With its founding class having just finished their first year, Minerva deserves a report card.
The Silicon Valley startup created a media flurry when it vowed to change “every aspect of the university-student relationship” after raising $25 million from venture capitalists, a sum dwarfed only by a B round of $70 million. But what exactly has all that capital enabled? Let’s take stock of how Minerva challenges the MOOC status quo.
Conversations about technology and education often focus on platforms such asCoursera, edX, and Khan Academy, which invite unlimited participation using massive open online courses (MOOCs).
Online courses tend to exchange distance for scale. While an educator can reach thousands of students with a single class, the size of that class largely prohibits her from grading assignments, answering queries, or interacting with students through anything other than pre-recorded lectures. As I’ve written previously, this approach overlooks the reciprocal relationship of student and educator.
Consider Minerva the anti-MOOC. For lack of a better acronym, you could say Minerva offers MEECs, or micro elite electronic courses.
Small and Selective
Forget big and open—Minerva goes small and selective. Seminar-style classes cap at 19 students, and the entire founding class is just 28 students.
While Minerva’s claim to “the world’s most demanding intellectual standards” smacks of Silicon Valley hyperbole, the school does rely upon standard admissions measures (e.g. GPA) as well as online and non-cognitive tests and a Skype interview. Chris Peterson has an in-depth piece about Minerva’s admissions process at MIT Admissions, but suffice it to say that the first cohort’s 2.5 percent admissions rate is highly selective.
For-Credit and For-Profit
A key limitation of today’s MOOCs is that they don’t count for much. When I reviewed edX, I found that even though I could audit an ancient Greek class for free, if I wanted college credit, I would need to enroll in a pricey Harvard Extension class.
By partnering with the Keck Graduate Institute, Minerva piggybacks on its accreditation and university resources, thanks to the Claremont Consortium. This is a boon to Minerva students, who pay considerably less tuition (about $28,000 annually with housing) than their counterparts at KGI ($28,000 or more without housing), but it ought to raise concerns amongst those in higher education, whose resources and reputations may soon underwrite for-profit competitors. (A point to which I will return in a later piece).
Minerva’s software is a technological and philosophical challenge to today’s MOOCs. The school has recruited students from all over the world—80 percent of the founding class was admitted from outside the U.S.—and housed them in a single dormitory in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood, only to have them take classes online.
If that seems bizarre, wait for the next part: After each year, students pack up and travel to another dormitory elsewhere in the world. (In 2016, students are expected to live in dorms located in Berlin or Buenos Aires). On its face, it’s a comical proposition. As Ry Rivard writes on Inside Higher Ed, Minerva “expects top students will fly across the world to sit in front of computers.” But what if that interface is Minerva’s provocation?
By pedagogical standards, existing MOOCs reproduce the worst kind of “traditional” classroom. They rely upon lectures (which aren’t effective), discussion boards (which students ignore even in traditional classes), and automated assessments (which don’t help students understand where they went wrong). Because students take courses à la carte, catalogs skew towards instrumentalism. Certainly, if you want to learn how to code, there are a surfeit of options available on Udacity and Udemy. However, it’s rare to find courses that unite particular skills (e.g. coding) with abstract goals (critical thinking).
Minerva’s curriculum is unabashedly non-instrumental. Built around “habits of mind,” or ways of thinking that traverse the sciences and humanities, Minerva leaves lectures to the MOOCs and targets the seminar classroom. Its use of impromptu debates, pop quizzes, and cold calls aren’t innovations—I use all three in the course I currently teach—but accelerations: Using a proprietary platform, Minerva faculty can track, analyze, and divide students at a pace unimaginable in a traditional classroom. That means more information for educators, and a more engaging classroom experience for students. Now that is a provocation, and one worth revisiting. See you next week.