Three Years In, Minerva’s Founder On For-Profits, Selectivity, and His Critics

Three Years In, Minerva’s Founder On For-Profits, Selectivity, and His Critics

Minerva’s model sounds like it was dreamed up by friends at a bar talking about what they would do if they could create a university from scratch. There are no classroom buildings, and instead students take all classes online via webcam. Even so, students are required to live in the same city and occasionally meet in person for study and projects (and each year they move to a new city around the world). The professors log in remotely, so they can live anywhere.

The approach actually began not as a sketch on a bar napkin but as a student research project. Ben Nelson, Minerva’s founder, came up with an early version of the idea when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania about 20 years ago.

Now the unusual university is in its third year of teaching students. The idea is to eventually go big in scale, but so far it’s still small. There are 158 students in the class now finishing its freshman year. Nelson likes to point out that since it had 16,000 applicants for that class (now up to 20,000 for next year's), that makes it more selective than his alma mater or any other Ivy League institution.

EdSurge sat down with Nelson this week at the ASU+GSV Summit, as part of our Thought Leader Interview series on the future of education. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation, or watch the complete interview.

EdSurge: So at Minerva you are trying some new teaching techniques—for instance, I hear that in some of your course discussions, when a student is answering a question, the professor can ring a gong, and that student is supposed to stop and another student is asked to pick up and finish the answer. Are there experiments that you’ve tried that haven’t worked, though?

Nelson: This may sound silly, but actually for us it really mattered. Class participation of Minerva is mandatory. In our founding class year, we had this policy. We said, "Look, you have to go to class, because you get graded on what you say in class and your project work." But we said, "You can miss two classes a semester." That's it. What happened was our students said, "Okay, that sounds good. Thanks for that." Then the end of the semester was approaching and our students started saying, "Oh, which classes should we be missing? How can we strategically use them, because we want to go to Yosemite?" We were horrified. Oh my god, this is crazy.

EdSurge: You told them exactly how many to miss.

Exactly, we told them how many to miss and not that this was a maximum. We went on this two-year journey to find a better system. We created penalties, and if you missed a class you had to jump on one foot and go back and forth. Of course, what happened is students wound up missing more classes. Next year, we're just going back to that first system, because ultimately we don't really want a student to miss any class, but sometimes it is inevitable. Ultimately, even the Puritan instincts sometimes go a little bit too far, and then you have to make sure that you're rational about it.

It is interesting that you've described Minerva as not a tech play, but that for you the most important thing to you being the curriculum. What do you mean by that? What's so different about the curriculum?

Over time there have been curricular versus non-curricular struggles. Historically, if you go back to 1960 and before, the side that was pro-curriculum said, "We're going to pick the books you need to study. We're going to structure it. You're going to have three or four years where you have no choice whatsoever, and then maybe you'll have one year of a major." The side that was opposed to the curriculum said, "How could you possibly pick which texts I should read versus what I shouldn't in this giant world of information? I can't spend three years of my life doing one thing that isn't related to what I'm actually interested in." Eventually, that side won. But given that rigidity, it doesn’t make sense for the modern world.

Minerva's curriculum [tries to enable] both structures, and you have massive choice in the sense that you've got 30 different concentrations to choose from—what most places refer to as majors. You have a senior year where you basically could design your own courses with professors. In fact, you're required to. You have a capstone project, where you pursue whatever you want. You have infinite choice, but it's informed.

It seems like your project is a critique of the current curriculum. But to play devil's advocate, students sometimes don't know what they want to do when they get to college. They see the courses that they take as a way to test things out and try ideas on. Is that happening within your curriculum?

The problem is you go to college, you have no idea what to do. You're certainly not getting good guidance. Now, you've got a thousand-course catalog from which you have to choose eight courses, but choose wisely—because if you don't choose certain courses, entire fields of study are shut down for you. This is actually a sense of false choice. If you do find that amazing inspiring class in computational science your third year, it's too late. You can't switch your major then.

What we do is we have informed choice. In the first year, everybody goes to the same thing, and you learn the tools that are applicable in any field you may pursue. Then we also use subject matter from all of the class partitions we teach to give you an idea of what it is you should be double-clicking on.

The next thing people end up raising when I see critiques of Minerva is that it's for-profit.

