Minerva’s Plan to Disrupt Universities: A Talk with CEO Ben Nelson

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these schools. They know who’s your dad, who’s your mom, and how much money did they contribute.

The bottom line is, [students from China] are locked out of the system in many regards. Now, for the American students, there are elements of that going on. There are going to be a few students, even from China, that do get into some of these institutions. If you set your standards at that level, of course some of those will have gotten into other institutions. But the point is that you can set a bar that is substantially higher than any other university, and be inclusive of people who are completely locked out [of the elite American universities].

X: You don’t have a tenure system for your faculty. What are Minerva’s attractions for a professor who could get a tenure-track job at a traditional university?

BN: The compensation is the flexibility they get. The tenure track is a double-edged sword. Faculty are generally happy to have tenure themselves, but they are generally very angry that their colleagues have it. So, one of the biggest elements is that they don’t have to have colleagues with tenure. They have academic freedom and flexibility; they have the opportunity to be Minerva professors.

Having said that, we don’t expect our professors to necessarily be here forever. If a professor gets a plum, full-time position at Princeton, where they get to teach one course a year and hang out, great. We wish them well. This is an important thing to understand. One of the reasons we don’t have the same faculty model is that we don’t want our undergraduates to pay for prestige. We want them to pay for value. Undergraduates at Minerva do not subsidize research; grants subsidize research. We also don’t take overhead. More of your [grant] money goes to you. We don’t lay claim to your IP. At other universities, if you do novel work, the university owns the patent. At Minerva, you own the patent. Other universities will tell you you have to be on campus nine months out of the year. For us, you only have to be in class, for a one hour and ten minutes session, and you can do that from anywhere in the world. So the level of control you have over your life, your IP, where you live, who your colleagues are: that is a level of control no other faculty has.

X: Let’s talk about the technology. There are plenty of learning management systems out there, but at Minerva you’ve built your own software from scratch. Why? What are its main features?

BN: The last company where I was CEO was Snapfish, and in the online photo space, there were three or four companies whose entire reason for existence was to build photo sites for other companies, like retailers. They powered every photo experience you have heard of; it’s called white labeling. At Snapfish, we built our own platform, because the others weren’t very good. In 2004, 2005, a few of those retailers came to us and said, ‘We are sick and tired of these platforms that were built for us, because they were built for the CIO and not for the customer. Can we please have yours?’ and we said, ‘Okay.’ And we wound up powering Costco, Walmart, Walgreens, Flickr. It turns out that the way to create great scalable systems is to build it with the end user in mind.

In edtech, you basically have the same issue. Most of the platforms are not built for the student. They are built for the procurement office of the university. So, like most enterprise IT, it’s awful for that reason. It turns out that even the most fundamental building blocks, we have to build ourselves. The reason for that is because our pedagogy is so unique. The platform is being built specifically for the curriculum we have in mind and the subjects we are teaching.

The general edtech world has a dual focus, neither of which is ours. One is the focus on the individual student: adaptive learning, competency-based learning, for single consumption. The other is mass broadcast: MOOCs and the Khan Academies of the world, the lectures. We aren’t interested in those either. We are glad they exist, and our students will take advantage of them to cover material we don’t teach them. But what we are focused on is taking the 19-person seminar, and making it run better than it can be run offline. No one else has that special requirement. Because there is no market for it, there is no focus on building it, which is why we built it ourselves.

X: So what’s the pedagogical style you have in mind, and how will you embody it in a 19-person, online seminar?

BN: We are showing it soon, but let me describe it. There are few important design principles around what we are building. The first is that every single Minerva class is a seminar. There are no lectures. Professors are banned from talking very long—and we are tracking it, so we will know. It’s about engaging students and getting them into active learning. That means one camera to one student at all times. There are 19 students and one professor, live in the room. Then there are all sorts of tools incorporated into the site that enable everything from very basic participation to extraordinarily deep interactions.

To give you an example, the very first time we trialed the platform was a year ago at the University of Washington Medical School. The professor had two sections of the class: one offline around a table and one on our platform. He told us that the online class blew the offline class out of the water. The reason was really basic, even though we didn’t think of it as a design feature at first. When he would ask a question in his offline class, four kids would raise their hand and he would pick. The worst case scenario is that the student knows the answer, and then the conversation is over. The point is engaging them in analysis, so you want to avoid the right answer. In Minerva, they type their answers. You can pick the most interesting wrong answer first and then engage the students who had the right answer to walk the student with the wrong answer through it. That is not something that people who don’t care about active learning think about, but it’s something you can do much more easily online than offline.

Another example is, we do breakout sessions where the students break into groups. They have a shared whiteboard, shared files, shared documents. The professor can “walk” into and out of the breakouts. At the end of the breakout, everyone goes back into the main classroom. Try to do that offline, and there is overhead, with chairs shuffling and people checking Facebook; if you do three or four breakouts you’ve used 20 minutes on overhead. With Minerva it’s instantaneous.

X: Still, there will only be 19 students in your first class, and they will all be right here in San Francisco. Wouldn’t it be easier to get them all together in a single classroom?

BN: Much easier, but we do nothing that is easy. We only do what is right. This gets to another point about our curriculum. When you allow classes to happen offline, you effectively predetermine that the class is the ultimate unit of measurement. You are left with no choice but to make your degree a collection of 30 unrelated units. We simply don’t believe in that mode. We think curricula should be thoughtful. They should have purpose and be highly structured, while leaving room for effectively infinite choice.

