Higher education has to be overhauled: entrepreneur Ben Nelson at ST-SIM forum

Ben Nelson, the entrepreneur who founded Minerva, speaks at the Forum on Disruptions in Education (DisruptED), co-organised by The Straits Times and the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) on Feb 3, 2018 at SIM HQ. ST PHOTO: LIN ZHAOWEI

SINGAPORE - The traditional university model should be shaken up because it does not effectively train students to apply their knowledge and skills across contexts, said the founder of an American school that has reinvented college experience.

The model should be replaced by one that truly develops critical and creative thinking, said Mr Ben Nelson, CEO of Minerva project.

"The way in which universities teach is proven scientifically to be broken," he said. "When you have an individual who learns certain habits within a context... no matter how good of a critical thinker they are in their field, they are not able to transfer that knowledge to anything else.

"The nature of work and society... is to be able to translate what we learn from various aspects of our lives into new contexts," said Mr Nelson.

The 43-year-old entrepreneur was speaking on Saturday (Feb 3) at a forum - Disruptions in Education (DisruptED). It was co-organised by The Straits Times and the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM).

Founded in 2012, Minerva - whose headquarters is in San Francisco - offers four-year tertiary education. Instead of classroom lessons, seminars of up to 20 students are conducted online.

Students spend the first year studying foundational concepts that make up critical and creative thinking, such as logic, through problem-solving tasks. For instance, they could be tasked to think of solutions to high school attrition in a city. They also learn effective communication.

In the next three years, they apply these elements to different majors such as computational sciences or arts and humanities.

The university requires students to live and study in up to seven cities in a bid to immerse them in different cultures.

Mr Nelson said the students scored the highest in the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardised test that evaluates skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

About 400 people attended the forum at the SIM Global Education campus.

Another speaker Kristina Kaihari, counsellor of education at the Finnish National Agency for Education, said Finland has broken moulds in its education system by focusing on learning through play in the first six years of a child's life.

Children also learn about history, science and mathematics from their natural surroundings such as forests, said Ms Kaihari. This is to help them "understand, not just remember things", she added.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Education, and Communications and Information, who was the guest-of-honour, said the Education Ministry is encouraging new models of teaching and learning in the face of disruptions.

For instance, schools are adopting digital tools such as open-source platforms and mobile applications to track learning. MOE also funds research in innovative teaching.

But there are downsides such as a less efficient system.

"There's not going to be a guarantee that every experiment, every disruptive innovation that we try in the education service may work perfectly the first time," said Dr Janil.

"We need to prepare our students for a different kind of world. We need to build in them the resilience and adaptability... if you need to try something and fail, then try something different, that's okay," he added.

Newsrooms are also changing the way they work, said Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times.

"We have transformed the way we operate, the way we think, into being a fully multi-media operation," he said.

Disruption has brought with it both challenges and opportunities, he said, from having to chase digital advertising to people realising the value of quality journalism with the spread of fake news.

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