Well, the schools are not, but the corporation is. Pretty much every university in the world, whether they like it or not—and I think most of them do like it—has to use corporations for services. What university builds its own technology platform? Nonexistent. They use Microsoft Word and Excel. That's a corporation. They get their textbooks from Pearson, from Macmillan. Those are for-profit corporations. They get their Harvard Business case studies from the for-profit arm of Harvard University. They outsource their cafeterias and residence halls to corporations. That's effectively what Minerva schools does with the Minerva Project. We build technology, we put together lesson plans and materials, and we operate residence halls.

But don’t Minerva professors get stock options, or at least some of your academic leaders?

Of course. If the corporation is developing intellectual property, you have to compensate. They're on contract. The faculty of the Minerva schools are also developing intellectual property for the Minerva Project [the for-profit wing], but not all faculty do, by the way. Some faculty only teach a couple of sessions. They don't have any interest in the Minerva Project.

That makes me curious to hear your thoughts about the Purdue announcement a couple weeks ago where Purdue is going to buy Kaplan University, a for-profit, for $1 dollar to flip that to a Purdue campus, a state university. The way you're describing it, Minerva’s model sounds similar.

It definitely is, at least from a structure. Whether or not an institution pays taxes really doesn't mean much about how they're run and operated. Some of the most voraciously capitalistic, and rather amoral, institutions I've ever encountered are nonprofits. They are doing everything for the dollar. They don't really care about student outcomes.

Your whole project is a critique of traditional academic culture, though.

What is it that a business does that many traditional nonprofit don’t do? The fact of the matter is that most nonprofits in higher education are customer-focused—they're just focused on the wrong customer. Private universities are largely focused on the donor. Public universities are largely focused on the government. Almost no one is focused on the student. The biggest difference between the nonprofit Minerva schools and the nonprofit other universities that currently exist is that we are focused completely and utterly on student outcome. That's all we're focused on. I think if more schools adopt that kind of philosophy, they'll actually save a whole big chunk of the higher-education sector, which right now I really think is unsustainable and under threat.

You suggested in an earlier interview that you might try to license Minerva’s curriculum as another revenue stream in the for profit. Is that something you're still thinking of? How would that work? Because that's a whole kind of mind bending idea too. You don't see Harvard licensing its curriculum.

Yes, we initially thought that this would be many years down the road. It turns out that there's an enormous amount of demand much, much sooner, way before we could do anything about it. A few years ago,we received requests, about 250 institutions of higher education to work together. Unfortunately, we had to tell no to all of them, because we were not ready in any way. Given that demand, we're thinking maybe in 2018 we'll do our first one or two pilots. We hope to be ready by then.

Let's open it up to the audience here: "Someone is asking about access versus prestige. It seems that you're focused on being the best university in the world. Is that a valued participation like Harvard and Princeton. Where do you see things going in terms of accessibility and scale?"

It's a super important question. You have to understand that there are two parts to what we're trying to do. First and foremost, what the Minerva school is trying to do is become the most selective university in the western world.

Of course that's easier to do mathematically, because you have very small classes.

We have a very, very small class, and we grow the institution based on the number of qualified students we find.

How many is the latest class? Just to give us a ballpark.

The class that just finished their freshman year was 158. We received 16,000 applicants for those spots. There wasn't a second class ever. You can look at that and say, "Oh my god, that is so elitist and so hard to get into. What's the point?" First, it redefines the concept of elite. In a traditional Ivy League university, 50 percent of the student body comes from the top 1 percent wealthiest households in the world. At Minerva, about 5 percent of our student body comes from the top 1 percent wealthiest households in the world. It's not because we try to find non-wealthy students. It's because we only focus on merit and because merit is broadly distributed across geography, so it's economic class, race, religion, creed, gender, you get a massively diverse class.

The Minerva Project corporation's goal on access is to reform the rest of higher education globally. This actually speaks to why the Minerva schools are so selective. They're more selective, again, for two reasons. The first reason is that all of the research that Minerva is based on, all the research out of Science and Learning, has shown repeatedly that these types of techniques have the biggest impact on students that don't do well.

Secondly, in higher education, like it or not, people pay attention to elite schools. There are all sorts of interesting and innovative approaches and universities all over the world that nobody cares about because they're not the "best." 

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