Robot Proof

At Sacred Heart, we are constantly gauging the skills our students must master to contribute to the world when they are in the workforce.  Here’s in interesting perspective on what fields will be “Robot Proof.”

Northeastern president discusses his new book on how higher education can train students for careers where technology cannot make them redundant.

September 12, 2017

In the era of artificial intelligence, robots and more, higher education is arguably more important than ever. Academic researchers are producing the ideas that lead to technology after technology. On the other hand, a challenge exists for higher education: how to produce graduates whose careers won’t be derailed by all of these advances. Now that robots can pick stocks, this isn’t just about factory jobs, but the positions that college graduates have long assumed were theirs.

Northeastern University is involved in both sides of that equation. Its academic programs in engineering, computer science and other fields are producing these breakthroughs. And its students — at an institution known for close ties to employers — of course want good careers. Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern’s president, explores these issues in Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press). Aoun is a scholar in linguistics when he’s not focused on university administration. His book argues that changes in the college curriculum are needed to prepare students in this new era, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the humanities or general education.

Aoun, one of seven presidents honored today by the Carnegie Corporation for academic leadership, responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: How worried should college graduates be about being replaced by technology? Is it likely that many jobs today held by those with college degrees will be replaced by robots or some form of technology?

A: Smart machines are getting smarter, and many of the jobs performed by people today are going to disappear. Some studies predict that half of all U.S. jobs are at risk within the next 20 years. And it’s not just blue-collar jobs; today intelligent machines are picking stocks, doing legal research and even writing news articles. Simply put, if a job can be automated in the future, it will be.

For higher education to meet this challenge — for us to make people robot-proof — we need to change. In my book, I offer a blueprint for how we can accomplish this. We will need to re-envision the curriculum, invest in experiential education and put lifelong learning at the heart of what we do. It will not be easy, but we have a responsibility — to the students of today and tomorrow — to change the way we do business.

Q: In an era of adaptive learning and online learning, should faculty members be worried about their jobs in the future?

A: We’re seeing educational content become commoditized. Therefore, the job of faculty members has to go beyond simply transmitting knowledge. More than ever, the priority for faculty is to create new knowledge and act as the catalysts to make their students robot-proof. The personal connection between student and teacher cannot be replaced by a machine.

But, like students, faculty members must act to meet the challenge of today’s world and should embrace the transformation of higher education that I describe in my book.

Q: What is “humanics,” and what are the three kinds of literacy that you want colleges to teach?

A: Humanics is the curriculum for a robot-proof education. It is based on the purposeful integration of technical literacies, such as coding and data analytics, with uniquely human literacies, such as creativity, entrepreneurship, ethics, cultural agility and the ability to work with others.

The key is integration. We need to break down the academic silos that separate historians from engineers.

When I talk to employers, they tell me that they would give their right arm for more systems thinkers — quarterbacks who can see across disciplines and analyze them in an integrated way. And every student should be culturally agile, able to communicate across boundaries, and to think ethically. By integrating technology, data and humanities, we can help students become robot-proof.

Q: In your vision for the future of higher education, is this about embedding these skills into existing programs or starting from scratch?

A: Higher education has the elements for a robot-proof model, but we need to be much more intentional about how we integrate them. As I’ve mentioned, our curriculum needs to change so that technical and human literacies are unified.

We need to deliver this curriculum in an experiential way. This means recognizing that learning happens beyond the classroom through co-ops and meaningful internships. I truly believe that experiential education is the most powerful way to learn.

Still, no one is going to be set for life. We need to commit to lifelong learning in a way that we haven’t done in the past. Universities have been engaged in lifelong learning for many years, but it is usually treated as a second-class operation. We need to bring lifelong learning to the core of our mission.

This will require us to rethink the way we deliver education, particularly to working professionals who don’t have time to be on campus every day. Online and hybrid delivery modes will be essential. We have to meet learners wherever they are — in their careers and around the world.

Credentials will need to be unbundled so that learners don’t have to commit to long-term degree programs. Stackable certificates, badges and boot camps will become the norm.

These changes won’t happen by themselves. Institutions should establish authentic partnerships with employers, redesign courses to fill gaps that employers actually need and connect them with students through co-ops and internships.

Q: How is Northeastern getting ready for these changes?

A: Northeastern has designed its academic plan to meet the challenges — and opportunities — presented by smart machines. Beyond the curricular changes required by humanics, and our leadership in experiential learning, we are building a multicampus network spanning different cities, regions and countries. Learners will be able to gain access to this network wherever they are and whenever it’s convenient for them.

Throughout its history, higher education has adapted to changes in the world. Knowing what we know about the revolution of smart machines, we have a responsibility to remain relevant and an opportunity to make our learners robot-proof.

Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?

The Wall Street Journal

Ben Nelson: The Man Who Would Overthrow Harvard

Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?

