The Minerva project plans for different kind of online education

The Minerva Project is sufficiently visionary that it makes me fearful they might fail. Let’s hope not. Ry Ryvard at InsideHigherEd recently profiled the Ben Nelson-founded for-profit elite university startup. 

(…snip…) Minerva’s doors won’t open to anything resembling a traditional university: the for-profit startup expects top students will fly across the world to sit in front of computers. Professors could be located anywhere in the world. Now, Minerva will need to make good on its promise to attract some of the world’s most qualified students based on an unproven idea that relies on unfinished software.

The company wants to be a “hybrid university.” Its students would gather in dorms in major cities across the world, and after spending time together in one city, move to another, but take online classes from Minerva professors on the other end of the screen.

Minerva’s founder, former Snapfish executive Ben Nelson, believes powerful software can teach students better than traditional classes. But he also believes students still want to go to a residential college. Minerva plans to charge about half as much as an Ivy League university.

To get there, he will need to raise millions before Minerva can begin teaching its first class. The company also needs to produce one-of-a-kind software good enough to compete with a traditional campus experience, use what Nelson calls “various loopholes” in the accreditation system to get accredited and attract talent to an unproven idea.

 (…snip…) 

The Minerva Project

Who: Ben Nelson, a former executive at Snapfish, and his team, along with $25 million in venture capital, but with millions more needed.

What: A for-profit university that will have students in residence hall taking online classes from Minerva professors. The software Minerva is working on will monitor student learning and encourage student involvement in ways Nelson does not believe are possible in traditional in-person lectures. The university plans to have four colleges within it and eventually a business school.

Why: Nelson and his team believe some elite students from across the world are ready for something different and that traditional universities have yet to apply 21st century technology to decades of research on student learning.

When: The company expects to run a small group of students through its program in 2014 but offer its first full year of classes to students starting in September 2015.

Where: San Francisco at first, with other campuses in more than a half dozen of the world’s major commercial capitals. None of the campuses are ready yet and Minerva will not own any of the buildings but instead work with private developers who will put up the money while Minerva guarantees the students.

Minerva v. MOOCs and Lectures

When Nelson started thinking about Minerva in 2010, online education had already taken off, with universities nationwide competing to offer online degree programs. But much of the growth of online education was in professional training and the big players weren’t always the colleges attracting top undergraduates. Now, leading universities from across the world are offering free online courses and seem to be moving rapidly to offer them to undergraduates for credit.

Nelson is not the least bit threatened by these massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Instead, Nelson called MOOCs ”manna from heaven” for Minerva. He said he never wanted Minerva to offer introductory classes to begin with. He expects Minerva students will be good enough to pick up basic things like Econ 101 on their own.

Indeed, he thinks it’s “not O.K. to charge” for Econ 101. So Nelson plans for Minerva’s professors to only teach classes where students are required to debate one another or where the professors can closely track students’ intellectual development using sophisticated software. Those things, he said, “can’t be MOOCed and therefore can’t be given away for free.”

Nelson’s confidence in this direction is born in part of a disdain for lectures. Lectures, the staple of most undergraduate education, “are not proven to work,” he said.

Nelson said MOOCs are victims to the same flaws as lectures and therefore make “absolutely no sense.”

Where, if not classrooms, will Minerva students learn? Well, first of all, in front of a computer. “We will not allow them to congregate” in typical classroom settings, Nelson said. The students will live together in residence halls, first in San Francisco and then in dorms Minerva plans to have in the world’s major commercial capitals. Minerva students will have hall advisors and faculty guides for education excursions, but no in-person classroom professors.

While MOOCs are basically supersized lectures offered to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of students, Minerva wants to use learning analytics to scale up Oxbridge-style tutorials to seminar-size online classes taught by professors who can work remotely from any location in the world.

“We are trying to deliver the world’s highest-touch education experience,” Nelson said. “And we believe that to deliver a truly high-touch delivery experience — we believe that if you tell 20 students to gather in a room that will not happen.”

Unlike MOOCs, which are based on recorded lectures, Minerva classes will be taught live online.

Minerva believes it can develop software to log students and professors’ every move and not only track but encourage participation and learning. This, Nelson says, will avoid the limitation of the in-person lecture — namely that whatever is said just “vanishes into thin air.”

Students in the back of a real class are not very engaged, said Robin Goldberg, Minerva’s chief marketing officer. But Minerva students, who could be in front of a webcam with their keystrokes being logged, will be on their toes. “You can barely blink without everybody knowing it. You can’t get up to get a glass of water without everybody knowing it,” she said.

The faith in the power of the software versus the lecture is at the heart of the company.

The software? It’s not finished yet.

The Faculty

A university also needs faculty and students. Last month, Minerva lured Stephen Kosslyn away from his job as director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences.

Kosslyn, who started full-time at Minerva on April 1, will be the new university’s founding dean. He will oversee the School of Arts & Science and its four colleges of natural science, social science, computational science and arts and humanities.

“I need to find distinguished academics who can head those, so if you can mention that in the article that would be great,” Kosslyn said.

(…snip…)

The Minerva momentum seems to be building with Larry Summers signing on to lead the board of advisors, the announcement of the $500,000 Minerva Prize, and the announcement of the Kosslyn hiring: Minerva Project Names Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn As Founding Dean; Former Harvard Dean Will Lead the Academics and Curriculum of the University.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “The Minerva project plans for different kind of online education

  1. Interesting feature but I’m still more than a bit hazy of exactly how this will work beyond a televideo course. A lecturer can’t respond to several hundred waving hands in a webcast of thousands so that kind of direct feedback is severely limited right there. Might be better just to go for an all automated “Watson”-grade computerized personalized mentor that learns how you learn and relates to you accordingly.

    James Greenidge

  2. Thanks for your comments. 

    A lecturer can’t respond to several hundred waving hands in a webcast of thousands

    Agreed. From the various Minerva press releases and interviews I gather their model is more like grad school seminars – on the order of 15-25 students physically together at each campus in a cluster of time zones. Say EU, UK, SA – adding up to say 100 or so participants when all their wheels are humming.

     Might be better just to go for an all automated “Watson”-grade computerized personalized mentor that learns how you learn and relates to you accordingly.

    Agreed – the early results for STEM subjects look promising. As is the student feedback (check out the Udacity forums).

    Us optimists imagine that Udacity and the like will be innovating their software, feedback loops and processes to schemes that I can’t imagine today. I’m also optimistic that Udacity and similar can cover a huge part of the traditional quantitative school classroom-library-homework  learning – and scaling to service tens of thousands (mostly asynchronously). 

    Both Udacity and Minverva would bristle if we said they were going to be “webcasting”. Certainly we can already see how Udacity is much more like learning with a tutor, one-to-one. If Udacity is successful, then Coursera, EdX will surely curve away from the familiar video-lecture model they seem to be starting with.

    Back to the “Watson”-grade mentor, check out the IEEE Spectrum podcast “Data Science Is Now a Job Market Based Entirely on Merit“. The rate of advance in machine learning is bringing automated essay-grading closer to a “reality near you”. 

    It’s not obvious to me how all this is going to contribute to humanities learning. But 5 years ago I would have said “unlikely” regarding useful auto-grading of essay type work.

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