(Deletes "Coursera" in third paragraph, replaces with
By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO Jan 17 Offering a twist on the
learn-from-anywhere convenience of Internet classes, a new
university is asking freshmen to take a large leap of faith.
Minerva Schools of KGI, a radically experimental university
in San Francisco, is sifting through applications for its first
class, starting this fall. The school is an alliance between
Minerva Project, a venture-backed for-profit company, and Keck
Graduate Institute, one of California's Claremont colleges.
The school launches just as studies are questioning the
efficacy of Web teaching. In California, a high-profile program
run by San Jose State University and startup Udacity, was
suspended after officials found that failure rates for online
students were much higher than for traditional learners.
Last month, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School
of Education released a study showing that only about 4 percent
of those who register for an online course at Penn complete it.
The courses are free.
The field nevertheless remains one of the hottest for
startups. Minerva has raised $25 million from Benchmark, a
leading venture-capital firm. Others with VC backing include
Coursera, Udacity and 2U, which have raised $85 million, $20
million and $101 million respectively. Harvard, MIT and other
leading universities offer their own courses online gratis in an
initiative called EdX.
Minerva says what it plans to do is different.
"Technology can be used in a much more effective way in
higher education than has previously been the case," said
Stephen Kosslyn, Minerva's founding dean and the former dean of
social sciences at Harvard.
Even though all classes will be held online, first-year
students must live in a residence hall in San Francisco and take
classes together in real time, deviating from the "anywhere,
anytime" model prevalent in online education.
"We are entirely focused on active learning," said Kosslyn.
Before each class, students must complete assignments that will
then require vigorous participation during the online session,
such as engaging in a debate, presenting their own work, or
critiquing that of others, he said.
Courses will be recorded, in part so faculty can track and
measure growth in rhetoric and other skills. Final grades for
those first-year classes will not come until just before
graduation, so the grades will reflect progress in those skills
over the years.
For serving as guinea pigs, the first class of students will
be rewarded with free tuition for all four years, although they
will have to pay $19,000 annually for room and board. That
compares to a price tag upwards of $50,000 a year at many other
top U.S. universities, the group Minerva already compares itself
to. Some scholarships will be available for students who need
them, according to the school.
The university has been developing its curriculum since
hiring Kosslyn in March last year. Minerva's chairman, former
Snapfish president Ben Nelson, believes the systematic
development of skills such as critical thinking will do more to
create leaders and innovators than the haphazard approach he
believes characterizes traditional universities.
Some of Minerva's ideas are variations on policies that have
largely fallen out of favor elsewhere, such as putting all
first-year students through the same core classes instead of
allowing electives. Minerva students will spend their first year
taking four classes designed to teach communication, critical
analysis, creative thinking and collaboration.
A B.A. IN BS DETECTION
In a meeting last month, Kosslyn and Eric Bonabeau, dean of
computational sciences, sat in front of a white board covered
with colored Post-it notes to try to hone the formal analysis
class that all freshmen will take.
The class will include statistics, mathematics and business
- including topics such as financial statements. Bonabeau will
simultaneously train students in various foundational skills,
such as negotiation and the ability to quickly summon
counterexamples or check the plausibility of assumptions.
"Basically, you have a bullshit detector Minerva is building
for you," Bonabeau said.
After the first year, students will select traditional
majors - what Minerva calls "concentrations" - in fields such as
economics, philosophy and computer science.
Measuring whether the curriculum really will lead to greater
development of skills such as critical thinking could be tough,
said Andrew Kelly, director for the Center on Higher Education
Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington,
D.C-based research organization.
"It will be hard to know the value-added of Minerva's
approach, because they're starting with students who they have
selected on the basis of being talented and driven," he said.
Comparing its graduates' skills and accomplishments to those of
other schools with similarly rigorous admissions standards might
be one solution, he said.
Kelly said he expects Minerva to draw high-caliber
applicants on par with the country's top schools.
The four deans who will teach the core courses to the
freshmen class are already in place; other professors have yet
to be named. Minerva says it plans to hire faculty from around
the world, but unlike at other universities, they will be given
short-term contracts rather than lifelong tenure. It
anticipates a ratio of about 16-17 students per faculty member.
While students will start their education in San Francisco,
over the four-year program they are required to move to other
cities where Minerva will have residence facilities, ideally
"Experiential learning is all about interacting with the
world around you," Nelson said. "That is done best when you are
immersed in the best the world has to offer as opposed to living
in a cocoon."
Minerva expects students to engage in school-sponsored
activities that complement the curriculum - trips to the Golden
Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco, say, in the company of an
Applications from more than 75 countries demonstrate the
appeal of the online-offline model, Nelson said. Minerva expects
15-38 students in its inaugural class.
(Reporting by Sarah McBride; editing by Prudence Crowther)