April 23, 2012

Excellence Online

The Minerva Project aims to raise the bar for Internet undergrads

If the future of online academies and universities isn’t free, it may look something like The Minerva Project. Billing itself as the first “elite university” founded in the digital age, The Minerva Project is the vision of Snapfish president Ben Nelson, and it's gearing up to recruit its first class of undergraduate students beginning in 2014. The goal? Transforming “every aspect of the university-student relationship in anticipation of students' changing needs in an evolving world.”

Mindful of the growing body of free resources online and the vast stores of accessible knowledge, Minerva is touting an approach that will focus on analytical coursework designed to prepare students for the real world. Which is to say, students won’t find introductory courses that can be found elsewhere. With Minerva they'll discover an educational experience that “relies strictly on the world’s most demanding intellectual standards” to inform everything from recruitment to student support services.

As CEO Ben Nelson explained to Audrey Waters at hack [higher] education, a blog hosted by Inside Higher Ed, the goal of the university is to provide an “academically rigorous liberal arts education, more akin to graduate school perhaps or, according to Nelson, a bygone era when a university education meant you were required to take a bunch of core classes and where you gained critical thinking skills—and the social certitude, perhaps—to be able to speak smartly or argue intelligently on any topic.”

Making The Minerva Project possible is $25 million in seed funding from the investment firm Benchmark Capital. The amount was announced in April and represents the largest single investment in the firm's history. Presumably there are more than a few believers in The Minerva Project. Some of the more influential backers might be members of the university’s board of advisors, including Larry Summers, former Harvard President and former Treasury Secretary; Patrick Harker, President of the University of Delaware and former Dean of the Wharton School of Business; former New School President and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey; and Lee Shulman, Emeritus Professor of the Stanford School of Education.

Despite the high profile support, questions will abound before The Minerva Project demonstrates its proof of concept. Some of those questions include how an online university might offer undergraduate students a similar experience in networking and social development that bricks and mortar institutions offer. In response, The Minerva Project plans to locate students in “dorm clusters,” with students spending their first year in their home countries and subsequent years abroad at locations in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. How this might affect the cost of a Minerva education is unclear, though with tuition starting at $20,000 a year it is less expensive than American Ivy League schools.

Another question is how The Minerva Project will recruit tier one professors to offer the kind of exemplary teaching the university has in mind. The answer to that one might be as simple as salaries, considering the number of PhDs looking for teaching positions. The "Minerva Prize," a cash award, is also being highlighted as a tool for targeting the best college-level teaching.

Without a doubt, the Internet and online coursework have a role to play in the future of education. This is true at a number of levels, including high school, undergraduate, and graduate education. Whether a university with elite ambitions, global reach, and no physical campus can affect the lives and careers of its students—as much as the industry itself—remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

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