The Creative Destruction of the University?

A lot of entrepreneurial startups are aiming squarely at the modern university. In a recent Wall Street Journal*, Matthew Kaminski interviews Ben Nelson, the founder of the Minerva Project -- a for-profit company that intends to completely revision what a university is. Kaminski writes, "Higher education's product-delivery system -- a professor droning to a limited number of students in a room -- dates back a thousand years." In similar circumstances, Wal-Mart destroyed America's small retail chains. Amazon destroyed Borders. Economists refer to this process as "creative destruction," and Ben Nelson wants to destroy Harvard. Well, maybe not to completely destroy it: "Our goal is to displace Harvard" as the number one university in the world. Minerva proposes to provide a better education than Harvard, at less than half the cost.

Yeah, right; this guy no one has ever heard of is going to displace the world's strongest educational brand in the world? But he has some high-profile backers. Benchmark, the venture capital firm that financed eBay and Twitter, last year made its largest investment ever in Minerva: $25 million. Larry Summers, the former Harvard president, is the chairman of Minerva's advisory board. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who was head of the New School University in New York City for 10 years, is in charge of fundraising. A former dean from Harvard, Stephen Kosslyn, is the academic dean.

These guys aren't trying to copy what Harvard does. Minerva won't have a physical campus and won't have a library. Students will take their courses in six or seven different cities, moving every six months or so with a cohort of about 150 peers: San Francisco, London, Singapore. Rather than big lectures disseminating information, students engage in experiences that that "teach you how to think," as Nelson puts it.

Minerva just might succeed. But several other ventures have traveled down the same path and failed. UNext was founded in 1997 with $120 million in funding from Michael Milken and Larry Ellison, as a web-based graduate university. (It failed.) Columbia University founded Fathom, a for-profit online learning company, in 2000. It closed three years later. And there are other ventures in this space: Udacity, Coursera, UniversityNow. All of these companies see the same numbers: Education accounts for more than 8 percent of the U.S. economy. That's big money, and schools haven't dramatically changed what they're doing in decades, so why not create some new value -- help to save the world, enhance our children's education, increase global competitiveness -- and get a piece of that 8 percent? The firm Global Silicon Valley Advisors predicts that the market for "eLearning" will grow by double digits annually for at least the next five years.

I believe that the way to success in education is by grounding everything you do in the latest science of how people learn. I do research in this area, and my colleagues and I see far too many schools and classrooms that are not designed to align with how students learn. If we could develop new education models, new learning environments, that were better grounding in the science of learning, then that would be a game-changer. Our students would learn better -- retaining knowledge longer, gaining deeper understanding, and the ability to apply their knowledge in a broad range of real-world situations.

So yes, I am receptive to attempts to reimagine schooling. This is why I am moving, next week, to a new position as a professor in "educational innovations" at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I'm noncommittal about whether this innovation will come from for-profits or non-profits, from the private sector or the public sector. Honestly, I think it will be a hybrid combination of all of these economic models, and we don't yet know how the education sector will unfold. I predict that the winners -- the people that truly help our children learn for the 21st century -- will be the people that stay grounded in the learning sciences.

*"The Weekend Interview: The Man Who Would Overthrow Harvard." Wall Street Journal, Sat/Sun Aug 10-11, 2013, page A11.