Seeking a Better Higher Ed Mousetrap

Internet commerce is the ultimate creative destroyer: the Web’s immediacy, flexibility, and ability to eliminate the fixed costs of “brick-and-mortar” outlets has humbled a multitude of traditional commercial enterprises. It draws modern entrepreneurs the way new finds of gold drew adventurers in the past. Everybody, or so it seems, wants to think up the next Netflix or

It’s the same in higher education—many entrepreneurs are trying to take advantage of the Internet to become the Reed Hastings (Netflix founder) or Jeff Bezos of the Ivory Tower. But it is also best to expect that the majority of their attempts will fail, as has happened with so many other Internet startups.

In fact, there may be some aspects of higher education that are less like Amazon and more like Home Depot—it’s tough sending that pallet of ready-mix concrete via Fedex. Likewise, it’s going to be hard to get past the belief that anything other than a professor in a physical classroom, or a laboratory with all the trimmings, is suboptimal.

One sector of higher education that has proven resistant to online education is the high end serving excellent students—the ones that modern higher education was designed for and has traditionally served. Not only do such students prefer campuses that provide them with a unique living experience and a community of learning with top professors, but they crave the prestige of long-important institutions.

That doesn’t mean modern gold-seekers aren’t trying to capture their market. Internet entrepreneur Ben Nelson, former CEO of an Internet photo-sharing site called Snapfish, is one. He had a long enough run with his prior business to make him and the originators of that technology rich through a buy-out by Hewlett-Packard. Now he is beating the publicity drum loudly about his new concept for a for-profit Internet university that focuses on attracting outstanding students, called “The Minerva Project.”

What is different and innovative about Minerva? Nelson’s plans seem to be an odd mix of traditional and new. For starters, it is a fully online school that is also residential and holds classes in classrooms instead of providing flexibility as to time and place. However, those online classes will be taught by professors at remote locations. Campuses will be spartan, without the usual amenities and extracurricular activities. Students will not stay in one city for the duration of their Minerva education, but will move around to other campuses planned to span the globe.

 It has been featured in many major publications: Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and more. Nelson has also received a $25 million investment from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm Benchmark, which provided early funding to eBay and Twitter.

And big names have signed on for the ride. Minerva’s advisory board includes: Larry Summers, a former Harvard president and holder of cabinet-level positions under two presidents; Patrick Harker, the current president of the University of Delaware; Lee Shulman, emeritus professor of the Stanford School of Education; and Bob Kerrey, former U.S. senator and former president of the New School. Kerrey will help with fundraising, while Nobel Prize-winning chemist Roger Kornberg will be in charge of the proposed university’s “Minerva Academy,” which will, among other things, award prizes. Stephen Kosslyn, the former Dean of Social Sciences at Harvard and director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, will be the first dean of Minerva, overseeing the School of Arts and Sciences.

Nelson is gambling that having big money backers and academic celebrities involved will permit him to almost immediately manufacture the sort of prestige that took other schools decades or centuries to obtain. And that doing so will enable him to attract high-caliber students from across the globe.

Yet, despite such big ambitions and some bombastic claims by Nelson about the inevitability of him producing a prestigious university that attracts top-flight talent, there are many reasons why his concept might fail. On the other hand, it may also turn out to be a welcome addition to the vast array of choices that already exists in higher education. Either way, the results of The Minerva Project’s attempt to shake up high-end higher education should enliven the discussion about how higher education will function in the future.

Currently, though, everything is up for questioning, including Nelson’s intent. After all, he is an entrepreneur, not an educator. Does he really mean to create a lasting university that fills an important niche and becomes a global institution, or is he merely trying to create something—anything—that will look promising for long enough to bring a big buy-out from an established industry giant? Either way, he gets rewarded financially. Or as one observer pointed out, is merely trying to build a “brand” from which he can launch other ventures?

An important question Minerva raises is pertinent to most online education: is it merely to be a change in delivery, without a change in information, or a change in content and worldview? So far, his recruited stars are straight out of the establishment; one does not generally look to Harvard administrators if the goal is to move in a fresh intellectual direction.

Perhaps the one pedagogical change that will make Minerva stand out is that the traditional lecture will be gone. Professors will instead run online discussion-style seminars rather than lecturing.

Whether Nelson’s intended form of virtual classroom will prove successful is anybody’s guess at this point. But it’s not hard to see the immediate appeal of the entire package to employers: with students in far-flung commercial centers, spending their days absorbing information off of the Web in between teleconferences, their existence will already resemble that of a knowledge-worker at a multinational firm.

One detail of the scheme may prove a barrier toward attracting top students: a plan to monitor every keystroke made by students during classes to keep them engaged in the class. It’s hard to imagine that American students would accept such extreme oversight, particularly the adventurous sort willing to gamble on the Minerva concept instead of going to a traditional college.

Perhaps students from societies that enforce conformity can accept such scrutiny, and Nelson expects at least 90 percent of students to be from somewhere other than the U.S.

Of course, recruiting talented students across the globe—particularly from India and China—who not only wish to attend Minerva but can also pay for it is another matter. For Nelson emphasizes that students at the school must be of high caliber. Minerva won’t even teach introductory courses; Nelson expects his students to pick up such knowledge as first-level macroeconomics  on their own. However, with so many students from foreign countries, from a wide variety of backgrounds, many with little facility in English, his expectations of their ability to teach themselves might be a little high.

There are some really attractive aspects of the school, though. One is his intention to reject federal financial aid. Another is that professors will be signed to three-year contracts with merit pay and no tenure. This focus on teaching, and the lack of extracurricular and residential frills, should enable Minerva to keep its prices low, below the $20,000 per year, Nelson believes.

Still, some of his rhetoric seems unrealistic: he claims to want to provide a place for students who are rejected at the most prestigious schools, such as Harvard, but also claims that his student body will be better than Harvard’s.

Of special concern is his dismissal of “Great Books.” He is quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying that, instead of the imparting the knowledge of the past, he intends to teach students “how to think.” This he hopes to accomplish partly in a “formal systems” course featuring logic, statistics, “Big Data,” and “behavioral econ,” and another course in “practical writing and debating skills.”

While this focus on “thinking” sounds promising—logic and reasoning are too frequently absent from many college curricula—it also leans somewhat to the faddish and trendy—those Great Books did not get the name by being devoid of wisdom. An educator attempting to train intellectual leaders who is so quick to dismiss the Great Books as a means of teaching could be headed for a fall. And even if Nelson is right that “how to think” can be taught directly, it may be difficult to produce deep perspectives in students without giving thinkers and events out of the past their proper due.

So far, nobody has made a profit off an ed-tech startup, according to the Wall Street Journal. And there are a great many questions that The Minerva Project needs to answer before it can be crowned a success. Yet it is a welcome and interesting addition to the many ideas, concepts, and innovations that are being dreamed up to shake the Ivory Tower out of its doldrums.