were highly weighted. The result was that I had the highest grade point average in my high school’s history—and by quite a margin—even though I wasn’t even the most academically distinguished student in my grade.

What is the role of K-12 education in the 21st century? What is the future of K-12 education?

All too often, we fall into the trap of certification as the goal of K-12—it is not. The role of all educational institutions, including those that serve the K-12 market, is to educate. This probably sounds absurd to have to mention. But the reality is that from policymakers to funders (philanthropic, government, or families) to those in the hierarchy of decision making in the K-12 or higher education sectors, the focus is almost exclusively on certification. We all hear the same three refrains as problems: Access, completion, and cost. There is a magic bullet that solves all three issues: lower standards. If you demand little from students, you can ensure that everyone gets access to information, completion rates can skyrocket, and it certainly doesn’t cost much. But these problems are not at the core; they are symptoms. They arise because what we teach is not relevant or useful for students, and we do so without using the best methodologies. K-12 education, especially at the secondary school level, should focus on graduating students with skills that enable them either to succeed in life—be it in the job market or further their education. In elementary schools and middle schools, much of that revolves around the basics of education. Secondary schools still focus on information acquisition in an information-ubiquitous age. What they should teach is how students can transfer cognitive and social skills into new contexts.

What can K-12 schools learn from Minerva Project?

We have been asked that question by high schools from all over the world for a number of years and, last summer, we launched the Minerva Baccalaureate. We leveraged much of our learning from our undergraduate program but adapted it to the core areas of knowledge that are universally agreed upon in the high school context. What that curriculum does, and what all secondary schools can learn from us, falls into three camps: 1) Deeply engage students in their learning so that every lesson of every class is seminal; 2) Make sure that no lesson is created in isolation and that learnings in one class get re-contextualised by applying them in others; 3) ensure that formative feedback around the application of knowledge is at the core of student incentives. At the same time, I wouldn’t be able to authoritatively speak to any aspect of elementary or middle school education—it’s simply not an area that I know the science behind well enough.

What are the skills that you emphasise in your programs? Are they different in your high school and university programs?

What is missing in all of the major high school curricular paradigms is cross-disciplinarity. High schools teach subject matters, but students do not learn how they all interlink, or more importantly, how to approach real-world challenges with a complex, multi-disciplinary lens. This is what Minerva sought to address when it built its Minerva Baccalaureate. For example, the use of evidence to support an argument is applicable in almost every subject, so in the Minerva Baccalaureate, the learning outcome we call #evidencebased is a cross-disciplinary outcome and is taught in the context of the sciences social sciences and language arts. In addition to teaching math, science, history, and English, the Minerva Baccalaureate also has a track on personal efficacy, which is invaluable for high school students. Our university programs leverage many of the same learning outcomes at a more advanced level as well as introduce dozens of new learning outcomes that are not appropriate for students who are in the early stages of high school. Unlike the high school curricula that cover subject matter concepts that are broadly agreed upon (e.g. in the sciences, the principles of chemistry, biology, and physics), our undergraduate curricula are solely focused on a set of required cognitive tools and then let students decide what cross-disciplinary areas they are interested in learning more deeply.

Do you think people will need to go to higher education in the future? Do you think this will be a prerequisite for success?

There are many ways to succeed, and university education is but one of them. There are examples of economies and societies (e.g., Germany) that thrive with a small proportion (less than a third) of the population receiving a traditional university education. And any holistic education reform should examine different pathways for success. However, I still believe in the importance of quality university education when it is the right path. I also believe that the evolution of our societies and the changing nature of work will make the ability to keep learning and acquiring new skills be the main prerequisite for success.

What do you believe is the future of education?

The future of education will be anchored on wisdom as opposed to information. That is not to say that information will not be a core component of the attainment of wisdom (it will), but the nature of education will focus on enabling students to apply learning in original and non-obvious ways.

Do you have plans for expansion in the LAC region in the future? Can you share a preview with us?

At Minerva Schools at KGI, our students already spend one semester of their third year in Buenos Aires. This was not possible in 2021, given the pandemic, but we hope to return there next year. We also have two partners in the Caribbean, one high school that is offering the Minerva Baccalaureate and a business school offering a suite of courses for the senior corporate executives. We are also in partnership conversations with institutions across the region for everything from our high school and university programs to our executive education and professional learning portfolio.

 

Its innovative creation of a new university program is detailed in Minerva’s Co-op Model: A Pathway to Closing the Skills Gap. This paper, done by Minerva and the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), explores Minerva’s model for collaboration between higher education providers and employers designed to overcome 21st-century challenges. In this co-op model, students earn a bachelor’s degree in three years while also working part-time during the second and third years. This model provides students with the foundational skills and knowledge needed to become broad, interdisciplinary thinkers while also giving them valuable work experience for which they earn credit while pursuing their degree.

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