The globetrotting classroom: Minerva Schools aims to address shortcomings of MOOCs

While massive open online courses get a lot of attention, the San Francisco-based organization has received $25 million to test an ambitious blended approach to undergraduate programs.

With the debut of Minerva Schools, whose inaugural students begin their classwork this fall, a global-traveler twist gets added to the mix of innovative new approaches to college education.

Minerva's model will trigger envy in anyone who longs to see the world: The first year of study occurs in San Francisco, but each semester thereafter takes place in a rented space in a different city around the world, from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Class sessions are conducted via a purpose-built online platform that allows everyone to see everyone else's faces on their screens, and lets professors rewatch and share the sessions later.

Minerva launches amid an era of radical experimentation in online learning. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have garnered the most attention: they now offer millions of people free access to online classrooms. But a December 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education questions their efficacy: only about 4 percent of those who registered for a Penn MOOC actually completed it.

Laura Perna, a member of the study's research team, notes that even a tiny percentage of the million users tracked "is still a lot of people," and that "As a society we need more education, not less," but the MOOC model needs to be better defined. "Who are these courses designed to reach?" she asks.

Overall, large-scale online education offerings might work best for areas such as worker retraining, lifelong learning and supplementary material for in-person college classes. For other situations, Perna says, "From available research on online education, some sort of blended model works best," where personal interaction works hand-in-hand with technology.

In this context, Minerva entered the online learning arena seeking to examine the possibilities. Minerva founder Ben Nelson says, "We had the luxury to decide what medium to use -- a traditional classroom, an online classroom, or something we built on our own." Nelson's solution was Minerva's custom-designed online platform, which allows students to participate and debate instead of passively observe. As a result, Nelson says, Minerva can attain its dual pedagogical goals: "curricular choice as well as individualized intellectual development," whereby professors can pass information to each other about individual students' progress and then modify the seminars accordingly. At the same time, Minerva offers a blended learning atmosphere with its in-person interaction -- although this occurs exclusively among the students, while all the interaction with faculty remains online.

Minerva's ideas are intriguing, but is its approach sound? And even so, will it end up as a one-off option just for the financially and socially global elite?

While not wanting to comment on Minerva specifically, Charles Dziuban, director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida and co-editor of a 2013 scholarly book on blended learning, doesn't believe there's a "correct" way to construct a blended learning experience. "I believe that there are an almost unlimited number of ways to blend a course," Dziuban says.

As far as the idea that Minerva caters only to the financially elite, Nelson dismisses the charge. "Minerva charges a quarter of the tuition of our peer universities, which in and of itself should go a long way to dispel such a myth," he says. (Yearly tuition, housing and fees total about $22,000, with other expenses such as supplies and meals estimated at another $7,000.) While the school does not participate in federal financial aid programs, student loans, work-study opportunities and selective grants are available on a need basis. And by not using SAT scores or pre-written non-proctored essays that can be improved through expensive tutoring, Nelson asserts that Minerva's admissions process "does not advantage the rich like other university admissions processes do."

Minerva's ambitious, somewhat-radical model has attracted much interest. Marquee names such as former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers and Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg serve (or have served) in staff or advisory roles. The school received an early cash infusion of $25 million from venture capital firm Benchmark.

Nelson makes it clear whom he considers Minerva's peers: While the founding class consists of just 33 students (from 13 different countries), "We expect our next class to be approximately 200-300 students," he says. "In the long run, Minerva can certainly be as large, if not larger, than most traditional Ivy League universities."

Image courtesy of Minerva Schools

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