Revolutionary delivery meets traditional standards

It might be easier to describe the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, a recent entrant into the world of higher education, in terms of what it is not rather than what it is.
  • • There are no athletics teams, no libraries and, certainly, no lecture halls. There’s not even a campus, for that matter. Classrooms are rented.
  • • Students do most of their course-taking via laptops, but it’s not distance learning – they often sit in the same room during class time.
  • • And over their four years of study, the students will travel to and live together in seven cities across the globe, starting with San Francisco.
Launched in 2012 with US$25 million in start-up capital from a Silicon Valley firm, Minerva leverages its revolutionary approach to teaching and learning in a way that turns the concepts of global higher education and online instruction on their heads.

The San Francisco-based school, which enrolled its first class of students in 2014-15, was featured at an annual meeting last week of the Washington-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation or CHEA, where conference organisers held it up as a model of higher education that has successfully responded to calls for change while still meeting the standards set by traditional quality assurance and accreditation agencies.

Accreditation standards and practices are coming under increasing scrutiny in the United States. The US Education Department is experimenting with an initiative that could shake up the current system. Last autumn, legislation was introduced to allow for the creation of a voluntary alternative system of accreditation.

And the Higher Education Act is up for reauthorisation, opening the door to plenty of debate about whether accreditation is doing what it is supposed to be doing: protecting students and taxpayers from low-quality education.

“Government and others want accreditation to function in ways that are different from our traditional, typical, deliberative, formative, collegial mode,” CHEA President Judith Eaton told participants in opening remarks. The Minerva Schools, which earned accreditation in a relatively short amount of time, she says, “is a great counter-example [of] this notion that accreditation isn’t up to the challenge of innovation”.

Jump hurdles

Minerva was able to jump key hurdles by partnering with the Keck Graduate Institute, an existing higher education provider in Southern California that is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. That affiliation allowed it to expedite the process of accreditation, a third-party stamp of approval designed to signal to the US Education Department and students and parents that an institution meets quality assurance standards.

Founded by entrepreneur Ben Nelson, the former president of an online photo hosting and printing service called Snapfish, Minerva has assembled a high-profile team of supporters – including former US Senator Bob Kerrey, who spent 10 years as president of The New School in New York, and Larry Summers, who has served both as US Treasury Secretary and president of Harvard.

Nelson has said he would like the initiative to have a broader influence on the higher education establishment. Minerva arose out of concerns about four key challenges facing traditional higher education today: a general dissatisfaction among students, employers and other stakeholders with what students are learning, high cost, low completion rates and mounting student debt.

Minerva focuses on the first two – because, “if you take care of those, the other ones go away”, says Minerva Schools founding dean Stephen Kosslyn, a neuroscientist who at the conference described how the science of learning has informed the design of the curriculum.

The first year is devoted to four competencies: critical thinking (such as evaluating claims and weighing decisions), creative thinking (such as problem solving), effective communication (such as writing clearly and presenting) and effective interaction (such as working on teams or negotiating).

Students do most of their course-taking via their laptops using interactive strategies – but, as Kosslyn told conference participants, “They’re interacting with each other, not with their computers.” Classes are capped at 19 students, and during class seminars, all of their images are projected in a row at the top of their computer screens, so that all students and the professor are face-to-face all the time.

The faculty, some of whom have left positions at universities such as Carnegie Mellon, Rice and Rutgers to join Minerva, draw from a repertoire of tools that ensure that, as Kosslyn says, “100% of students are engaged 75% of the time”.

One colour-coded feature of the software, for example, keeps track of which students have and which have not contributed to the discussion, so that faculty can make sure all voices are heard. Another feature allows students to submit questions anonymously – a way to avoid calling attention to themselves, which in some cultures is frowned upon.

Other teaching strategies also keep the conversation moving and require active engagement. For example, in one exercise, students participate in what Kosslyn calls an "intellectual baton race", in which the professor calls on one student to answer a question, then interrupts that student’s thought to direct another student to pick up the idea and carry the response forward.

Another example: As two students debate a subject, the rest of the class is using a rubric to evaluate their argument and presentation. At any given moment, the professor will stop the debate and ask an observer to evaluate the debaters' performances. Or they might be asked to weigh in electronically on a concept or question, or fill out a survey. Student responses produce metrics that allow faculty to track and assess responses and learning – and to share it with other faculty.

Cost savings

The stripped-down nature of Minerva enables it to keep annual tuition to US$10,000, less than a third of the national average published tuition and fees (US$32,405) for a four-year private university in the United States in 2015-16, according to the most recent annual survey of private universities by the College Board, a non-profit that tracks financial trends in higher education.

When cost of living, books, health insurance and fees are factored in, total estimated annual cost for the first year (at Minerva's San Francisco location) rises to about US$28,000 vs the US$44,000 estimated by the College Board for the total cost of one year (2015-16) for four-year private universities.

Living costs in subsequent years will vary because, over the course of their studies the students will move together around the globe – to major cities such as Buenos Aires, Bangalore and Seoul – seven in all. In each city, Minerva hires local staff to handle administrative matters, and the goal is also to hire faculty who live in each of the cities of residence. In general, though, faculty can work remotely – "anywhere where there’s enough bandwidth", Kosslyn says.

Students live in residence halls while immersing themselves in local culture. In San Francisco, for example, they met with a committee on homelessness and had the opportunity to help serve meals at a shelter.

Minerva last autumn enrolled its second cohort, of just over 100 students. They join the 28 members of the school’s “founding class”, who spent a year helping to test-drive the curriculum, followed by a gap year, during which they pursued other interests. In August, both classes of students are scheduled to relocate from San Francisco to Berlin.

Students come from all over the world. In a Huffington Post blog post last year titled "The Ingredients of a Great Education”, Brianna Smrke, a member of Minerva's founding class, described the experience of sharing the first meal together. The fruits of their own labour, it included Argentinian empanadas, Canadian beaver tails, cong you mian and pancakes, among other dishes.

"Most universities are sit-down restaurants," Smrke wrote. “You are free to choose a plate that excites you, so long as it's among those pre-selected menu options.” But as she marvelled at the feast before her that first night, she said, "The symbolism was clear: we're not ordering in, because what we can make is better."