Welcome to episode 277 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology, I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Knemeyer.
Our special guest this week is Ben Nelson, the founder, chairman and CEO of Minerva, and an editor of the book, “Building the Intentional University”. Ben, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
Dirk, why don’t we dive right in with our questions for Ben today.
Sure Jon. So, Ben what are the problems with higher education in most colleges and universities today?
That’s a very broad question, but I could categorize the problems in one meta issue and then there are various manifestations of it. So the meta-issue is that colleges and universities are trying to be everything to everybody. And, if you were to create any kind of enterprise and say, “Oh, let’s serve the needs of many different constituencies,” often times with conflicting ones, then you would create a lot of problems.
And the thing that people don’t understand about the college and university system, when they look at it from the outside, is that the currency of higher education isn’t money, it’s not a generally profit-driven set of organizations. It isn’t outcomes unfortunately. It really is all about prestige. Prestige drives the world of academia, drives individual members with an academia, right? Professors who are striving for the Nobel Prize or for tenure or for publications in major magazines and everything that’s actually related to the other. And the decisions that the institutions themselves make is a collection of other elements of prestige. And so, when you think about all of those forces that are pushing universities, the thing that, unfortunately, gets compromised the most is education. Because the educating of students doesn’t generate prestige nearly as much as, the selection process of the students, the research careers of the professors, the amenities that the university can boast about, the beautiful campus, the sports programs, etc. And so, what happens is that education becomes — forget a second-class citizen or even a third-class citizen — in many ways an afterthought. And because of that, the university system, all over the world continue to provide a service that is suboptimal to say the least. And that really is I think at the core of all of the problems of higher education.
You’re right, these are big pictures issues and real meta threads. The first thing that you mentioned before prestige, was trying to be everything to everybody. You know, at Minerva, are you taking a more focused approach, is that one of the tacts you’re taking for an improved education experience?
Absolutely, so, we are an educational institution first and foremost. Now, there are things that you need to do if you are providing an education in residence, as we do. Our students all live together and they have a residential experience. So, obviously you have to make sure that the students are safe, right? That they have some infrastructure to make sure that you guide them on how to navigate the world, especially in the Minervans instantiation, that you provide them some co-curricular opportunities, ways for them to experience the world around them etc. But at the same time, we do that with the view of educating growing our students. And so rather than thinking about student safety as a silo, saying, “Oh my God, let’s just keep students safe, so, the easiest way to do that is just put them in jail,” right? So, you can just build a castle, put them in, generate moats, and armed guards and make sure nobody gets in. So the students are safe, at least from the outside world, but who knows from one another.
Instead, we look at it as, well, these students are going to graduate. And forget graduating, during the summer, they’re gonna go out and do an internship, maybe halfway around the world. They actually need to know how to keep themselves safe. They need to learn how to have some street-smarts. They have to learn how to navigate new environments. They have to learn what smart behavior is versus what’s pretty stupid behavior. And so, everything we do is trying to provide that level of focus for students. But what we don’t do is, we don’t have a campus. We have residence halls where our students live, but they’re in the middle of the world’s most vibrant cities. And so we don’t need to build an alternate reality that not only costs an enormous amount of money but has all sorts of other pulls and pushes from society. We don’t offer cafeterias. We don’t offer gyms. There are plenty of ways for you to eat and exercise in the real world. We don’t have intercollegiate athletic programs, so we’re not beholden to NCAA rules and competitions and de-focusing our students from their primary goal which is to study and learn. We don’t operate our own research labs. Many of our professors do decide to pursue very active and vibrant research careers. But we treat our professors like professors are treated in almost every other country in the world, including places like the UK and Germany, which is that professors need to write grants and those grants need to support their research. As opposed to having the institution charge undergraduates and subsidize the research that way. And so, we try to focus on the essence of what the educational mission of the university is, and design the institution around it to optimize educational outcomes, as opposed to worrying about other factors.
How does that manifest for the student, I mean the lack of infrastructure more integration into the city and environment? I understand that conceptually. But what does the experience look like for a Minerva student going through your program?
