In The Practical University David Brooks asks “What is a university for?” David suggests that the high level answer is “places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge … called technical knowledge and practical knowledge.”
We may find that mastery of technical knowledge can be enhanced by leveraging the free offerings from online innovators like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity. But it is not clear how far Udacity can go on the practical knowledge branch of the learning tree. What if we merged the face-to-face setting of a live-in residential college with adaptive learning software innovation and the real-time online presence of the world’s best teachers? As I understand it, that is the vision of the Minerva Project.
David Brooks ends his op-ed with these thoughts:
Let’s focus on practical wisdom in the modern workplace.
Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.
These skills are practical knowledge. Anybody who works in a modern office knows that they are surprisingly rare. But students can learn these skills at a university, through student activities, through the living examples of their professors and also in seminars.
Nelson’s venture, Minerva, uses technology to double down on seminars. Minerva is a well-financed, audacious effort to use technological advances to create an elite university at a much lower cost. I don’t know if Minerva will work or not, but Nelson is surely right to focus on the marriage of technology and seminars.
The problem with the current seminars is that it’s really hard to know what anybody gets out of them. The conversations might be lively, but they flow by so fast you feel as if you’re missing important points and exchanges.
The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.
So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.
More on the Minerva Project and other innovations in education here.