Minerva Project: the future of higher education?

by Natha2 min read10th Nov 201416 comments

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Education
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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!

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If it's true that they provide a superior educational experience, it seems like it might provide a bit of evidence about signaling vs human capital explanations for education. But personally my prediction is that graduates will get jobs and it will be mainly due to signaling effects.

Especially since the main screening criterion is IQ.

I've been jumping around reading Caplan's posts on your link in my free time today and I've found him very convincing. However, I know very little about economics. Could you recommend a good overview article on signalling/ability bias/human capital in higher education? I am sincerely quite interested in this stuff.

I did some googling and found this blog post that might be a more accessible overview of Caplan's position. I'm not an economist either and my understanding is that of a layperson.

"...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."

This reminds me of the experience of playing video games...

Is the Minerva program recognized by any accrediting body?

I think just 3 of the degree programs they offer have been accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

Also, very interesting observation about the similarity to video games; this makes sense, especially in light of the gamification craze.

I'd be interested in participating in a seminar like the couses at minerva project. It would be an excellent complement to a campus university or a company campus.

Thanks for the writeup, and an excellent article. Note that the students do still live together, in quasi-dorms - a smart move for motivation and for network-building. I believe the students are supposed to spend a significant amount of time in the other locations Minerva is opening around the world: a year here, a year there, and so on.

I find Minerva an exciting experiment. Law schools have a similar, if much lower-tech, philosophy about classes. In law school, ideally classes focus less on covering content (which you must do prior to class) and more on questioning and debating. This "Socratic method" often works less well in practice than in theory, but when done right it's far more exciting and stimulating than most undergraduate classes.

Hey, thanks for the comment! I have never had been in a law school classroom, but I remember reading about the law school experience in Shulman's (2005) signature pedagogies in the professions article; he argues that law school, medical school, clergy school, design school, etc, have unique educational approaches because these facilitate learning of the skills and dispositions valued by each profession (e.g., the back-and-forth, often harsh exchanges characteristic of a law school classroom train you to "think like a lawyer", to handle conflicting views/interpretations, and to make an abiding distinction between legal reasoning and personal moral judgements.

I thought it was a cool article in general, but I especially liked how he pointed out the one thing they all have in common: "Pedagogies nearly always entail public student performance; without it, instruction cannot proceed. ...this emphasis on student's active performance reduces the most significant impediments to learning in higher education: passivity, invisibility, anonymity, lack of accountability. So much depends on student contributions... there is an inherent uncertainty associated with those situations (direction of discussion jointly produced by the instructor's plan and the students' responses), rendering classroom settings unpredictable and surprising, raising the stakes for both students and instructors. Learning to deal with uncertainty in the classroom models one of the most crucial aspects of professionalism, namely, the ability to make judgements under uncertainty."

Thanks for the paper, and that's a fantastic quote.

Fantastic. I was thinking about how spaced-repetition should be applied in colleges recently. Namely, if it were set up in a way that everything we ever learned could be habitually recycled throughout the course of our education (and lives) with an electronic training program. It could use an algorithm, like Anki, to find out when the "right" time to bring up a certain concept again would be. That way, you could stay just as afresh of everything you learned in year one as in everything you're currently learning. It would take only a little time each day to upkeep your memory. Seamless, high-level mastery as the goal.

I think you're confusing education (or "high-level mastery") with memorization.

I think I see what you mean. I didn't mean memorizing vocabulary per se (Guessing the Teacher's Password), but getting to practice old concepts and apply them to new problems. There's a tendency to forget conceptual processes if they're not used. An important aspect of education is that it's remembered, in general. To use an example, I'd sure like it if I remembered most of what I learned in Bio II, or psychology I, and so forth. I mastered those courses at the time, but I've forgotten them, so it's as if I wasn't educated. I suppose, there's a fine line between mastery and memorization, but mastery, I should think, is the combination of real understanding and recall. One cannot exist without the other.

An important aspect of education is that it's remembered, in general.

I don't know about that. An alternate viewpoint is that education is just training for your mind and the subject matter doesn't matter much, then or later. Note that "education" is different from "professional training".

I vaguely recall that in 10 years most people remember pretty much nothing out of whatever they were taught in college. You can interpret this factoid in multiple ways, of course.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

I accept that the value that alternative viewpoint has (and of course, it is field-dependent), but I don't think the two viewpoints are, by necessity, at odds. What you are describing sounds like the way it is now, in many things, ergo it is a sufficient philosophy. My own viewpoint derives from a desire to have the best of both worlds, in a sense. But whether remembering more is worth anything in terms of utility (would it make people better at what they do?) is to the best of my knowledge unproven, I've realized. I'm not sure what would be optimal. Personally, I'm just the type that wants to know everything. ;)

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