Online university… except not really

9:25AM: Wake up to my phone’s notification that class starts in 5 minutes. Mildly panic.

9:26AM: Wash face and make myself look somewhat presentable (at least from the torso up).

9:30AM: Open laptop. Class starts. Still wear pajamas on the bottom.

It’s a university. 4-year accredited. 121 students in this year’s first-year class. Everyone lives in the same dorm. All classes have less than 20 people. No lecture, only classroom discussions. But here’s the real kick: all the classes are done online.

Welcome to Minerva Schools at KGI, with a bold mission to take down Harvard. Minerva was born in San Francisco, when a successful entrepreneur and former CEO of Snapfish Ben Nelson wanted to build a new kind of university that directly challenges what he views as a broken higher education system. Everything about the university is meticulously thought out. In the two years between Minerva’s founding and its admission of the first wave of students (that they lovingly call the “Founding Class”), Minerva questioned and restructured every aspect of an undergraduate education, from content (curriculum) to structure (lecture format) and admissions (SAT scores)*. But what may be most interesting is that all of their innovation is based on an online platform.

One might hear the word online platform and think, “MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).” Not quite. MOOCs are open to the public, largely imitating the form of a lecture and for the most part, one-way education where students are on the receiving end with the exception of “participating” through comments. Minerva is not open to the public (it has a stringent admissions process), and the classes are not one-sided (students are expected to fully participate in their classes).

Or an “online university” like the University of Phoenix. No again. Minerva simply has an online “platform” where students learn, but it has a dorm where every student lives in, co-curricular programs done outside the classroom (and outside of students’ laptop monitor) that incorporates the learnings from the classroom with offline visits and activities.

Then the real question is, why? They already seem to have a great curriculum and a great teaching model – why do they need an online platform? Wouldn’t discussions be more effective in an offline setting? Is this simply to lower the cost of education?

Let’s first take a deeper look at the platform. Minerva’s patented online program named the “Active Learning Forum” works like this. Students log in when class starts; professors also log in (from their respective homes that don’t have to be in San Francisco). All students’ faces are placed on the top of the screen, and whoever is speaking at the moment has the full stage (aka the middle of the screen; see image below). Professors guide the discussion, often cold-calling on people who haven’t spoken as many times in the class and asking students to back their opinions based on the poll they just took on the platform (see image below).

1) poll

To the “non-believers,” it may seem that while Minerva’s methodology looks very engaging (even resembling the HBS classrooms and the case-method), the online platform is more of a nuisance than a merit. To this concern, Minerva is adamant that their platform is not only practical but also necessary. For one, the tools help professors achieve high quality discussions. Professors can see who has spoken and who hasn’t on the screen, which marks those who haven’t spoken much as red and others as green (see image below). The system warns the professor when he speaks for more than 5 minutes – gently reminding him or her that the class is for discussion, not lecture. The polls show students’ responses in real time, facilitating discussions. Small group sessions can be broken out within the system, and 2-3 people are matched with a googledoc they can collaborate on the platform (no need for switching seats and shuffling about in the classroom). Another point is that the tool records everything, which allows the professor to give detailed feedback on students’ participation, fostering students’ development. Last but not least, the online platform allows students to have an international experience throughout college. Because all classes are done online, students go abroad every semester after their first year. For example, their sophomore fall, they go to Berlin where everyone lives together but still takes classes online. They get to still enjoy the high level of education that they have signed up for (which, some may argue that study abroad programs don’t provide) while experiencing a different culture.

2) green red

The students seem to think that the system works. They talk about how extraordinary the education has been, something that they have never experienced before. They actually say that, because the professor can see everyone’s faces facing the screen at all times, the online platform makes them be even more focused in class.

Reflecting this sentiment, Minerva accepted 220 students out of almost 11,000 applicants in their mere second year. It received almost $100 million in funding. Minerva certainly seems to be on a good trajectory in many measures. But there is something still foreign and discomforting about the concept of an online platform as an effective tool for heightening student engagement in class. Is it really the online platform that is effective and core to the success of Minerva? Perhaps the structure of the class with a tight discussions format keeps them on the feet enough to counter the effects of getting bored of staring at a monitor. Is a lower tuition partly due to having no lecture halls, gyms, or sports teams necessarily good? Who loses in this more “efficient” system? Who wins? Is their platform really a necessity or a practicality?

The source of this discomfort and pushback may be the fact that we ourselves are a product of those traditional education institutions. What is Minerva’s model implying about the level of education at existing institutions like Harvard or HBS? This hints at a real challenge for Minerva as a disruptor – convincing the population who have believed and lived in the legitimacy and prestige of the existing institution system.

If anything, Minerva found a niche that the first wave of “online platforms” lacked – human interaction that flows in both directions. It presents to us an option that only utilizes a technological platform in order to connect people rather than using it to replace people. In a world that is increasingly valuing algorithms as an answer to everything (e.g., dating), it can be a refreshing example that implies what needs to be there for the success of a tech-based platform – human aspect.

* Minerva abolished the lecture format and does not require/consider SAT scores for admissions

By: Seong Min Lee


1 Comment

  1. Vibin Kundukulam

    Thanks for writing about Minerva, Seongmin! I had the opportunity to speak to a few Minerva students and employees this past summer in SF. The students I've spoken to have said it's the most engaged they've ever been in school – although those that self-selected into applying to Minerva may be jaded from a subpar experience with traditional schooling.

    As you've mentioned, the biggest difference between Minerva's online platform and other similar ones is their immediate focus on making life easier for the professor, not the student. Every feature they've added really enhances the value of the product for the teacher, which in turn allows them to more effectively teach the student. Compared to similar platforms like those developed by Coursera or Udacity, you'll find that teachers can do so much more with their class than simply sharing slideshows or presenting into a webcam.

    On a side note, I'm also excited about tech executives making plays into education (like Max Ventilla, the ex-Google exec currently running AltSchool). Although they need to avoid the trap of thinking they know everything about education simply because they had a great one, having outsiders come in and try to innovate in education could be the breath of fresh air that the otherwise stagnant industry needs.