When it comes to modern higher education, a few things are universally clear. First, there is no one right answer for every student. Second, everyone involved is still learning what methods will work best in the 21st century. But some clear winners do stand out for their effective, outside-the-box approaches, and a few of them were honored at the recent inaugural Reimagine Education Conference.

Among the innovations that were celebrated was the flipped classroom, a model vigorously promoted by keynote speaker Ben Nelson, founder, chairman and CEO of the Minerva Project, which offers a fresh approach to higher education.

“The flipped classroom is really, really important,” said Geoffrey Garrett, dean of the Wharton School, in his introduction of Nelson. “We tend to think of online versus on-campus as either-or; they’re not. They’re clearly integrated.”

The flipped classroom is a new model of higher education in which students spend their in-class time discussing questions and solving problems in collaborative groups. The professor functions more as a facilitator than a traditional teacher. And outside of class — the time we all knew and loved as “homework” — is when students absorb the basic materials of the class, via videos and other online media. As a result, they are expected to come to class already familiar with the fundamentals, ready to apply what they have learned.

“Flipping the classroom is really saying that it’s not university education that’s an endangered species — it’s the lecture,” said Garrett. Even the layout of educational spaces is changing to reflect the new approach. In one institution, lecterns are being replaced with furniture such as “barstools and beanbags” in order to “de-center the professor” and facilitate collaborative work.

A Better Kind of Education?

Garrett commented that Nelson was not just flipping the classroom, but the whole university. “To waste time by transmitting information in class doesn’t do anybody any good,” Nelson said. He added that at Minerva, all seminars are what he refers to as “fully active,” meaning every student is required to be actively engaged at least 75% of the time. Professors are not permitted to talk for more than five minutes straight, and classes are kept small, with fewer than 20 students. Minerva’s goal, according to Nelson, is to “take the traditional American liberal arts education and deliver it in a richer, more effective, more efficient way to the hardest-working, most motivated, brightest students in the world.”

“It’s not university education that’s an endangered species — it’s the lecture.” –Geoffrey Garrett

However, since its founding in 2011, there has been much debate over whether or not Minerva’s model represents the future direction of higher education. If we already have Ivy League universities to serve outstanding students, asked Nelson, then why is a new approach necessary? He painted a picture of today’s leaders, such as Fortune 500 CEOs, politicians and others in power, who may make “horrendous business decisions.” These decisions have profoundly negative effects, said Nelson. Thousands of people may lose their jobs, or worse. Yet if the failed business leader is removed, he “goes and consults, sits on boards, works less and makes even more money,” and the ousted politician “winds up making more money being a lobbyist.”

It is not that these individuals “are nefarious, or want to do bad things,” Nelson noted. Instead, he argued that the universities that educated them may have prepared them for a job or field of study, but failed to supply their students with “the ways to process a complex world and think through it.”

Nelson believes the solution is to “design the institution from the goals on back.” Minerva, he said, focuses on 129 different habits of mind and foundational concepts that teach students how to analyze the world. Rather than being “by-products of learning other material,” they are the subject matter. He gave as an example the concept of unintended consequences: At Minerva, students might study this concept as it occurs across biological, economic and legal systems. “Now the mind can internalize that idea and apply it in other contexts.”

Nelson further explained that four systems of thinking constitute the foundation of a Minerva degree: formal systems, empirical systems, complex systems and rhetorical systems. Another unique aspect of Minerva is that while the students all live together in residence halls and attend classes in person, they use a custom-built collaborative online program to communicate while in class.

One audience member referenced Nelson’s description of Minerva as “elite” and asked why this educational approach was targeted only toward top-performing students. Nelson responded that to truly transform higher education, simply inventing a new institution or renovating a failing one has little effect. But, “if Harvard, MIT and Stanford do something, everybody immediately follows.” He stated, “If you really want to institute systemic reform in higher education, you have to convince the Ivy League to change … effectively to out-elite the elite.”

The First Annual Reimagine Education Awards

Some of the more out-of-the-box approaches in today’s higher education landscape — from breakthrough electronic technologies and collaborative learning to hands-on projects, gamification and a global focus — were recognized and celebrated at the evening’s award ceremony. The inaugural Reimagine Education Conference was launched by QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a global provider of specialist higher education and careers information and solutions, in partnership with The Wharton School’s SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management.

“If you really want to institute systemic reform in higher education, you have to convince the Ivy League to change.” –Ben Nelson

The conference hosts — Jerry Wind, director of the SEI Center, and Nunzio Quacquarelli, the managing director of QS Quacquarelli Symonds — described the awards as the “Oscars of innovation in higher education.” Awards were given to 21 projects, selected from 427 entries by universities and enterprises in 43 countries. The panel of 25 international judges hailed from both industry and academia, including representatives from Amazon, IBM, Google, IE University in Spain, the University of Pennsylvania, University of New South Wales in Australia, the National University of Singapore, the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo in Canada.

