National Edition

Better than Harvard? Minerva Project aims to transform elite education

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Students at Minerva Schools will live and study in a different international city during each year of a bachelors degree program.

Jessica Spengler, WordRidden via Flickr

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Ben Nelson wants to create an elite bachelor's degree like the kind you get at schools like Harvard or Stanford, but which is less costly and more widely available. Nelson has a brand, a plan, and he has a $25 million bankroll from Benchmark Capital, whose venture capitalists believe he can do it.

Nelson’s new conception for higher education, which involves the use of online technology, raises some important questions. Can Minerva Schools really come through with a prestigious college degree using technology often associated with down-scale diploma mills? Or, as the Wall Street Journal asked in an Aug. 9 story, “Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?” Could a less-costly model for quality higher education put other schools out of business?

A new model

Nelson, former CEO of the online photo-sharing company Snapfish, started gestating the Minerva Project in 2010. In fall of 2014, a small founding class of select students will start classes through Minerva Schools; the university’s first full class will matriculate one year later.

Students at Minerva Schools will live together in dormitory-like housing. They will be in San Francisco for their first year, and in a different international city for each succeeding year. There won’t be a brick-and-mortar campus at all. Great cities of the world, and all they have to offer, will stand in for ivy-covered halls and grassy quads. “Global cultural immersion” is the goal, including the chance to learn foreign languages.

Instruction will happen online through the project’s own software platform, which lets professors at remote locations teach seminar-style classes limited to clusters of 19 or fewer students. The courses happen in real time, with all participants able to see and hear each other across the Internet. The format allows vigorous discussions that provoke thought and challenge assumptions.

Case studies are a key feature of the classes and connect course work to real-world situations. Students do significant study outside of class. That can include the use of open-source online materials to fill any learning gaps. There are no lectures during the classes; students who want or need them can find course lectures at Kahn Academy (kahnacademy.org) or through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

“Universities say they teach you critical thinking, analysis and synthesis, but if you ask how they do that, they don’t know,” Nelson said. “There’s nothing they can point to.”

Minerva Schools’ founding dean, Stephen Kosslyn, was formerly Harvard’s dean of social sciences, then Stanford’s director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, which is the world’s pre-eminent institution in the field. Kosslyn said that traditional universities teach literature, chemistry and other courses, but merely “hope that critical thinking is automatically absorbed.”

“[Minerva Schools] give students habits of mind, broken down so they are concrete, teachable and track-able,” Kosslyn said. “These foundational concepts will serve them in good stead for the rest of their lives. We give our students fishing poles, not fish, that they can use as the world changes.”

Though 21st-century technology links professors and students, they use a seminar format that hearkens back to Socrates’ ancient learning model.

“It’s all about questions,” Kosslyn said. “The students do reading in advance, watch videos, whatever. The professor asks questions, and by answering them, the students work through the issues, think about the material and get to know it. The more deeply you think about something, the more likely you are to remember it.”

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