Diana El-Azar is the Senior Director of Strategic Communications at Minerva Project – an educational organization that partners with leading institutions and organizations to design and deliver customized learning and talent development programs, through innovative curriculum, pedagogy, and technology. Minerva Project is a pioneer in educational transformation and is a member of the 21st Century Skills Coalition joined by different public and private organizations to promote the development of 21st century skills in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The vast majority of university students saw their education upended because of the COVID-19 pandemic sometime between January and March 2020. However, it was (almost) ‘business as usual’ for the 600 Minerva undergraduate students. With their entire curriculum delivered via a virtual environment, their education had always been “remote.” The students were scattered over four cities (San Francisco, Taipei, Buenos Aires, and Hyderabad), this being the spring semester. Under normal circumstances, they would continue to Seoul, Berlin, and London in the fall, living together and participating in civic projects in their local communities (In the case where it won’t be possible to travel to those locations in September 2020, the experiential learning will also happen virtually). Their professors also were all over the globe, as they taught the courses on a proprietary platform designed for active learning.
Understandably, other schools and universities had to find short-term solutions to become operational overnight. Such a rapid migration was often translated into technological stopgap measures. However, it becomes apparent that disruptive forces will not be rare occurrences (in the form of social unrest, environmental calamities, or other pandemics). Schools and universities need to transform themselves to become more resilient beyond changing technological platforms. This crisis is an opportune time for universities to rethink how prepared they and their graduates are for an unpredictable and volatile world.
BEYOND TECHNOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION: A CALL FOR 21ST CENTURY SKILLS EDUCATION
As digital technologies disrupted almost all industries, many higher education institutions expanded their curricula to offer more emerging, technological skill sets, such as data science, robotics, and programming. However, a recent IBM study finds that only 41% of CEOs surveyed in 48 countries say that they have the right talent to succeed in the 21st century, critical skills required being mostly behavioral, such as flexibility and adaptability.
It is the common agreement that the key skills needed for the future converge on critical and creative thinking, communication, and collaboration (Reimagine Education, World Economic Forum Skills for 21st Century). However, despite their critical importance, only a few higher education institutions have enriched their curricula with more enduring, universal, “human” skills, rather hoping that students pick them up haphazardly.
Source: World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education (2016)
PRINCIPLES FOR A 21ST CENTURY UNIVERSITY CURRICULUM
There is still some debate on what the purpose of higher education is. Some argue that higher education is solely for preparing graduates for specific careers, which we view as very narrow, and less useful as these careers are changing faster than education. Others argue that education is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom for their own sake.
At Minerva, we champion a third path, a view proposed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson more than two centuries ago. Their view advocates usefulness or “practical” knowledge; knowledge acquired to serve the country and humankind. We believe this view as increasingly relevant for the 21st century, even if our understanding of what is useful or practical has evolved in the last 200 years.
In designing the curriculum to impart 21st century skills to students, Minerva has relied on essential principles:
- Content is not the focus: content is increasingly ubiquitous and (almost) free. Thus, it is not the role of the university to ask students to memorize freely available content. We use the “flipped classroom” approach, where students are expected to acquire most of the content on their own. The skills that students learn are not about memorizing the content, but knowing where to find it, how to evaluate it, and what to do with it.
- Students need informed choice: Most students do not have a very clear idea of what they want to do after graduation and may make premature choices as required by their universities. At Minerva, all students take the same four foundational courses the first year and will only choose their major in the middle of their second year. These four courses are:
- Formal Analyses (which focuses on core aspects of critical thinking),
- Empirical Analyses (which focuses on core aspects of creative thinking),
- Multimodal Communication (which focuses on core aspects of effective communication), and
- Complex Systems (which focuses on core aspects of effective interrelation).
- Active learning, not passive listening: At Minerva, we do not have lectures. Stephen Kosslyn described lectures as a great tool for teaching, yet a terrible one for learning. At Minerva, our classes are all seminar-based. Faculty act as facilitators, setting the context, and speaking less than 15% of the time. Students take charge, and engage in debates, polls, and collaborate on the material.
- Students need to be immersed in the world instead of leading a sequestered life on campus: In each of the seven cities we mentioned at the beginning of the article, students engage in various experiential programs, including community projects, working with local businesses and government agencies, and student-centric activities like communal meals, club meetings, and hackathons. These programs incorporate individual coaching and are closely integrated with academics, so students receive formative feedback across multiple dimensions, including professionalism, self-management, cultural dexterity, personal responsibility, and interpersonal engagement. This global cultural immersion is only possible if the formal academic education is delivered virtually.
- Embracing practical knowledge: students are encouraged and supported in seeking internship opportunities from their first year on to their graduation. Feedback from their managers is an informal part of their assessment process.
TEACHING UNIVERSAL SKILLS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
Minerva identifies four core competencies: critical thinking, creative thinking, effective collaboration, and effective interrelation. To teach these core competencies, we break them down into “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts.” “Habits of mind” include cognitive skills that will become automatic with the right triggers. “Foundational concepts“ include broadly applicable fundamental knowledge.
All of the four core competencies draw on both types. For example, we can break down effective interrelation to several habits of mind and foundational concepts. These habits and concepts will become the learning objectives for each class:
- Negotiating, mediating, and persuading, which relies on “preparing multidimensional best alternatives to a negotiated agreement.”
- Working effectively with others, which relies on “learning to assign team roles appropriately, which requires being sensitive to the nature of the task and specific roles.”
- Resolving ethical dilemmas and having social consciousness, which relies on“evaluating ethical dilemmas and framing the dilemma in a way to resolve it.”
- Interacting with complex systems, which relies on “identifying emergent properties and dynamics of complex systems.”
This is just one example of how we at Minerva are teaching our students to be ready for the 21st century, by focusing on concepts rather than on ever-changing contexts. Automation has disrupted industries, destroying some jobs, and creating others that we cannot yet imagine. Students will need to transfer knowledge from one context into another, and gain that mental agility.
During this COVID-19 crisis, higher education institutions have shown that they can adapt and respond quickly. Now is a chance for them to reinvent themselves by focusing on learning outcomes that prepare their graduates for an unpredictable and volatile future.