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WASHINGTON, D.C. – An experiment in higher education uses computers to give every student a virtual front-row seat in the classroom.

Classes at Minerva Schools at KGI, a four-year undergraduate program, are conducted entirely through a software program created specifically for the school.

During class, there is real-time interaction through the computer between professor and students. They can see each other through the screen. Each class has fewer than 20 students. Professors do not lecture. The virtual experience is recorded each day so it can be reviewed for purposes such as assessment of students and faculty performance.

The first 28 students started their freshman year this fall in San Francisco, Calif. They are not required to attend class from any particular physical location, but they live together in buildings leased by the school. The founder of the school says he intends to compete with the nation’s most elite institutions — at a fraction of the cost to students. Tuition, housing and books are about $28,000 a year. Students must also pay travel costs.

Minerva Schools at KGI
Students at the Minerva Schools at KGI take classes through an online program. The students are required to live together in the same city, but they are allowed to log on anywhere to attend classes. (Credit: submitted photo, Minerva Schools at KGI.)

A roadshow is part of the program’s design. Students move to new cities each year. They are expected to independently discover extracurricular activities outside of class wherever they live.

The accredited degree program is offered through a partnership between the Minerva Project and the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif. The founding dean is Stephen Kosslyn, a cognitive neuroscientist and a former dean at Harvard University.

Ben Nelson is the 39-year-old CEO and founder of the for-profit Minerva Project, which started the school and designed the software that it uses. Nelson earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He led Snapfish, an online photography startup business, when it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Last month, Minerva announced a $70 million infusion from Chinese investors.

The Hechinger Report caught up with Nelson at National Education Week’s Thought Leader Summit. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

You seem to speak the languages of business and education fluently. I read an interview where you used the word “scaffolding.” That is education jargon that I don’t hear many businessmen use in conversation. How did you learn about education?

The reason for that is Minerva was initially a curricular platform. It is what I put together as an undergraduate when I knew nothing about business. If people say, “Oh you created Minerva, you did all this stuff,” I generally say I had very little to do with it. Really, there are two things that I did that I can take credit for.

One is the plan. And the plan, which I spent 16 months working on before I even went out to raise the financing, was a very complex model that had outcomes as the primary goal. And the operating model was really built around support of the outcomes for the students.

The other thing I did was I hired exceptional people. In many ways I was very lucky to find them. Two of them I literally stumbled upon. I mean, just coincidental encounters. But when I met them and realized they were the right people I pounced.

Minerva Schools at KGI
Ben Nelson, the CEO and founder of the Minerva Project, says the school will compete with Ivy League institutions. (Credit: Minerva Schools at KGI)

This idea of student-centered learning — is that yours?



When I was an undergraduate I studied the history of universities, and what they are built for, and I realized universities were not doing what they were built to do.

And my hypothesis, when I was an undergrad, 20 years ago, in a world that was less complex than it is today, was that as the cadre of leaders that were educated during and before the 1960s — when universities still had a curricular thought, when they still actually developed critical thinking skills, etc. — were to give way to those who were educated in the ‘70s and ‘80s and beyond, we would face a crisis in society that needs a solution. Over the ensuing 20 years I realized this prediction was coming to bear. And I realized it is not any individual’s fault. It is simply that the system has failed intrinsically. So Minerva was, and still is, about fixing that fundamental problem.

How do you create that from scratch?

You have to do a lot of things at once. You have to understand what are the components of brand value in higher education, right?

You have to make a commitment to society and say this is the measure for which I need to be judged. I need to be judged by the quality of students that I bring in, what they do once they graduate. I need to be judged on the quality of instruction and programming, the quality of experience, the quality of the faculty and the quality of the instructional medium.

If Harvard and Yale and Stanford produce better education for better students with better outcomes, then we are not their equal. And if we do it, then we are the better. It’s that simple. And the beauty of it is in order for Harvard, Yale and Stanford to compete with us they need to up their game. Because Minerva is designed to be above them.

The more we generate that race to the top, the more beneficial it is to society. The more complacent it is at the top, the more they compete on nonsense like who has the nicer climbing gym, who has a certain number of Nobel Prize winners who never teach undergraduates, or who has a bigger endowment — that they blow on buildings and lawns and sports programs — the more society goes down the tubes.

Minerva Schools at KGI
The 2.8 percent acceptance rate at the Minerva Schools at KGI was lower than Ivy League schools. The school’s tuition, housing and books cost about $28,000 a year. Students must also pay for food and travel expenses, which are not included. (Credit: Minerva Schools at KGI)

Is there an effort to enroll some students who don’t fit the straight-A profile of the typical Ivy League applicant?

That is actually really one of the difficulties we have not been able to crack. There are a lot of those kids who are really super, super bright who went through a terrible K-12 experience, and they just aren’t motivated to get through it at the highest level. Maybe the C students or the B students because they just weren’t there yet. Unfortunately, we really don’t know how to ferret out the false positives in that.

The problem is the more you go and ignore indicators, you wind up finding people you should be bringing in, but there’s a much bigger group of those who shouldn’t be there. If we were free, if it cost us nothing, if we were a MOOC-based, absolutely. Because what is the harm of allowing everybody to come in?

The problem is, if we were to say ‘come pay us $28,000, and we’ll figure out if you really should be here,’ and then they drop out — that’s not right.

What you don’t want to do is you don’t want to bring in more students on a hope that they can make it, collect their money, and say thank you very much, good luck to you. That’s why we are so super selective.

You are in San Francisco now. And I saw there are a few more places to come…

Buenos Aires and Berlin, for sophomore year.

Right. Do you know yet where the current undergraduates will live after that?

No. We are working with our founding class to figure out where our next four cities will be, but we have not worked it out yet. But we will.

You can track everything students are doing during class time because it’s computer-based. For instance, you might check to ensure students aren’t on Facebook. You also track how professors are teaching. Do people find that a little creepy?

No. Remember, the tracking isn’t this concept of like there is this camera in your bedroom and we are looking at you. You are in class. You are in class to be evaluated. So without this, you might waste a bunch of time in class, but you study for the test and you pass the test. And then you forget it, right? We say, no, no, no. Your grade is based on how you perform in class.

Minerva Schools at KGI
The school’s model of instruction, which is delivered through online classes that are recorded, was designed for the school. It requires students to be on-task at all times and professors do not lecture, according to the school’s founder. (Credit: Minerva Schools at KGI)

By the way, in the first week of classes, two of our four professors who were teaching that week came up to me and said, “You know, I’ve discovered the most amazing thing.” Remember, the professor teaches the class, then goes back and replays the class and assesses everyone. These professors said to me, “At the end of class, if you had asked me, I would have said Student X did best. But when I went back and gave grades, and I saw who had the highest grades, it was Student Y.”

And that’s fascinating. Do you know what the difference is between Student X and Student Y? Student X was a man. Student Y was a woman. There is cognitive bias. It is well-studied that in classes your first impression goes toward men.

This is a huge disservice to the men and the women. Men get positive feedback for sub-par work, and the women get negative feedback for extraordinary work. So, men’s confidence is inflated way beyond where it should be, which is not good because they might not perform as well in life. And with women, have lower confidence on excellent work, and they, therefore, have a problem delivering.

And so here is a very unexpected side benefit to recording classes.

That is interesting. Does established research on teaching and learning fit with how you use classroom technology?

Yes. The entire point is that we are not inventing anything. All we are doing is taking this science of learning, and we created a technology, a media platform and a pedagogical model that fits it.

The interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about digital ed.

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