Right now, the inaugural class of Minerva Schools at KGI (part of the Claremont Colleges) is finishing up its first semester of college. I use the word "college" here loosely: there are no lecture halls, no libraries, no fraternities, no old stone buildings, no sports fields, no tenure... Furthermore, Minerva operates for profit (which may raise eyebrows), but appeals to a decidedly different demographic than DeVry etc; billed as the first "online Ivy", it relies on a proprietary online platform to apply pedagogical best practices. Has anyone heard of this before?
The Minerva Project's instructional innovations are what's really exciting. There are no lectures. There are no introductory classes. (There are MOOCs for that! "Do your freshman year at home.") Students meet for seminar-based online classes which are designed to inculcate "habits of mind"; professors use a live, interactive video platform to teach classes, which tracks students' progress and can individualize instruction. The seminars are active and intense; to quote from a recent (Sept. 2014) Atlantic article,
"The subject of the class ...was inductive reasoning. [The professor] 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. In an ordinary undergraduate seminar, this might have been an occasion for timid silence... But the Minerva class extended no refuge for the timid, nor privilege for the garrulous. Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and [the professor] displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them. [The professor] 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."
It sounds to me like Minerva is actually making a solid effort to apply evidence-based instructional techniques that are rarely ever given a chance. There are boatloads of sound, reproducible experiments that tell us how people learn and what teachers can do to improve learning, but in practice they are almost wholly ignored. To take just one example, spaced repetition and the testing effect are built into the seminar platform: students have a pop quiz at the beginning of each class and another one at a random moment later in the class. Terrific! And since it's all computer-based, the software can keep track of student responses and represent the material at optimal intervals.
Also, much more emphasis is put on articulating positions and defending arguments, which is known to result in deeper processing of material. In general though, I really like how you are called out and held to account for your answers (again, from the Atlantic article:
...it was exhausting: a continuous period of forced engagement, with no relief in the form of time when my attention could flag or I could doodle in a notebook undetected. Instead, my focus was directed relentlessly by the platform, and because it looked like my professor and fellow edu-nauts were staring at me, I was reluctant to ever let my gaze stray from the screen... I felt my attention snapped back to the narrow issue at hand, because I had to answer a quiz question or articulate a position. I was forced, in effect, to learn.
Their approach to admissions is also interesting. The Founding Class had a 2.8% acceptance rate (a ton were enticed to apply on promise of a full scholarship) and features students from ~14 countries. In the application process, no consideration is given to diversity, balance of gender, or national origin, and SAT/ACT scores are not accepted: applicants must complete a battery of proprietary computer-based quizzes, essentially an in-house IQ test. If they perform well enough, they are invited for an interview, during which they must compose a short essay to ensure an authentic writing sample (i.e., no ghostwriters). After all is said and done, the top 30 applicants get in.
Anyway, I am a student and researcher in the field of educational psychology so this may not be as exciting to others. I'm surprised that I hadn't heard of it before though, and I'm really curious to see what comes of it!