The way you do that is through this concept of the scaffolded curriculum. You create a base in the freshman year which is a set of several dozen habit-of-mind concepts that are subject-matter independent. You use the subject matter to illustrate the point, but the point is to teach you these tools around critical thinking and effective communication. Then, in the sophomore year onward, but even during the freshman year, you apply one concept to another, and scaffold up and make the students apply concepts from one class to subject matter from another. It’s a psychological concept called ‘far transfer.’ If you want to learn it, you have to learn it in one context and apply it in another.

There is no way we could conceive of engaging that class in an offline environment, because every student needs to be evaluated on every single one of those concepts. That’s why there are no lectures: time is too valuable. The classroom is too critical for us to allow it to go into randomness, or for what happened in the class to vaporize into the ether. You have to constantly evaluate the students. Because it’s one camera to one student, we record all the proceedings. The professor goes back through the class, repeats it at 2x or 3x speed, and grades everyone on habits of mind and concepts, using a set of rubrics. If a professor notices you are struggling with a particular concept in your morning biology class, that afternoon your philosophy professor can … Next Page »

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7 responses to “Minerva’s Plan to Disrupt Universities: A Talk with CEO Ben Nelson”

  1. lump1 says:

    Wow, I teach at a university, but this one seems better. It would have been very easy for them to take shortcuts and charge thousands for access to lecture downloads and mercenary distributed test-graders, and call that an education. I’m impressed that they’re avoiding such shortcuts. To me, it sounds like they’re so ambitious that their money will inevitably run out and they will be forced into compromises. But maybe this wet blanket attitude of mine is the reason why I’m a college instructor and not an entrepreneur.

    Just one comment about tenure, though. A lot of people have this misconception that tenure is somehow economically unsustainable at universities. I suspect it’s actually a huge money-saver. It’s because universities offer tenure that they can afford to pay much smaller salaries and still hire top research talent. For sure, a faculty member choosing between a tenure-track and non-tenure-track job might take the latter, but only if it paid *a lot* more. The figure I’ve seen is around $25,000, but I suspect that’s actually an underestimate. But even it it’s right, offering tenure basically means that universities can hire professors for $25,000/year less than their market value. That’s nothing to scoff at, even for people trying to start something educationally “disruptive”.

    • Wade Roush says:

      Hey lump1, thanks for your comment. I agree that Minerva’s plan sounds costly: they may have to go back for several more rounds of venture funding before they get anywhere close to breaking even based on tuition alone, and in that case the question the investors will ask is how fast are they growing? VCs are often willing to re-up based on rapid growth. So my bet is that scaling rapidly, rather than budgeting per se, is going to be their greatest challenge. Thanks for your observation about tenure: I didn’t think to ask them whether they plan to pay faculty more or less than the market rates.

  2. Bill Ghormley says:

    Ah, Minerva! Experiential learning in a new package — powerful concepts intermingled to produce an approach that should achieve Minerva’s goal: to give the world critical thinkers who can communicate. The Brand “Minerva” is a bit regal, and obscure — the goddess of Truth and Wisdom (aka Athena) sits on the Xconomy HQ building in Cambridge — but is she built into the semiotics of this new business? I feel they should drive much harder to depict the graphical and philosophical dimensions of their enterprise — reaching for Minerva/Athena! The gravitas of tying into ancient empires for the deepest wells of knowledge is not exploited to build Brand tools from what I’ve seen — Ben needs to go get those and embrace them!

    • Wade Roush says:

      I have a feeling they’re trying to avoid all the trappings of traditional academia right now, including things like a fancy Latin or Greek motto or symbol. The Minerva sites are utilitarian to the point of severity. The logo is a ring or Mobius strip with the inverted/shadow image of an (empty) shield in the middle. Or is it an acorn? I can’t tell.

  3. ezrabiggins says:

    My assessment of for-profit colleges is that they are organized crime operating within the law. They cold call as desperately as the salesmen in Glengarry Glenross; they bring in anyone with a pulse–a pulse and financial aid. And that’s the scam. As with privatized prisons, the destruction of public sector unions and the fraudulent ‘bankruptcy’ of Detroit, the euphemistically titled ‘venture capitalists’ have seen that we have entered a post-consumerist capitalism. Why go after public funds? For the same reason the bank robber gave: That’s where the money is.
    So here is a venture capitalist–another venture capitalist–with a sudden passion for education. But this one seems to have pitched a new twist on the edudollar racket to his (mysteriously anonymous) backers. An upscale for-profit college company–er, project. The students have come for the faculty names (but he’s not interested in prestige). The faculty names, it is alluded, are making very big bucks (they are a speculative investment). You raised the pertinent question, but didn’t press it when he double-talked you. What return do these heavy investors foresee? What is the game here? It doesn’t look like it’s the tuition, no profit in that at current scale. And it won’t be the familiar public money grab via financial aid. There are no Ivy Leaguers coming out of neighborhood public schools. The most electric word in his vocabulary as far as he is concerned seems to be China. He knows something, or sees something, that his backers see too but, I think, most of us don’t see yet.
    I’ve cast a lot of aspersions to conclude with nothing more than ‘Something smells fishy.’ But I will claim as justification several centuries’ history of venture capitalism.

  4. Tran Khanh says:

    I do aggree that online education will be very important in the future. However, in low-developing country (the ones who need education the most), it’ very likely that they’re lack support for online education.


  5. Zhan Hui Hoe says:

    Nothing can ever happen if no one is willing to take the first step. His mission resonates with the younger generation. Kudos! The hardest part in doing anything, in my opinion, is initiating and then sustaining. I definitely believe that Minerva Project will spearhead the revolution in education.