Smartly MBA Student James Lu Morrissey on Higher Education and Making Forbes 30 Under 30 List

We sat down with 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient–and Smartly MBA student–James Lu Morrissey to discuss co-founding Mentor Collective, learning with Smartly, and disrupting the world of higher education.

Smartly learners tend to reflect the platform itself: innovative, disruptive, and equipped with a global scope. Those are just a few of the qualities that have led to three Smartly learners being named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 lists in the past two years.

James Lu Morrissey (MBA – August 2018) is a perfect example of this. Lu Morrissey’s personal experiences with international education inspired him to found his company Mentor Collective, an international online mentoring community. Lu Morrissey was born in the United States, but he attended elementary school in Taiwan. Moving to a new school can be difficult for any child; moving to a new school in a new country is even more challenging.

Adjusting was made easier, however, by joining the school’s sports team (namely football and track). There, he was mentored by his older teammates, who eased his transition and allowed him to find his place. At a young age, he began to understand that mentorship was critical to adjusting to and excelling in a new environment.

He also recognized the need for peer mentorship as an undergraduate student at Carleton College. He had many friends from international backgrounds, and he noticed that many of them had difficulty integrating and adjusting to American culture and education system. There wasn’t necessarily a track team with teammates that could mentor them. When he started paying attention, he noticed that this feeling of cultural disconnect wasn’t just limited to international students; in fact, it existed throughout the student body.

“All students are a stranger in a strange land,” Lu Morrissey reflected. “You might be coming from Minnesota to go to NYU. That’s a very foreign experience.”

A lack of personalized support for college students is one of the factors contributing to a college completion crisis, particularly at public universities. According to Forbes, less than 60 percent of students graduate from public institutions in six years or less. With rising tuition and student loan debt and the increasing necessity of a college degree for career advancement, students who do not graduate are often at a serious disadvantage.

To solve this problem, Lu Morrissey and colleague Jackson Boyer co-founded Mentor Collective. Mentor Collective uses scaleable and transformative mentoring, a format supported by technology and designed for large-scale application. Mentor Collective achieves this by matching students to mentors who have a similar background.

To that end, Mentor Collective has developed partnerships with more than 50 universities, including Penn State, Johns Hopkins, and Washington University in St. Louis. Through these partnerships, they’ve mentored over 35,000 students, resulting in an up to 9% in retention rates and 5x decreased likelihood of academic probation.

Working towards those results has certainly kept Lu Morrissey busy, but he has still found time to pursue a Smartly MBA. While residential MBA programs had a high opportunity cost, Smartly made it possible for Lu Morrissey to “continue doing my day-to-day company while having a flexible option to learn at my own pace.”

Furthermore, Lu Morrissey has found Smartly’s courses are directly applicable to running Mentor Collective. “I can complete a lesson, take that, and use it the very next day at Mentor Collective.”

Lu Morrissey also appreciates the flexibility and global perspective that Smartly offers. He tries to work overseas for two to three weeks every winter, and, with Smartly’s online platform, he doesn’t have to disrupt his learning schedule to travel. “I can do Smartly while hanging out in Shanghai and not have any problems with time differences.”

Lu Morrissey also sees both Smartly and Mentor Collective as disrupting higher education in a much-needed shakeup. Universities, with the “massive endowments and very strong brands,” don’t feel the same need to innovate “in the same way as an other industry,” Lu Morrissey noted. “And that comes at a big cost to everyone. If a school is not making an impact on students’ lives, then it doesn’t matter.”

Like Smartly, Mentor Collective’s team is passionate about the students they reach. Lu Morrissey attributes Mentor Collective’s success rates in large part to his 24 Boston-based employees. Noting that his team was all interested in social impact, he emphasized that “something unique happens when you collect a lot of very mission-driven, hungry learners and put them all in the same room.”

Today’s Inspiration from T.H. White

“Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

― White, T.H., The Once and Future King. New York: Putnam, 1958.

Embed from Getty Images

Learning Game Trees and Forgetting Wrong Paths

This is the second of two blog posts delineating the pedagogical approach of Herb Simon, the man credited with inventing the field of artificial intelligence, for which he won a Turing award in 1975. (Read the first post here.) Simon was a polyglot social scientist, computer scientist and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, He later won the Nobel Prize in 1978 in economics for his work in organizational decision-making.

