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With virtual seminars and lower tuition, Minerva Schools offers online alternative to college

December 24, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
There are no lectures allowed at San Francisco’s Minerva Schools, an innovative college with a curriculum specifically designed to improve knowledge retention for students. Professors hold their seminar-style classes online, allowing Minerva students to move around the globe each semester, from Berlin to Buenos Aires. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

GWEN IFILL: With the cost of a college education in the neighborhood of a quarter-of-a-million dollars at some schools, growing numbers of students, educators and some Silicon Valley executives are starting to rethink the value and the business model of higher education.

As science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports, a small group of pioneers believes there may be another way.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s a freshman dorm in a college with some fresh ideas about higher education.

Ian Van Buskirk is one of 28 founding students at San Francisco’s Minerva School.

IAN VAN BUSKIRK, Minerva Schools Student: Everyone is very driven, very humble, very motivated towards not only their own goals, but also the goal of creating an institution, a lasting impact on higher education.

MILES O’BRIEN: Like everyone else here, Ian is a gifted student. He was accepted at Duke University, but ended up coming to a college that feels like a Silicon Valley start-up, because it is.

Sultanna Krispil is also in the founding Minerva class.

SULTANNA KRISPIL, Minerva Schools Student: I think people have been thumping around the world guinea pig. But I would — I wouldn’t call us guinea pigs at all, because guinea pigs can’t necessarily say what they are feeling or how they are thinking.

MILES O’BRIEN: Minerva is a highly competitive liberal arts college without a single classroom, much less an ivy-trimmed campus.

The dormitory is on one floor of this old apartment building Nob Hill. Students will spend the first year here, and then the subsequent six semesters living and studying in six different cities around the world. Next year, they head to Buenos Aires and Berlin.

But the professors don’t go with them. In fact, they can be anywhere, including home, because they see their students exclusively online, via a proprietary software platform called the Active Learning Forum. It fosters a face-paced, engaging, seminar-style class. No lectures allowed.

Studies show students only retain about 10 percent of what they learn this way two years later.

So what are we seeing here? Is this the progression of the idea? What is this?

Ben Nelson is the founder and CEO of Minerva.

BEN NELSON, Founder and CEO, Minerva Schools: Imagine you were to go to a store to buy anything. And they would say, oh, yes, this product is a great product. You know, 90 percent of them fail within two years. Who would buy that product?

MAN: Well, hello and welcome, everybody.

Instead of tenure, professors here get stock options. And tuition? Ten thousand dollars a year, although the founding class gets a free ride. No federal grants or loans are accepted. Before he began designing a college from scratch with Post-it notes, Nelson was the president of the online photo printing company Snapfish.

BEN NELSON: Our goal is to create a movement where you actually have substantially better quality education, in a more effective way, actually, a lower-cost way, and have that be a model for other institutions to emulate.

MILES O’BRIEN: He has used his start-up acumen to raise $95 million in venture capital. Minerva is a for-profit corporation, accredited through a partnership with California’s Keck Graduate Institute. The founding dean is former Harvard Professor Stephen Kosslyn. He designed the curriculum based on years of reserve on visual perception, mental imagery and memory.

STEPHEN KOSSLYN, Founding Dean, Minerva Schools: If you get engaged with something, you are very likely to remember it, whether you want to or not. Just the act of thinking it through is going to make it stick.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kosslyn’s former colleague Harvard Professor Eric Mazur pioneered the idea of active learning 24 years ago, when he realized his students were not retaining much of his lectures on physics.

ERIC MAZUR, Harvard University: I discovered that my students weren’t even learning the most basic things. They were learning to — they were memorizing and applying things by rote. So that made me realize that my — quote, unquote — “excellent teaching” wasn’t that excellent at all and made me think about what I was doing.

MILES O’BRIEN: So Mazur flipped his classroom around. Students started gathering information on their own, class time spent applying the knowledge to solve problems. In May, Minerva’s nonprofit academy named him the first winner of the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education.

Mazur says he is thrilled to see his philosophy embraced in this manner, but:

ERIC MAZUR: My main worry is the fact that their entire or a huge part of their experience is in a dorm room. Why force — people are sitting in two neighboring rooms to participate with a wall between them and not actually physically bring them together.

BEN NELSON: We could have done that. We could have just said, hey, let’s do everything that we are doing now, except do it in a room. Well, it turns out the education is worse.

MILES O’BRIEN: What they get is not what you might expect when you think of online learning. Minerva bears little resemblance to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which bring the lecture hall to cyberspace.

ERIC BONABEAU, Dean, Minerva Schools: Well, good afternoon, everyone.

MILES O’BRIEN: We watched as Professor Eric Bonabeau taught this 70-minute class in formal analyses.

ERIC BONABEAU: I love to treat my students as peers, so that we can solve problems together.

The observed difference is equal to 0.078.

MILES O’BRIEN: The subject on this day was statistics. It begins with a quiz.

So, Tanah, can you explain what you — why you think two is not correct?

WOMAN: Yes, because it is easier to object the null hypothesis if the is a smaller value for alpha. I’m saying why two is wrong.


MILES O’BRIEN: No way to quietly zone out on Facebook in this class. Students get called on frequently.

ERIC BONABEAU: You are here. Tell me what you think (INAUDIBLE) is.

IAN VAN BUSKIRK: It really is taking the seminar that you would get in real life, distilling it down to what it should be, what it should communicate, and then applying that to an online setting.

MILES O’BRIEN: They can raise their hands electronically and ask questions via text.

Bonabeau writes on the virtual blackboard, a shared document seen by all. He divides the class into breakout groups with a problem to solve on their own and takes a poll.

ERIC BONABEAU: Of those who chose slightly increase, I would be very curious to hear what your reasoning is here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Everyone is watched and recorded by an unblinking eye.

ERIC BONABEAU: Thank you for your attention and thank you for your enthusiasm. And I will see you on Thursday.

MILES O’BRIEN: Bonabeau then replays the class and grades students on their performance. They get instant and constant feedback on how they are doing.

SULTANNA KRISPIL: It’s really useful to be able to have the professor right there, who later goes back and is able to give you feedback on what you said and help you out with certain concepts that you might be struggling with.

ERIC BONABEAU: We are taking these principles of learning and we’re creating a completely new way of teaching that is based on those principles of learning. And what is interesting to me is that actually no university has done that. It’s crazy.

MILES O’BRIEN: Courses here are tightly linked to each other thematically, all aimed at teaching 129 so-called habits of mind. It is liberal arts with a lot of structure.

BEN NELSON: The problem with the traditional university is that there is no glue. Whatever happens in the course is whatever the professor wants. And whatever the professor wants has no idea what other professors have done with those students.

MILES O’BRIEN: Do you think the universities are really paying attention to what are you doing or…


MILES O’BRIEN: Really? How do you know?


The glare is palpable. We feel them staring.

MILES O’BRIEN: Educators are, indeed, watching this experiment closely. But since it is so new, the jury is still out. Minerva is clearly not for every student or for every curriculum. But it may take a brash start-up that is aiming high to fix what’s wrong with higher education.

Miles O’Brien for “PBS NewsHour,” San Francisco.