Reinventing The Classroom


By Lisa Autz

Buenos Aires, Argentina, where some Minerva students study. Photo courtesy of David Berkowitz.

When we think about the typical American “college experience”, we think of large lecture halls, huge parties, and accumulating debt. Meanwhile, universities across the country promise engaged learning, diversity, and money well spent. So which version of the story is the reality of higher education in our country?

Ben Nelson, CEO and founder of a revolutionizing college institution called Minerva Project, spoke to BTR about his beliefs on higher education. According to Nelson, colleges are claiming they offer one thing but are really supplying a static university structure just packaged to seem unique and prestigious.

“When there is no pressure to increase quality and all the forces at play to increase costs, you get what has happened over the last 50 years at our universities across the country,” describes Nelson. “The problem higher education is having now, especially in places like Silicon Valley, is people are saying, ‘college is broken, so don’t go.’”

The uniform structure and environment of colleges today is not a surprise to Nelson, who offers a different kind of university experience through the Minerva Project.

“We believe that there should be more paths to an accredited institution,” professes Nelson.

In 1965, when the federal government introduced the student loan system to help lower costs, the inverse effect developed instead. While colleges absorbed subsidies–as any market would in the working economy–prices rose. Then, since higher education is essentially an oligopoly in the US, there was not enough competition, giving students no other option but to attend universities with ludicrous tuition costs.

In 2012, Minerva Project was formed and its success led to the Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute of Claremont, California. It was established with a dedication to teach the future leaders of the world not skills, but modes of critical and analytical thinking necessary for any profession at a fraction of current Ivy League schools.

The interdisciplinary curriculum is based on the science of learning in which freshmen focus on formal analyses, complex systems, multimodal communications and empirical analysis, all the while traveling the world gaining practical knowledge on how cities function.

There is no set brick and mortar institution but rather the idea is that the world is the campus. While jet setting to places like Buenos Aires and Berlin each semester, students are asked to apply their concentration requirements and core analytical methodology to the real-world issues of each city they occupy.

“We didn’t want to remove students from society,” reasons Nelson. “We wanted them to be exposed to how the world operates and really understand the different ways of understanding the world.”

Minerva Schools trade in large lecture halls for online seminars of 20 students or less. Though some may think this telecommute learning regimen takes away from student-teacher engagement, Nelson argues his system is just the opposite.

“What we have done is that we have developed a technology platform that allows the professor to employ fully active learning methodology,” justifies Nelson. “Lectures are banned and professors can’t speak longer than five minutes and it’s all about interacting and charting an intellectual path for our students.”

For example, professors will use socratic interrogation to instill an engaged understanding on how to think critically about, say, the effective interactions of a new law being enacted into a complex government system.

They will pose a question to one student and before that student has finished their answer, the professor directs the same question to a different student to complete the response. The cycle continues, sometimes even ending on the first student again for a rebuttal to the entire discussion.

It’s a collaborative teaching process where students are learning from each other and are constantly engaged and listening in order to succeed.

Nelson believes he has created a curriculum that immerses students in the world and enables the concept of complex interactions to become a habit of mind.

“The more you understand how to think through problems the more sophisticated you get at creating solutions,” expresses Nelson. “If you can figure out how to teach students things in many different contexts and draw the connection from one to another, [then] you’ve done something which is incredibly important for the professional world, much more important that teaching you a certain amount of skills like coding.”

Minerva Project will be welcoming its first class in the Fall of 2015 after the founding class experimented the curriculum in September of last year. The founding class will take a year off so that both classes will be on the same track by the Fall of 2016.

It all begins with admission, according to Nelson. Instead of the traditional student acceptance process, which according to Nelson is filled with biases from legacy to ethnicity and race, Minerva accepts students on a meritocratic-based system. This means each applicant is examined for their individual character, community involvement, and promising motivation in being a world leader for the future.

Nelson claims that all students with such high character quality are accepted into Minerva, eliminating the unjust process on which most institutions scale students. However, due to the lofty character standards for Minerva, only 2 percent of its 11,000 applicants were accepted for Fall 2015.

According to Nelson this system has helped guarantee a cosmopolitan-like experience with students from all over the world. The number of international students is much higher than those that attend US institutions, according to Nelson. In the 2013-2014 school year only 4 percent of US college students were from overseas.

Minerva Project has been widely regarded as a complete reinvention of the traditional college experience. It has also come at a time when the American higher education system is in crisis due to growing tuition prices that have created a $1.2 trillion in outstanding student debt in the US. However, with the disruptive power of information technology, The Minerva Project could be a spear-head toward a new landscape for educational opportunity.

“We really tried to create a university together that is completely re-imagined,” admits Nelson. “So it’s not just the classes, it’s not just the experience, it’s the whole thing.