      By

MATTHEW KAMINSKISan Francisco

‘If you think as we do,” says Ben Nelson, “Harvard’s the world’s most valuable brand.” He doesn’t mean only in higher education. “Our goal is to displace Harvard. We’re perfectly happy for Harvard to be the world’s second most valuable brand.”

Listening to Mr. Nelson at his spare offices in San Francisco’s Mid-Market, a couple of adjectives come to mind. Generous (to Harvard) isn’t one. Nor immodest. Here’s a big talker with bold ideas. Crazy, too, in that Silicon Valley take-a-flier way.

Mr. Nelson founded and runs the Minerva Project. The school touts itself as the first elite—make that “e-lite”—American university to open in 100 years. Or it will be when the first class enters in 2015. Mr. Nelson, who previously led the online photo-sharing company Snapfish, wants to topple and transcend the American academy’s economic and educational model.

And why not? Higher education’s product-delivery system—a professor droning to a limited number of students in a room—dates back a thousand years. The industry’s physical plant (dorms, classrooms, gyms) often a century or more. Its most expensive employees, tenured faculty, can’t be fired. The price of its product (tuition) and operating costs have outpaced inflation by multiples.

In similar circumstances, Wal-Mart took out America’s small retail chains. Amazon crushed Borders. And Harvard will have to make way for . . . Minerva? “There is no better case to do something that I can think of in the history of the world,” says Mr. Nelson.

Some people regarded as serious folks have bought the pitch, superlatives and all. Larry Summers, the former Harvard president, agreed to be the chairman of Minerva’s advisory board. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who led the New School in New York from 2001-10, heads the fundraising arm. Stephen Kosslyn, previously dean of social sciences at Harvard, is Minerva’s founding academic dean. Benchmark, a venture-capital firm that financed eBay and Twitter, last year made its largest-ever seed investment, $25 million, in Minerva.

Mr. Nelson calls Minerva a “reimagined university.” Sure, there will be majors and semesters. Admission requirements will be “extraordinarily high,” he says, as at the Ivies. Students will live together and attend classes. And one day, an alumni network will grease job and social opportunities.

But Minerva will have no hallowed halls, manicured lawns or campus. No fraternities or sports teams. Students will spend their first year in San Francisco, living together in a residence hall. If they need to borrow books, says Mr. Nelson, the city has a great public library. Who needs a student center with all of the coffee shops around?

Each of the next six semesters students will move, in cohorts of about 150, from one city to another. Residences and high-tech classrooms will be set up in the likes of São Paulo, London or Singapore—details to come. Professors get flexible, short-term contracts, but no tenure. Minerva is for-profit.

The business buzzword here is the “unbundling” of higher education, or disaggregation. Since the founding of Oxford in the 12th century, universities, as the word implies, have tried to offer everything in one package and one place. In the world of the Web and Google, physical barriers are disappearing.

Mr. Nelson wants to bring this technological disruption to the top end of the educational food chain, and at first look Minerva’s sticker price stands out. Freed of the costs of athletics, the band and other pricey campus amenities, a degree will cost less than half the average top-end private education, which is now over $50,000 a year with room and board.

His larger conceit, inspired or outlandish, is to junk centuries of tradition and press the reset button on the university experience. Mr. Nelson offers a fully-formed educational philosophy with a practiced salesman’s confidence. At Minerva, introductory courses are out. For Econ or Psych 101, buy some books or sign up for one of the MOOCs—as in massive open online course—on the Web.

“Too much of undergrad education is the dissemination of basic information that at that level of student you should expect them to know,” he says. “We just feel we don’t have any moral standing to charge you thousands of dollars for learning what you can learn for free.” Legacy universities move students to their degrees through packed, required lecture classes, which Mr. Nelson calls their “profit pools.” And yes, he adds, all schools are about raking in money, even if most don’t pay taxes by claiming “not-for-profit” status.

In the Nelson dream curriculum, all incoming students take the same four yearlong courses. His common core won’t make students read the Great Books. “We want to teach you how to think,” Mr. Nelson says. A course on “multimodal communications” works on practical writing and debating skills. A “formal systems class” goes over “everything from logic to advanced stats, Big Data, to formal reasoning, to behavioral econ.”

Over the next three years, Minervaites take small, discussion-heavy seminars via video from their various locations. Classes will be taped and used to critique not only how students handle the subjects, but also how they apply the reasoning and communication skills taught freshman year.

The idea for Minerva grew out of Mr. Nelson’s undergraduate experience. As a freshman at Penn’s Wharton School, he took a course on the history of the university. “I realized that what the universities are supposed to be is not what they are,” he says. “That the concept of universities taking great raw material and teaching how it can have positive impact in the world is gone.”

Undergraduates come in, take some random classes, settle on a major and “oh yeah, you’re going to pick up critical thinking in the process by accident.” By his senior year, Mr. Nelson was pushing for curriculum changes as chairman of a student committee on undergraduate education. As a 21-year-old, he designed Penn’s still popular program of preceptorials, which are small, short-term and noncredit seminars offered “for the sake of learning.”