Game Tree
Tic Tac Toe Game Tree, Gdr from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Simon would often tell his students that he liked to think about human learning as a game tree: when you start out learning about a new topic, you begin at the root of the tree with what you already know, and follow connections to related topics, discovering new “nodes” in the tree. You employ a variety of search strategies to follow connections both broadly and deeply through related topics, loading as much of the explorable tree into memory as possible. As you discover and master each “node” on the tree, you learn which branches of the tree are fruitful and which are fruitless.

During and after exploration though, the entire game tree remains in your working memory, slowing you down. When you take breaks, not only are you relaxing, but you are also forgetting wrong paths – pruning those fruitless branches from your working memory. When you next return to the task at hand, you resume exploring connections and mastering concepts not at the very top of the tree, but in the most fruitful subtrees where you left off, making better use of your working memory.

At Pedago, we believe in learning by doing, and we want to break complex topics and concepts down into what Seymour Papert in the book Mindstorms calls “mind-sized bites.” One of the benefits of breaking complicated topics into “bites” is that it is easier to build learning content that learners can work through when they only have a few minutes free, on whatever device they have on hand.

As we build our database of short concepts and lessons, we find ourselves also building a rich tree structure of topic relation metadata that in structure is not unlike Simon’s game tree of learning. A nice side-effect of a learning solution with rich, encapsulated, short lessons is that you don’t have to commit to a thirty minute video – you can learn in bits and pieces throughout your day. And by doing this, you are unintentionally building and then pruning your learning game tree in an efficient way, forgetting wrong paths and making the best use of your working memory each time you return to your lessons.

 

Today’s Inspiration from Jiddu Krishnamurti

children with teacher
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born till the moment you die is a process of learning.”

~Jiddu Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti on Education, Conversation 43

Herb Simon on Learning and Satisficing

This is the first of two posts delineating the pedagogical approach of Herb Simon, credited with inventing the field of AI, for which he won a Turing award in 1975.

This is the first of two blog posts delineating the pedagogical approach of Herb Simon, the man credited with inventing the field of artificial intelligence, for which he won a Turing award in 1975. Simon was a polyglot social scientist, computer scientist and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He later won the Nobel Prize in 1978 in economics for his work in organizational decision-making.

Herbert Simon in front of blackboard
Herbert Simon, Pittsburg Post Gazette Archives

“Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” –Herb Simon

Among his many accomplishments, Herb Simon was a pioneer in the field of adaptive production systems. He also identified the decision-making strategy “satisficing,” which describes the goal of finding a solution that is “good enough” and which meets an acceptability threshold, as opposed to “optimizing,” which aims to find an ideal solution.

Simon believed that human beings lack the cognitive resources to optimize, and are usually operating under imperfect information or inaccurate probabilities of outcomes. In both computer algorithm optimization and human decision-making, satisficing can save significant resources, as the cost of collecting the additional information needed to make the optimal decision can often exceed the total benefit of the current decision.

We live in a world where overwhelming amounts of information are at our very fingertips. Every month new educational software offerings are on the market. You can find tutorials to fix anything in your house, learn a new language for free, find lessons that teach you to dance, and watch video lectures from top universities in the topics of your choice.

I like to think of myself as a polyglot learner: I would love nothing better than to just take a year, or two, or ten, and learn as much as I can about everything. But unfortunately, I have limited time. How do I know which tutorials, lessons, and classes are worth the commitment of my time? How can I find a satisficing solution to the problem of becoming a more well-rounded learner and human being?

In Simon’s words, “information is not the scarce resource; what is scarce is the time for us humans to attend to it.” At Pedago we’ve been inspired by thinkers such as Simon to build a learning solution that makes the most of the scarce resource of your time, by employing curated streams of bite-sized lessons; rich, explorable connections between topics; interactive learn-by-doing experiences; and just the right amount of gamification. We want to enable you to craft your own learning experience, so that you can, as Simon would say, positively influence what you do and what you think.

Stay tuned for the second post in this series as we examine Simon’s modeling of human learning.