College future

“A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries,” writes Graeme Wood in The Atlantic. Is this the future of college?

The Minerva Project was founded by 39-year-old high-tech entrepreneur Ben Nelson. He thinks his “online Ivy” will remake higher education. An accredited for-profit university, Minerva is starting with 33 students in San Francisco and plans sites in at least six other cities around the world.

The first class is all on scholarship, but future students will pay about $28,000 a year, including room and board. They will move each year to a new city. Buenos Aires, perhaps. Then Mumbai, Hong Kong or New York City.

Minerva will not teach introductory classes. Students are expected to pick up a book or a MOOC and learn that on their own. “Do your freshman year at home,” says Nelson. 

The technology of learning has changed little in the past half millennium, writes Wood.

The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl. The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking.

Minerva classes will be small seminars, not massive open online courses. They will use a proprietary online platform developed by a former Harvard dean, Stephen M. Kosslyn, a psychologist. In a test run of the online platform, a French physicist named Eric Bonabeau taught inductive reasoning.

Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. . . . Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.

Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. . . . Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked. After a representative from each group gave a brief presentation, Bonabeau ended by showing a short video about the evils of overfishing. (“Propaganda,” he snorted, adding that we’d talk about logical fallacies in the next session.) The computer screen blinked off after 45 minutes of class.

The “continuous period of forced engagement” was “exhausting,” writes Wood. There was no time to think about larger aspects of the material, “because I had to answer a quiz question or articulate a position.”

I was forced, in effect, to learn. If this was the education of the future, it seemed vaguely fascistic. Good, but fascistic.

Minerva will attract people who are good at learning independently, writes Jordan Weissmann in Slate. Nelson expects Americans to make up only a tenth of Minerva’s students. The model will provide an alternative for well-off Chinese and Indians who want an American-style education but can’t get into elite U.S. universities.

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Comments

  1. Cranberry says:

    I propose a moratorium on breathless pieces on Minerva and its ilk, until an institution manages to 1) enroll and graduate a full class of four-year graduates, let’s say, about 1,000 students–about the size of Exeter. Such students should, of course, pay full fare.

    I wouldn’t turn to Ben Nelson and his team to educate my children. No thanks.