From Virtual Monsters to Animated Science

The Overall Winner award, which carried a grand prize of $50,000, was split between two teams: PaGamO from National Taiwan University, and PhET Interactive Simulations from the University of Colorado, Boulder. (See a complete list of the winners in different categories here.)

“I believe that gaming for education will not just be something nice to have. It will be a must-have,” said Benson Yeh, the inventor of PaGamO. A professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University, Yeh describes PaGamO as the world’s first multi-student social game. Students compete to amass virtual land and wealth by answering questions and solving problems, and can then buy defenses to guard their holdings against virtual monsters and other competitors.

Yeh says he was inspired to create PaGamO when he realized that “[kids are] on smartphones and tablets, playing games all day long. As a disruptor, as a teacher, as a parent, it is something that we always think about. How can we get students’ time back from those ordinary games to learning?” he asked.

Yeh built a gaming system for use in his own classes a few years ago, and its success made him want to build a more comprehensive program that could be applied to any discipline. “You can easily use PaGamO to transform your course,” he noted. So far, the game has been used to teach probability in China, math to K-12 students in the U.S., dentistry to Ivy League undergraduates, and management and leadership to employees of a Fortune 500 company.

Kathy Perkins, director of the PhET project, accepted the award for PhET Interactive Simulations. Addressing the need to improve science education at all educational levels in the U.S. and around the world, she explained that PhET’s interactive animations are designed to help students grasp fundamental scientific principles. According to the conference materials, to date over 130 simulations in physics, biology, chemistry, earth science and math — translated into 78 languages — have been used more than 75 million times a year by students worldwide.

“Each PhET simulation creates an open environment where students can engage with the science content like scientists: exploring, asking questions, using reasoning, discovering relationships and testing their own ideas,” noted Perkins. She added that the project was designed to be as flexible and accessible as possible, so it could be used in a lecture, lab or as homework by the teacher or student. The simulations are available free on the web and can be run either online or offline so that Internet connectivity is not required.

“I believe that gaming for education will not just be something nice to have. It will be a must-have.” –Benson Yeh

Some new developments in the offing, Perkins said, include the introduction of back-end data collection capabilities to record student achievements, and inclusive design that will improve accessibility for students with vision impairments and other disabilities.

Pushing the Envelope

Other Reimagine Education awards were given in the categories of e-learning, enterprise, hybrid learning, nurturing employability, presence learning and teaching delivery. Anthony Wood accepted a Teaching Delivery Award for Tulane University’s Burkenroad Reports division of the A. B. Freeman School of Business. The program gives students practical stock analysis experience by connecting them with small-cap companies in the Gulf South, according to Tulane University. Students get to meet top management and publish investment reports on “Stocks Under Rocks” in six states. “Our students are so well-prepared to go into companies and handle the challenges and the situations they need to be able to deal with,” said Wood.

Mads Bonde, founder and CEO of Denmark-based Labster, received an Enterprise award for its 3D virtual laboratory program of the same name. Students use Labster to investigate “life science case stories.” Bonde commented, “We have shown that students are very motivated, and that they learn more than through regular methods.” He noted that Labster is now partnering with MIT and Stanford and being used by thousands of students worldwide.

The Nurturing Employability Award went to The HealthFusion Team Challenge, an internationally recognized extracurricular competition based in Australia for senior students in the health sciences. Professor Pamela Rowntree of the department of Health at Queensland University of Technology explained that in the challenge, multi-disciplinary student teams compete based on a scenario such as a road accident or disaster in a town. “They have to get together and come up with a plan on how they would deal with the particular scenario … build the teamwork and produce a response.”

“The students come first. We actively design with them,” said professor Chad Harvey of McMaster University, describing his program “Learning Through Interdisciplinary Science Research,” which won a Presence Learning Award. Through the program, teachers, students and administrators collaborated to design a new program aimed toward producing science graduates who are skilled in research and communication.

A special Outstanding Contribution to Education Award was given to the Global Education & Leadership Foundation (tGELF). Presenting the award to tGELF’s CEO Gowri Ishwaran, Jerry Wind commented, “I was extremely impressed with what the Foundation is doing.… It’s one of the most amazing initiatives, with enormous global long-term impact. [It has] a great goal of not only coming up with the next leaders, but ethical and altruistic leaders.” According to the foundation’s website, tGELF currently connects with 1 million students through 7,000 master trainers across 1,000 schools and NGOs in 12 countries. “Our dream is that this cohort of young people as they grow, will become a kind of movement, and bring about the changes that we so desperately require,” said Ishwaran.