On the one hand, Minerva students have relatively similar experience to more of the large urban university. So, for example, if you think of a Columbia or an NYU and this is especially the case for NYU which is really integrated to the city. But even in Columbia, the students that spend a lot of time on that campus are kind of missing the point. They’re in Manhattan, they should probably take advantages of being in Manhattan and most students do. The fact that Columbia offers whatever infrastructure they offer on campus is in many ways a waste. Because students will spend the bulk of their time in the real world.
So, our students have the same type of day-to-day experience. The only difference is that they’re learning to adult a little bit faster, right? So, whereas in most universities, still the center of gravity is the frat party and I go the cafeteria and everybody takes care of me in the day-to-day. At Minerva, yes, you’re living together, you’re in a residence hall like in other universities, you have a residential life etc. But breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you have to cook. You’re cooking for yourself. You have to actually manage a life, much like you would when you’re an adult or when you’re out working over a summer in a summer internship. And so, the day-to-day experience is very much a modern city living, with the overhead of actually having a live-in staff member that you can turn to, that you can get advice from, infrastructure around mental health and student support, the kinds of guard rails that allow you to learn to adult faster and that’s kind of on the day-to-day.
It’s all very interesting. How does this translate to the formal educational experience? We’ve talked about sort of the lifestyle educational experience, but I think most of us listening to the show have been to college or university. We have a sense of what that educational experience looks like. How is it different at Minerva, the classroom? Do you have classrooms, what is that?
Yeah, so, if you think about a traditional education in a college or university. You think about it in a conglomeration of really independent units. You take 30 courses while you’re in school. There are 30 different professors who teach these courses. Those professors really don’t coordinate with one another very much. In fact, they have no idea what the makeup of their student body is within their particular class. Maybe certain students will have taken courses X, Y, Z, other students would have taken courses A, B, C. Sometimes there are prerequisites. But even when there are, I’m sure you’ve all been in classes and college where in the first two or four weeks of a class, a professor will feel compelled to do the entire previous semester’s worth of material just in case you didn’t actually learn it. And the nature of that education is very much on a unitized basis. So that’s one aspect. The second aspect of a traditional university is that it really is oriented towards the dissemination of information. Even at the most prestigious universities in the country, the majority of credits that are issued by a university are in lecture-based format. So students come in, a professor speaks for all or the overwhelming majority of the time. Even when a professor will take questions, the lecture effectively passes from one professor to one student, and the majority of students are sitting passively in class. So there are two problems with these two models. Curricularly, from a curricular a design perspective, the world doesn’t work in the discrete parts of subject-based knowledge. Just, the world isn’t divided into physics and isolation from biology in most cases, or politics isolated from economics and all cases etc. So the learning of discrete pieces of information isn’t very much related to the way the world works, and it’s also by the way not related to the way people think. Because when we think about somebody who is wise or can think about corporate applications of practical knowledge to particular situations, we think of somebody who has learned lessons in one context and applies them to another. And when you deliver education in discrete packages, it turns out the brain has a very hard time with understanding that. Secondly, when you’re sitting in an environment where you’re passively receiving information, the retention in the brain of that information is miniscule. So study after study has shown that in a typical test and lecture-based class, within six months of the end of the semester, students have forgotten 90% of what they knew during the final, which basically means that it’s just ineffective and so we change both of these aspects.
First, we create a curriculum and a delivery mechanism that ensures that your education isn’t looked at on a course by course basis, but is looked at from a curricular perspective. The way we do that is that we codify dozens of different element, learning objectives that we refer to as habits of mind or foundational concepts. Habits of mind are things that have become automatic with practice and foundational concepts of things that are generated, things that once you learn, you can build off of in many different ways. Then, these learning objectives, get introduced in one course, in a particular context. They then get presented in different context in the very same course and then they show up in courses throughout the curriculum in new context again, until you have learned generalizable learning objectives. Which means that you have learned things conceptually and the ways to apply them practically in multiple contexts which means that when you encounter original situations, original contexts, you’ll be able to know what to do in those situations. The second thing that we do, is that we make sure that 100% of our classes are fully active. What does fully active mean? It means that our professors aren’t allowed to talk for more four minutes at a time. The lesson plans are structured in such a way that the professor’s job is really to facilitate novel application from students on what they have studied, their homework, novel idea, and actually use class time to further their intellectual development of the students. And so we do this because, we’re able to do this because we’ve built an entirely new learning environment where our students, even though all of our classes are small, less than 20 students per class, we conduct all of our formal educational environment and formal educational classes online via live video. So, professor and 15 students get together from nine to ten-thirty on Mondays and Wednesdays, and during that hour and a half, students are constantly at the edge of their seats applying what it is that they have studied outside of class into new contexts. So whenever courses are extremely engaging. They’re very intensive. They’re integrative in the sense that you bring together different areas and fields together and they’re effective.