A Wharton bachelor’s degree in economics took him to consulting at Dean & Company in Washington, D.C. “My first six months, what did the consulting firm teach me? They didn’t teach me the basics of how they do business. They taught me how to think. I didn’t know how to check my work. I didn’t think about order of magnitude. I didn’t have habits of mind that a liberal arts education was supposed to have given me. And not only did I not have it, none of my other colleagues had it—people who had graduated from Princeton and Harvard and Yale.”

 

After joining Snapfish in 1999 and leaving as CEO a little over a decade later, Mr. Nelson, who is 38 and married with a daughter, wrote and shopped around his business plan for Minerva. He says he considered partnering with existing institutions, but decided to build a 21st-century school from scratch to offer the “ideal education.”

Ideas like his are not in short supply. The catch? No one has found a way to make a steady profit on an ed-tech startup.

Going back to the Internet bubble of the late 1990s, many have tried. With $120 million from Michael Milken and Larry Ellison and a board of big names, UNext launched in 1997 as a Web-based graduate university. It failed. Fathom, a for-profit online-learning venture founded by Columbia University in 2000, closed three years and several million in losses later.

In the current surge of investment in new educational companies, Minerva has no direct competitor but plenty of company. Udacity and Coursera, two prominent startups, are looking to monetize the proliferation of MOOCs. UniversityNow offers cheap, practical courses online and at brick-and-mortar locations in the Bay Area. And so on.

Education accounts for 8.7% of the U.S. economy, but less than 1% of all venture capital transactions in 1995-2011 and only 0.3% of total public market capitalization, as of 2011, according to Global Silicon Valley Advisors. The group predicts the market for postsecondary “eLearning” and for-profit universities will grow by double digits annually over the next five years.

Mr. Nelson’s vision will be beside the point if Minerva fails to attract paying students. He makes a straightforward business case. Harvard and other top schools take only a small share of qualified applicants, and for 30 years have refused to meet growing demand. A new global middle class—some 1.5 billion people—desperately wants an elite American education. “The existing model doesn’t work,” he says. “The market was begging for a solution.”

Audacious ideas are easy to pick apart, and Mr. Nelson’s are no exception. He repeats “elite” to describe a startup without a single student. Reputations are usually earned over time. Many prospective students dream of Harvard for the brand. Even at around $20,000 a year—no bargain for middle-class Chinese 18-year-olds—Minerva won’t soon have the Harvard cachet.

Any education startup must also brave a regulatory swamp. By opting out of government-backed student-loan programs, Minerva won’t have to abide by many of the federal rules for so-called Title IV (of the relevant 1965 law) schools. Americans won’t have an edge in admissions and Minerva expects most students will come from abroad.

But Mr. Nelson wants to be part of the club whose price of entry is accreditation. A cartel sanctioned by Congress places a high barrier to entry for newcomers, stifling educational innovation. Startups face a long slog to get accredited. So last month Minerva chose to partner with the Keck Graduate Institute, or KGI, a small school founded in 1997 that is part of the Claremont consortium of colleges near Los Angeles. Minerva degrees will now have, pending the regulatory OK, an accreditor’s seal of approval.

With this move, Mr. Nelson eased one headache and raised some questions. KGI offers only graduate degrees in life sciences, an unusual fit for an undergraduate startup. KGI isn’t a recognizable international name for Minerva to market. Yet Mr. Nelson says the schools are “completely complementary” and the deal represents “zero change in our mission.”

Among the other marketing challenges: Won’t Minerva undergrads miss out on lifelong bonding built in classrooms, dorms and next to the keg? Traveling across the world, Mr. Nelson says, will bring people even closer together. Campus activities? Imagine a college newspaper with 25 foreign bureaus, he shoots back, or the cultural attractions of the world’s great cities. “If you want to be an intercollegiate fencer, do not come to Minerva. Bad idea,” he says. “There are a lot of traditional experiences that a traditional university will provide you that we will not.”

Effusive on every other topic, Mr. Nelson turns vague when I bring up Minerva’s finances. Skeptical investors have seen this movie before. Mr. Nelson doesn’t even hint at projected profit or a growth timetable. He says the school has to become roughly the size of an Ivy League university, enrolling around 10,000 students, to break even. “Making your profit, your substantial revenue, based on 18-year-olds is not the mover,” he says. “It’s what you do with them. It’s how you build the brand.”

If the bulk of revenues won’t come from undergrads, then where? “We’ll see,” he says. Perhaps executive education, or licensing classroom content or technology, or putting on conferences. “Our enterprise value will not be derived nearly as much from our ‘E’ as much as P/E,” he says, as in the price/earnings ratio. “It isn’t about maximizing profits. It’s all about how the brand unlocks the future potential earnings.” Harvard, a multibillion-dollar operation, is a business more than an academic model.

Whether or not Mr. Nelson and Minerva shake up American higher education, someone will.

Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.