The Digital Future of Higher Education – Visiting the Minerva Schools

In the midst of some challenging press coverage for the Open University here in the UK, on a recent trip to the US, I had the privilege of visiting the Minerva Schools at KGI, a private university that I believe holds the key to the next generation of virtual higher education. 

When I tell you that I visited a university, the image that springs to mind is probably of standing in front of some grand gates, lawns and faculty buildings stretching out before us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although its students live together, Minerva has no physical academic campus. Its staff sit together on one floor of a smart office building in downtown San Francisco.

So this isn’t a traditional university then? Certainly not – the Founding Dean is Stephen Kosslyn, previously at Harvard University for three decades and former Director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University – and every element of Minerva is designed intentionally to give the very best outcomes for students.

Their accredited four year Bachelors course starts with a common first year in which students take compulsory classes in four key areas that help to establish the ‘habits of mind’ that underpin all learning at Minerva – thinking critically, thinking creatively, communicating effectively and interacting effectively. These mirror closely the professional skills that employers in all sectors of the economy say that they are looking for.

Only after that first year do students begin to specialise in a major such as natural sciences, social sciences or business, but are required to continue to take other units in order to ensure a broad and balanced education. 

Students at Minerva spend their first year together in San Francisco and then over the course of the following three years they move and live together in six different cities in the world – from Hyderabad to Berlin, London to Taipei. In every city, Minerva curates a series of experiences for their students that bring their learning to life. Business majors work with start up companies in each location to understand how commerce works around the world, while those focused on politics undertake projects with local government or charities in each of the major cities. 

At the front and centre of what Minerva has to offer though is its curriculum and pedagogy. The first thing that strikes you is that all classes are online, the second that it could not be more different to the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) model that has become popular in many universities. 

In fact, Minerva uses a ‘radically flipped classroom’ model in which, rather than passively sitting through a lecture and then doing an assignment, students receive a reading list and preparatory tasks that must be completed before joining an online seminar on that topic. That interaction becomes the chance to debate and enhance their learning rather than just a factual download. 

The online seminars are supported by cutting edge software designed by Minerva themselves. As the professor, across the top of the screen you can see each of your student’s faces – no more than 19 for any given seminar. The remainder of the screen is known as ‘the stage’ and your job is to use that space to make the experience as interactive and constantly evolving as possible. 

You might run a poll on the topic to begin with, then pull down two students into the stage to debate their views. Running a second poll, the students’ photographs are colour coded to show how views have changed. You might pull down a third student who altered their vote from the first to the second to ask them why they changed their mind and then send the group off into four virtual break out groups to collaborate on a Google doc. Pressing a button on your keyboard gives you a coloured overlay to see which of your students have spoken the least during the seminar so that you can ensure everyone is involved. 

After each seminar, the professors use the video of the session to give specific and precise feedback to the students about the ways in which they exhibited the competencies that they are developing, creating a growing online portfolio that they can refer back to during their course. 

Perhaps the two biggest questions in my mind at this point were cost and performance and Minerva has strong answers to both. At £21,500 per year in total (including tuition, accommodation, food and student services), it is delivered at half the cost of an average US university and around the same as the NUS’s estimate of the total cost of Higher Education in the UK. In terms of performance, on the standardised CLA+ test, which is used widely in the US, at the end of their first year, Minerva students are performing at the 99th percentile, outperforming graduates at the other Universities who use the test. 

With its highly innovative and intentional curriculum and pedagogy, supported by an amazing piece of bespoke technology, as they embrace the next phase of digital learning, universities in the UK have much to learn from the Minerva model. 

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