BY LAJU ARENYEKA
Experience, they say, is the best teacher. If this statement is true, then the best teaching practices do not tally with the well known, widely accepted style of copying, cramming and pasting that is practiced in Nigerian universities, and indeed, all over the world. It isn’t only this popular saying that contradicts the popular mode of education; proprietors of Minerva University in United States of America, which was founded in 2012, say they are out to redefine what a university education should be in the 21st century.
Minerva’s Recruitment Director for Africa, Mrs. Fatou Badiane-Toure in a chat with Saturday School Life argued that “the inspiration to build a radically different university stemmed from an analysis of the current world of higher education and the lack of focus on equipping students with the skills they really need in order to thrive.”
But how exactly does the Minerva style of education work? The university just took in its first batch of 33 students, from different parts of the world, who do not take classes, but intensive, interactive seminars in a virtual environment through video conferencing. After their first year in California, these students will spend each semester in a different city of the world, and at the end of their four-year stay, would have experienced living in at least seven different cities. Badianne-Toure argued that what sets the new university apart is that its “curriculum is centered on purposefully teaching students habits of mind, and foundational concepts, that will teach students how to think creatively, think critically and communicate effectively.
This is different from what is done at other institutions, where the focus of the curriculum is in transferring information – and hoping that students pick up the other skills incidentally. At Minerva, this is reversed – we focus on the key skills and use subject matter as case studies.”
Joy Okoro, is the only Nigerian among the founding students of the University. From her experience at Minerva, she was quick to point out that Nigerian Universities mist utilize their access to technology to revolutionize the education sector. She opined: “Technology is at our disposal but it is not being well utilized in higher education in Nigeria/Africa.
Universities do not necessarily need to be as adventurous as Minerva and hold all classes online but should incorporate the use of laptops in classes. Collaborative documents, videos, online journals and articles would help to make current and interesting information more accessible to students. Books and papers get wet, torn or lost but online material will always be there and can be downloaded in some cases. This will revolutionize higher education in Africa.”
Revolution seems to be the reason for Minerva’s completely untraditional university. With no library, no dining hall, no gym, a different city each year-Minerva seems to be doing away with everything traditional about a university education even beyond the classroom onto social interaction? In this respect, the Minerva spokesperson responded:
At Minerva, we see the different cities where our students will be living as our “campus.” To this end, we do not seek to reinvent the stadiums or libraries or theaters that exist in San Francisco but will instead use this great, existing infrastructure to allow our students to explore and create their university experience. Because our students will be traveling in cohorts, they will still have the “social interaction” and cohesion that their peers at other universities are exposed to. They will be living with their classmates, participating in group projects and many other interactions that students have at traditional universities.”
She added that “during class times on Minerva’s learning platform, students will be able to see their peers and interact with them in real time. What Minerva is reforming is the present constraint of space that exists in universities – especially highly selective universities. With Minerva’s model, bright and motivated students around the world will have the opportunity to study from the world’s greatest professors without limited capacity constraints – or country-based quotas. And they will be gaining useful knowledge and skills they need to make meaningful impact in their areas of interest.”
Minerva has said that it brings innovation in higher education through a reinvented curriculum stemming from groundbreaking research on how students learn best, critical analysis and effective communication, a proprietary virtual learning platform that mimics all features traditional classrooms offer, and an engaging global experience with Minerva residences in various vibrant cities around the world.
Experience, they say, is the best teacher. But in today’s global village where a student is not just competing with his peers in his country, but those around the world, the best teaching practices are usually a combination of the right experience, generous use of technology, proven research and whatever combination is needed to make students think without the box altogether.