education's digital future

Minerva aims to be an online ivy league university

Online learning has been trumpeted by everyone from academics to politicians to venture capitalists as a way to improve access to education. But now a novel idea is emerging from a prominent group of digital education supporters: you can’t learn everything online.

The Minerva Project is a first-of-its-kind hybrid of old and new in which there is no campus and students take all of their courses online, but live together in traditional college dorms. The idea comes from a former Internet executive who thinks social interaction is as important as the kind of customized learning that high-tech online classes promise.

The school—named after the Roman goddess of wisdom—is still in its planning stages and isn’t scheduled to open until the fall of 2015. But it has already raised $25 million from investment firm Benchmark Capital, making it one of the best-funded higher education startups of its kind, and announced a yearly $500,000 award that aims to be a Nobel Prize for teaching.

And some prominent academic names are on board. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers is on the advisory board, as is Bob Kerry, a former Senator from Nebraska who was president of the New School in New York from 2001 to 2010. Stephen Kosslyn, the director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a former dean and chair of the psychology department at Harvard, recently joined as the founding dean.

In charge of it all is Ben Nelson, former CEO of the photo sharing and printing website Snapfish. He declares that Minerva will be “offering the best education possible,” comparable to Harvard’s but at half the cost. And he plans to make a profit.

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Minerva students will rotate through six or so different countries during their four years of college, living in dormitories in places as far flung as Paris, Beijing and São Paulo, and moving every few months. Nelson says he wants to preserve college social life because it helps students grow and mature. And he wants Minerva graduates to become cosmopolitan citizens of the world. “We want them to learn the language and be immersed in each one of those cultures as residents,” he says. “It goes beyond bonding and friendships.”

They’ll come together online, where all of their classes will be taught as small seminars of no more than 25 students—another departure from many existing online models, which tend to emphasize scale and accessibility. When a student asks a question, for example, a video of her face will pop up on the computer screens of her professor and all of her peers.

Nelson says the technology will send prompts to a professor to help tailor the material to every student. Shy students will be nudged. For a struggling student, resources for extra help or review will be offered. For a student who has mastered the material, the teacher can push him further.

All of this isn’t just as good as conventional education, Nelson says—it’s better.

“Off-line classrooms do not work,” says Nelson, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. “In a seminar, the way that you interact matters a great deal for your intellectual development. When you do that in a room, no one remembers what happens. If we actually capture your learning experience and utilize that data, we can track and improve how you’re learning.”

Developing the software for such online seminars and to analyze each student’s performance is expensive. So, to turn a profit, Minerva will eliminate the biggest costs that traditional universities face....

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