The active learning not even fully active learning which is what we do, but standard active learning with the same professor that gets 10% of retention after six months in a lecture and test-based class, same professor, same material, same quality of students. Two years after the end of an active learning class, students will retain 70% of the information.
Wow and it sounds like the professor is not even on site, that this is all being done with a professor remotely.
Correct. So all of the students live together. The professors are all over the world. We hire professors to be on our staff full-time, but we don’t let geography constrain them, which is another beauty of having a platform that enables close interaction between professor and student. And that allows for two things. It allows for two things. It allows for professors to be the best in the world in teaching their subjects, and it enables the students to change their location. And that’s why at Minerva, our students live in seven different countries by the time they graduate, because they don’t have to take the faculty with them. The faculty is accessible anywhere you are in the world, and so it gives our students the opportunity to both have a very deep formal education as well as the ability to apply that in multiple context in the real world.
And so you mentioned the platform. I mean that sounds like that sort of the underlying technology. What are sort of the features? What is it that makes the platform do its job so well?
So, there are two factors in that, that enable both of these approaches to education. The first one is that we’ve built a number of fully active learning techniques and methodologies into the platform. So, for example, at any time a professor can press a button and see how much time each students has spent talking in the class. But rather than showing charts and numbers and things like that, all the professor sees is in a color code for the each student’s video streams. So, he’ll see some students in green, some in yellow, some in red. And the ones in red means they talk too much, don’t call on them anymore. The ones in yellow, say they talked about the average amount of time. The green have not talked much at all and therefore they’re the ones that need to be engaged and coaxed out of their shell.
So would it be fair to say that you’re baking in sort of anti-bias?
Exactly, because what happens when you do that and another element that we do, is that the technology also then enables the professor to go back and rather than pass a snap judgment on who made a good point or who they thought did well in class. They go back later, listen to the recording of an activity in class or grade a paper and use rubrics to score.
Which again eliminates a lot of biases that generally favor men. When you just ask first impressions of professors both male and female, “What was your perspective on how well someone did?”, generally both male and female professors will over-grade on instinct male responses and under-grade female responses, which is bad for both genders. And so it creates an environment which is not a very good educational environment. So we bake a lot of these elements into the platform.
That’s really cool. Let’s talk about the professors. So what is the life of a professor look like? You know, how might their training experience differ from a traditional professor, their career path? It sounds like the professors can almost be gig-economy people who are doing this part-time while they do other things. Help me better understand what the professor Minerva looks like.
Sure. So, on the one hand the professors on the surface look just like professors in any other legal institution. They have great educational background. They have a Ph.D from the top program. They have interesting research areas etc. So on the surface, in many ways it looks the same. But there are really two fundamental differences in how we screen and prepare professors as well as their day-to-day lifestyle. So, now we screen and prepare them. In order to have a professor at Minerva, you actually have to go in front of the class of students and teach. And we observe how it is that you teach. We get feedback from the students. And that’s how we make the final decision who gets an offer.
And that’s important because, in a traditional academic environment, academics are rewarded for being very narrow and having a high rigid intelligence. By that I mean that right there they’re the world’s foremost experts on this version of plastics. And they have a particular way of producing these plastics and their way is the best way. And if competing with researcher has a different way, their job is to bring that researcher down. Right, to show that their way is better and they’re gonna argue for their way etc. So very narrow, very rigid.
