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Online learning has been trumpeted by everyone from academics to politicians to venture capitalists as a way to improve access to education. But now a novel idea is emerging from a prominent group of digital education supporters: you can’t learn everything online.

The Minerva Project is a first-of-its-kind hybrid of old and new in which there is no campus and students take all of their courses online, but live together in traditional college dorms. The idea comes from a former Internet executive who thinks social interaction is as important as the kind of customized learning that high-tech online classes promise.

The school—named after the Roman goddess of wisdom—is still in its planning stages and isn’t scheduled to open until the fall of 2015. But it has already raised $25 million from investment firm Benchmark Capital, making it one of the best-funded higher education startups of its kind, and announced a yearly $500,000 award that aims to be a Nobel Prize for teaching.

Minerva Project
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil

And some prominent academic names are on board. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers is on the advisory board, as is Bob Kerrey, a former Senator from Nebraska who was president of the New School in New York from 2001 to 2010. Stephen Kosslyn, the director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a former dean and chair of the psychology department at Harvard, recently joined as the founding dean.

In charge of it all is Ben Nelson, former CEO of the photo sharing and printing website Snapfish. He declares that Minerva will be “offering the best education possible,” comparable to Harvard’s but at half the cost. And he plans to make a profit.

Minerva students will rotate through six or so different countries during their four years of college, living in dormitories in places as far flung as Paris, Beijing and São Paulo, and moving every few months. Nelson says he wants to preserve college social life because it helps students grow and mature. And he wants Minerva graduates to become cosmopolitan citizens of the world. “We want them to learn the language and be immersed in each one of those cultures as residents,” he says. “It goes beyond bonding and friendships.”

They’ll come together online, where all of their classes will be taught as small seminars of no more than 25 students—another departure from many existing online models, which tend to emphasize scale and accessibility. When a student asks a question, for example, a video of her face will pop up on the computer screens of her professor and all of her peers.

Nelson says the technology will send prompts to a professor to help tailor the material to every student. Shy students will be nudged. For a struggling student, resources for extra help or review will be offered. For a student who has mastered the material, the teacher can push him further.

All of this isn’t just as good as conventional education, Nelson says—it’s better.

“Off-line classrooms do not work,” says Nelson, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. “In a seminar, the way that you interact matters a great deal for your intellectual development. When you do that in a room, no one remembers what happens. If we actually capture your learning experience and utilize that data, we can track and improve how you’re learning.”

Developing the software for such online seminars and to analyze each student’s performance is expensive. So, to turn a profit, Minerva will eliminate the biggest costs that traditional universities face. There will be no intercollegiate athletics, no tenured faculty and no campuses. Dormitories will be rented from developers around the world, with the cost passed along to students. The fee for students will also be much greater than for most other kinds of higher education, though Nelson says he hopes to keep tuition at half of what Ivy League schools charge. (The full cost of tuition, room, board and other fees at Harvard this year totals $54,496.)

To save money on faculty, Minerva plans to sweep up newly minted PhDs and give them short-term contracts. Nelson believes he can create an Ivy-caliber education by hiring world-renowned experts to design the curriculum, but use cheaper, non-tenured faculty to run the seminars and grade students. It’s similar to how universities use graduate student teaching assistants, except Minvera’s faculty will have more discretion to modify a course.

It might seem absurd that PhDs would sign up for a job with no hope of tenure. But Minerva thinks it can capitalize on what it sees as a glut of graduates from top-tier PhD programs with few job prospects. Nelson also hopes to attract more senior faculty who don’t want to be tethered to a campus—say, a professor who wants to retire in France, or an academic spouse without a job offer at his wife’s university.

To lure scientists, who are in tighter supply, Nelson plans to take a much smaller bite out of their research grants for overhead and allow professors to retain full ownership of all their intellectual property and discoveries.

Some educators are skeptical. “We haven’t had one of these succeed in a very long time,” says Robert Zemsky, a higher-education expert at the University of Pennsylvania. Zemsky believes that technology is finally sophisticated enough for most subjects to be taught online, but not all. He doubts Minerva will be able to build reputable science departments, for example, without laboratory spaces in which students can conduct experiments.

Most of all, he wonders whether Minerva will be able to attract top students without an Ivy League “brand name” or amenities like sports, theater and music. “That’s a tough sell,” says Zemsky.

One move announced this week that could bolster the school’s profile is the Minerva Prize, an annual $500,000 award to a professor at any institution in the world “who is driving innovation to deliver extraordinary student learning experiences for the 21st century.” Modeled after the Nobel Prize selection process, the winner of the Minerva will be selected by Minerva Academy, a new “society of educators” run by Stanford Medical School professor and Nobel winner Roger Kornberg.

Minerva plans to start with 200 to 300 students in each incoming class, and, if it succeeds, grow much, much larger. Nelson believes the demand is out there, especially from international students who are clamoring for a first-rate American education.

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