Mother Minerva Project

Minerva Project

If the phrase “wrecking balls smashing through windows of classrooms” (with an accompanying image) is showing up in a popular mainstream magazine, that can only mean that another high-tech “alternative to college as we know it” option has come online, generating zeal and condemnation similar to the year-long roller coaster ride the MOOC story took in 2013.

In this case, the latest “new new thing” is the Minerva Project, a post-secondary school alternative that just kicked off its pilot class this fall in San Francisco. And given that the wrecking ball story linked above got so many parts of the MOOC story wrong (no, Coursera is not selling college credit, just verified certificates), I thought it worth giving Minerva a second opinion.

If this were less busy year (and I was still 18), I’d be tempted to enroll in Minerva – especially since their pilot class has been given a full scholarship to attend. As a for-profit entity, Minerva has price tag (about $25K per year, which includes room and board), placing it in a cost bracket above state and community colleges, but below costly private schools that have pretty much all broken the $50-60K per year price barrier (pre-discounting).

So Minerva is not being presented as a free or even low-low cost alternative to college, but rather as a new approach to post-secondary education that promises to provide more to students for less.

As its creators like to point out, Minerva is the first new liberal arts school to be founded in a century. Which is kind-of true, although many of the other new colleges that have been born during that period do cover liberal-arts disciplines (although not exclusively). But what makes Minerva’s approach to the liberal arts truly different is the school’s mode of teaching combined with their unique curriculum.

Starting with methodology, we have all experienced residential programs in which students gather together in a room to take a class from a professor standing in front of them. And most of us have experienced online classes in which widely disbursed students take instruction from a virtual professor, which eliminates geographic (and often chronological) proximity from the learning equation.

But Minerva takes an approach I’ve not seen before, one which has students live together in a “dorm” (a set of apartments in a cool urban location – the first being San Francisco) with dorm and academic councilors a la “college” (albeit without the clubs and sports teams). But when it comes time to attend class, those students disburse to their rooms (or some other location that allows two-way online communication) to participate in a virtual classroom in which students and their professor are represented by video feeds to an on-screen checkerboard (described in the aforementioned Atlantic piece as resembling the opening credits to The Brady Bunch).

The professor (who, unlike Minerva students, can be broadcasting from anywhere) runs the show from his or her workstation, delivering information, grilling students independently or as a group, and generally enforcing engagement through a combination of Socratic methodology and online pop-quizzes and assignments. The professor can also break his or her “class” into smaller cohorts where they can participate in discussion (which the prof is free to monitor or interrupt). And recordings of participants can be played back when students engage one-on-one with a professor during non-class “office hours.”

As someone who went through more didactic college programs (once in residency, once via MOOCs), I suspect I would hate the Minerva experience – but who’s to say that younger students who grew up multitasking on YouFace won’t feel comfortable in such an environment? And given the temptation to tweet or check your mail while taking traditional online (or even residential) courses, perhaps Minerva’s technique of enforced engagement is actually the right way to implement an effective distance-education model.

But technique unharnessed to a vision is just an interesting technology, not an educational revolution. And the vision – or, more specifically, the curriculum – used by Minerva is the other thing that sets the program apart. For that curriculum bears more resemblance to liberal arts traditions going back centuries (actually millennia) when Greeks and Romans (and their heirs) zeroed in on a few key skills that fell into a Trivium (consisting of the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric) followed by a Quadrivium (in which Trivium skills are applied to the study of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

Given the number of disciplines created since togas went out of fashion, the particulars of the Minerva program vary significantly from these ancient curricula. But within their Cornerstone courses (required of all first-year students) which cover Formal Analysis, Complex Systems, Multimodal Communication and Empirical Analysis, one gets the sense of a Trivium updated for modern times. Subsequent years are spent zeroing in one of a few majors, but even here the emphasis is on applying the foundational critical thinking and communication skills learned through Cornerstone courses to a specific field (a la the Quadrivium).

Missing from both the Cornerstone and general curricula are vanilla 101 classes since Minera enrollees are expected to learn the basics on their own (potentially through MOOCs) before classes where those basics might be relevant begin. So when you combine this unorthodox old/new curriculum, technology, and the school’s unique residency model (students are expected to move to a different urban setting each year), I think it’s fair to call the Minerva project genuinely revolutionary.

But is this a revolution in learning, or more of a new option for a small, self-selected group of unique learners? Given that the program is targeting the entire world (and refusing US educational aid dollars which will limit US students to those who can foot the bill themselves), their gamble is that the planet as a whole contains enough bright and independent students ready to try something genuinely different. And, as a for-profit, that gamble has to pay off quickly enough for them to establish new Minerva campuses across the globe to absorb a growing (and mobile) student body, not to mention round out their faculty and course offerings as post-Cornerstone classes move past freshman year.

Will this Silicon Valley funded experiment in educational renovation (informed, like so much else these days, by “brain science” that probably understands less about how people learn than its practitioners think) work? Time will tell, but even if you put aside the gadgetry and techne I’m heartened that someone is taking a crack at founding a school in which the only thing happening on “campus” is teaching and learning. So even if Minerva’s unique combination of content and silicon gadgetry never goes mainstream, perhaps other flowers can bloom in other locales: schools where rock gyms and cafeterias never get built but students manage to learn nevertheless.

One Response to Mother Minerva Project

  1. Zachary Thomas September 30, 2014 at 3:08 am #

    This project really interests me — having studied abroad and taken MOOCs, the idea of combining travel with teaching from leading professors really appeals to me as an intellectual and learning experience. If I wasn’t so far into my current college experience or still a high school student, I would consider applying at least just to learn more about it.

    I imagine as MOOC technology improves (as in, the “super-text” features that convey the information and the structures facilitating social interaction) programs like the Minerva Project will become for viable of an option for a certain sector of the college-bound population.

    I also appreciate the revised core curriculum — just let college do what it does best: build critical thinking and communication skills before moving on to more specialized curricula.

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