Whereas, what we look for are professors that have very broad interest, because again we’re much more real world application. And the ones that have very high-fluid intelligence. Right, they have a perspective in the world. But if somebody else brings another perspective, what a high-fluid intelligence person would do is to listen to the argument, weighing the positives and negatives points, incorporate what makes sense and then counter what doesn’t.
So, a very different type of perspective, and then even once we screen them we put them through a month of training on how to do fully active learning, how to engage students, class management, etc. Which for most professors this is the first time they’ve ever been formally taught how to teach. Because nowhere in your undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D programs, do most students actually go through a process of teaching you how to teach. Even though it’s theoretically part of their profession. So that’s how we screen and train.
And then on the day-to-day professors at Minerva because of all this screening and training generally are full-time. The majority of classes that we offer at Minerva are taught by your full-time faculty. But there are some faculty, for example, that have a very active research program, right. And maybe doing research and a big scientific installation and only have time to teach half-time, which is fine. So we have also some of those professors who don’t teach a full-load but teach a half-load because they’re pursuing other types of research or non-classroom activities elsewhere.
That makes sense. So, already what you’re doing is very progressive. It’s ahead of where colleges and universities for the most part are. What do you see in the future? If you look out a decade or a couple of decades, I’m guessing that you see the Minerva model changing. How might that be and why?
Yeah. So, already every year we’ve improved and learned from what we’re doing and made Minerva better, we intend to continue doing that every single year. But I think that the biggest step change for Minerva is going to be when a new entrant will come in and create a model that’s even better than ours. If you think about the difference between the outcomes that we’re employing or deploying with fully active learning versus the standard educational model out there. All of the Ivy League universities etc. The delta or the difference in impact is a bigger impact difference then penicillin was to a sugar pill. It’s actually an absolute step change when you think about it. We often think of Minerva as penicillin. But Penicillin is also a very primitive antibiotic, right? Today there are so many other antibiotics that are particularly focused on a certain microbial. And our guess is that they’re going to be other institutions that will pop up in the future that are going to improve upon what we are doing and that’s gonna force us to make other step changes to catch up ourselves. But right now our hope is that at the very least until some of those institutions start up, that we can influence other universities to start rethinking what they’re doing about education. And again I mentioned at the beginning that universities are really driven by prestige. And up until now, prestige has been driven by research.
But universities are coming under so much attack from the left and the right. Because they’re in many ways disconnected with their educational purpose, that we believe that the notion of prestige will actually begin to shift, and start focusing on the outcomes. Universities have been able to get away with it for so long, because they in many ways tricked the rest of the world into believing that research granted prestige, or selectivity granted prestige equals outcomes generated prestige. But the fact of the matter is is that if you take the Harvard student body, and give it to Beacon Hill Community College, and you take the Beacon Hill student body and give it to Harvard, the outcomes will be exactly reversed. It will be with the students not with the students, not with the institution. Because guess what? Beacon Hill Community College and Harvard teach physics in the exact same way. There’s no difference, right? And so what universities have currently relied on is just attracting great students. And what we’re trying to show is that despite the fact that we attract wonderful students, what we’re able to do with them, the preparation that we give them where they can apply in the real world, puts them years ahead of their competitors or years of other institutions. And so we believe that the more the world sees this, the more the definition of prestige will change to be focused on outcomes. And if that occurs, then not only will you see new entrants adopt Minerva like models, but you’ll see existing institutions adopt their models as well.
For the existing institutions, it feels like it will be a longer time horizon. Probably starting with more mid-level institutions and the highest prestige ones being later to start sort of track what you’re thinking or is that off?
