De Lange Conference explores universities and the future of teaching

The university classrooms of the 20th century may engender memories of low-tech, fluorescent-light-lit rooms and dusty chalkboards. In 2014, much about traditional university teaching has changed and will continue to change, according to the more than a dozen of the country’s leading education experts who gathered at Rice University Oct. 13-14 for the international De Lange Conference IX to explore and envision “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow.”


Two conference keynote speakers, in particular, stood out as emblematic of the brave new world of higher education in the 21st century: Stephen Kosslyn, dean of the recently founded Minerva School of Arts and Sciences, who presented “Minerva: A New Kind of Higher Education,” and Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, who spoke on “Reinventing Education.”

Kosslyn, a former dean of social sciences at Harvard University, came to Minerva from Stanford University, where he served as director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science. He highlighted the key aspects of the Minerva program, which combines online learning with dorm life and other real-world college experiences. Minerva’s students live together in residential halls, at first in San Francisco, and then the same students rotate to different world cities. They take classes virtually via live video sessions in small seminars. The first class counts 29 students and tuition is $10,000.

Kosslyn said Minerva’s entire curriculum is designed to help students master three core competencies: critical thinking, creative thinking and effective communication. “We want our students to have the intellectual tools to develop into leaders … and innovators,” he said. “We actually teach the underlying skills and abilities to help them become leaders and innovators. In addition, we want our students to be broad, in a sense of a broad base of knowledge, and also to have the tools to continue to learn after they graduate, to be able to succeed in jobs that don’t even exist yet.”

Another key aspect of Minerva’s approach is a focus on “fully active learning,” Kosslyn said. Seminars are designed in accordance with the science of learning. “We have only seminars,” he said. “There are no lectures at all. It’s all activity-based learning and that’s because it’s more effective.” Before each class, students must complete assignments that will require vigorous participation during the online session, such as engaging in a debate, presenting their own work or critiquing that of others.


EdX, like Minerva, is another “disruptive” force changing the higher education landscape. In 2012, Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, taught edX’s first massive open online course (MOOC), a course on circuits and electronics. Like most MOOCs, it was posted online for free. The worldwide demand for a free, online MIT engineering course was immense, Agarwal learned. His course drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.

A nonprofit initiative based on an open-source platform, edX has a mission to increase access to education for students worldwide through MOOCs while enhancing campus education in both quality and efficiency through blended online approaches, Agarwal said. “Right from the get-go, one thing was absolutely clear to edX and our partners: That at the end of day, if all we did was stream videos and offer multiple-choice (questions), and we had 100 million students around the world, that was called failure,” he said. “Just the numbers were not important. If you did not improve the quality of education, in other words, if you didn’t reimagine education — even if the numbers were big, that would be failure.”

Agarwal, who was introduced by Rice Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Digital Education Caroline Levander, highlighted edX’s fruitful relationship with Rice, which became a member of edX in February 2013. In addition to offering free MOOCs on the edX platform, Rice recently added Advanced Placement MOOCs as part of the edX high school initiative to better prepare high school students for college. “We found that you guys (Rice) were two, three or four steps ahead of us,” Agarwal said. “You were already working with local school districts to create Advanced Placement and high-school-level courses.”

The De Lange Conference, “a forward-looking forum designed to contemplate the rapidly evolving changes in university teaching in response to disruptive technologies and global forces,” featured lectures, discussions, teaching demonstrations and interactive workshops by renowned educators and innovators from a variety of disciplines.

In addition to the presentations by Kosslyn and Agarwal, attendees heard the questions, concerns, hopes, visions and strategies of a pre-eminent group of current or former presidents from Rice, Columbia University, Rutgers University and Princeton University, the contributing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the president of ITHAKA/JSTOR and the co-founder and co-CEO of Coursera and more.

Susan McIntosh, director of the De Lange Conferences and a professor of anthropology, noted that the webcasts of the speakers’ presentations will be posted at

The biennial De Lange Conferences, funded by the De Lange Endowment, were established by C.M. and Demaris Hudspeth in honor of Demaris’ parents, Albert and Demaris De Lange.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.