Well, I mean so far we’ve actually seen quite the opposite interestingly enough. So, for example a few months ago, we announced our first partnership with The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which happens to be the number one ranked young university in the world. That’s basically universities started in 1970 or later. And HKUST which is not only highly ranked as a young university, but highly ranked in general, extraordinarily prestigious. I think has the number one business program in Asia. I think number executive MBA in the world, was the first university to go and say, “You know what? We should look at the Minerva model and take a small group of students. And then implement this type of curriculum for them, for their general education and see what happens.” And I think that elite universities are actually under an enormous amount of pressure from the external world to demonstrate that it’s not just that they’re selecting good students. Because that’s no longer a novel or hidden trope. It actually is out there and there’s pretty strong evidence. In fact, there’s research that showed that if you look at people who are accepted to Harvard, but then decided to go other institutions including state schools. So long as they come from the top 80% of socio-economic household in the country, which is something like 97% of the students admitted to Harvard, that their life outcomes are exactly the same as those who choose to go to Harvard. Which again basically shows that it’s a selection process. And so I think the Ivys are under much closer scrutiny for effectively picking good students and then stepping aside as opposed to actually shaping them. And so, I do think that you’re gonna have institutions throughout the spectrum that are gonna be adopting the Minerva model. But I don’t think it will be reserved to institutions that are “in the middle of the pack”, as opposed to institutions across the board.
That’s very interesting. Coming back to the question of technology, are there any sort of emerging technologies, or sort of science fiction technologies, things that people aren’t even talking about, but you can imagine in your mind that you think could be a key component to help take Minerva specifically a higher education in general to the next level and why? How can technology really change?
Well, I think first and foremost, the piece of technology that we have deployed in part but are gonna continue to build on and work on the very near future is this idea of the scaffold of the curriculum. Introducing a particular learning objective and then tracking how that learning objective is applied and mastered across 30 different professors in four years. And this doesn’t sound like such a radical improvement, but it fundamentally changes the nature of education. Imagine, when you think about a person who is wise, the immediate image that you see in your mind is somebody who is old, right? Because they’ve had decades of experience and made the same mistake over and over again in very different context, and then they finally learn their lesson. Imagine if the world could produce students who had their analytical capabilities to make wise choices at 22, 23, that’s transformational. I mean and far more important than … often times people think about technology and education and say, “Oh, you got to have a virtual reality experience and fly through a pyramid”. Okay, who cares, right? I mean it’s not a really … it’s great for Hollywood. It’s great for sizzle. But how is that really going to change the world, how is that actually gonna have dramatic positive impact? Whereas, if you actually shorten the time that humanity needs to acquire wisdom by 30 or 40 years, think about what the world can do. And that, by the way, can only be done with technology. Without technology, you cannot track individual student progress, and modify their personalized intellectual development in a classroom environment. You need to have the data. You need to have the data in a way that the professor can react and do something with it.
And without technology, it’s just impossible. It’s impossible to collect the data. It’s impossible to disseminate it. It’s impossible to present it to the professor in real time, in a format which they can use it. And I believe that some of the real opportunities in the future are going where augmented reality will effectively replace the need to be on a … kind of have a laptop type interface.
I can imagine a virtual reality where you have a classroom of students and a professor in one place. Or where you have actually 30 students in 30 different parts of the world having an immersive real life experience with a professor with the data overlay. And I think when you have the opportunity for education to remove boundaries and constraints, you can all of a sudden think very differently about what the nature of education should be. And that empowers humans to come up with solutions that are far, far, far more advanced than what most universities are currently doing. And again, it’s how you go from our penicillin to the spectrum of antimicrobials that you’ll have in the future, in the analogy.
When you talked about for the world of young twenty-somethings who are wise and evolved, that makes me think of human development models such as integral theory. Are there any specific human development models or philosophies that you are sort of relying on as you work your way through all of this?
Well, there’s a number of them, but specifically really about how the brain works. Right now, granted, I may have been a little bit advanced in my hope for 22-year-olds or 23 year-olds to have real applied wisdom even thought we’re seeing some of that. Because the brain really doesn’t get overwhelmingly formed until 25 or 26. So you may have to push that back by a couple of years, have full frontal lobe, etc. So, that’s an important component. But when you really look at the literature that everything Minerva is based on, it comes from both aspects of literature around the mind actually works and how memory gets stimulated and is effective, and that’s the fully active learning part. But again, perhaps the more important aspect is literature around what psychologist refer to as far transfer. Now far transfer is actually a very thinly studied area of research, but it generally shows that it takes many people many decades to attain generalizable critical thinking. And that when you try to teach critical thinking or try to do development of people of generalizable skills, within subject, it just doesn’t work. So, there was a relatively prominent study in the world of far transfer that wanted to test how people are considered very good critical thinkers in their field do on general critical thinking types of questions. And so they used air flight controllers, the folks who are having to think on the flight about changing wind conditions and different planes coming in and making some really important on-the-spot critical thinking decisions. And wanted to see how they do on a general critical thinking test. And it turns out, they performed in the general test just like an average professional. Really there was no carryover from one area to another.
You can think about brilliant doctors or scientists that you talk to, engage with them in a conversation about politics or economics, or things that affect them day-to-day, their personal relationships. They are no better critical thinkers than anybody else. You know, that’s to say, “Oh yes, the best spouses are people who are extraordinarily brilliant economists.” I have not seen evidence of that to that effect. I think that’s true. And that is a failure of transfer. Because many principles that you can apply in critical thinking in a particular field apply broadly in any domain of your life. And that really is the key to education. So, if you can shortcut the process of mastering far transfer, you can have a pretty dramatic impact.
The colleges and universities are big, entrenched, bureaucratic organizations. If we have people listening to the show who are stakeholders in a place like that and they’re inspired by what they’re hearing, what would you suggest for them, how can people be part of sort of a grassroots change to move education forward?
So I would encourage them to begin having moral conversations in their institutions. And not to be gentle about them, but to go to their institution and have real challenge, right? To say, “Okay, timeout. If we believe that we’re educational institutions, if society is reliant on us to educate our students, how is it that the majority of credits that we deliver, we now have a 90% failure rate within six months. How can we live with ourselves for doing that?” And by the way, there is a lot of angst about the state of our national discourse and our politics. Our founding fathers created the university system in the United States different from that that existed in Europe specifically to teach the liberal arts. The liberal arts have nothing to do with poetry by the way, and nothing to do with humanities. The liberal arts were those disciplines that citizens and franchised citizens must master in order for them to enjoy the fruits of liberty, that’s where liberal arts comes from. And if you do not have mastery of transferable practical knowledge, the founding fathers used these terms, they used practical knowledge and useful knowledge, but not transferable because that’s a 20th century term. But they basically said, “Look, how could you have a person who is a farmer or a merchant or a doctor one day become a senator or a judge or a president the next day. If they’re not trained in liberal arts, the representative republic will not function.” And so, it is a job of universities to make our society function. And if you believe that you’re teaching critical thinking in a broad-based way, I have a wonderful challenge that anybody within an institution can give to their higher-ups. Do an AB test. Put our penicillin against your sugar pill and see what happens. And these are empirical institutions. They like evidence. Run a test. And I think when you approach an institution from the point of their moral standing and the responsibility in the society, and offer them a way to validate their beliefs. If they really believe that what they’re doing is great, then it’s gonna be very hard for any opposition to stand up to that. Because what will they say? Will they say, “Well yeah, we don’t really care about society.” They’re not gonna say that. “Oh yeah, we prefer to deliver courses in lectures even though we know it doesn’t work, all the evidence is crystal clear about that. We just think that our professors are magical lecturers, and when they lecture people actually absorb,” which is patently not true. Or they’re gonna say, “Oh well, we don’t wanna really run the AB test because despite the fact that all of the empirical evidence shows that what we’re doing is an absolute failure, and that we’re not living up to the responsibility that society has placed upon us. Well, we wouldn’t want to actually try to deploy something that is proven to be effective, because oh my god, we can’t possibly run an experiment on children.” Which of course, they’re doing by not deploying what experiments have shown has worked. And so, it’s a very had thing to resist once you engage in the intentionality, in the purpose of these institutions. Because the people at universities are good people. They want to see good in the world. They want to actually move the world forward. It is overwhelmingly an enlightened group of human beings. It just that it happens that when they get together, they become very conservative and resist change, and that’s their judgment of what they themselves wanna see happen.
Ben, this has been very inspiring and what you’re doing in Minerva is wonderful. So, I know you’ll keep it up, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here. Thank you so much.
Our pleasure and really, really appreciate you having me on.
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You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening. Ben, how about you?
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So, that’s it for episode 277 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.