The Minerva project plans for different kind of online education

The Minerva Project is sufficiently visionary that it makes me fearful they might fail. Let’s hope not. Ry Ryvard at InsideHigherEd recently profiled the Ben Nelson-founded for-profit elite university startup. 

(…snip…) Minerva’s doors won’t open to anything resembling a traditional university: the for-profit startup expects top students will fly across the world to sit in front of computers. Professors could be located anywhere in the world. Now, Minerva will need to make good on its promise to attract some of the world’s most qualified students based on an unproven idea that relies on unfinished software.

The company wants to be a “hybrid university.” Its students would gather in dorms in major cities across the world, and after spending time together in one city, move to another, but take online classes from Minerva professors on the other end of the screen.

Minerva’s founder, former Snapfish executive Ben Nelson, believes powerful software can teach students better than traditional classes. But he also believes students still want to go to a residential college. Minerva plans to charge about half as much as an Ivy League university.

To get there, he will need to raise millions before Minerva can begin teaching its first class. The company also needs to produce one-of-a-kind software good enough to compete with a traditional campus experience, use what Nelson calls “various loopholes” in the accreditation system to get accredited and attract talent to an unproven idea.


The Minerva Project

Who: Ben Nelson, a former executive at Snapfish, and his team, along with $25 million in venture capital, but with millions more needed.

What: A for-profit university that will have students in residence hall taking online classes from Minerva professors. The software Minerva is working on will monitor student learning and encourage student involvement in ways Nelson does not believe are possible in traditional in-person lectures. The university plans to have four colleges within it and eventually a business school.

Why: Nelson and his team believe some elite students from across the world are ready for something different and that traditional universities have yet to apply 21st century technology to decades of research on student learning.

When: The company expects to run a small group of students through its program in 2014 but offer its first full year of classes to students starting in September 2015.

Where: San Francisco at first, with other campuses in more than a half dozen of the world’s major commercial capitals. None of the campuses are ready yet and Minerva will not own any of the buildings but instead work with private developers who will put up the money while Minerva guarantees the students.

Minerva v. MOOCs and Lectures

When Nelson started thinking about Minerva in 2010, online education had already taken off, with universities nationwide competing to offer online degree programs. But much of the growth of online education was in professional training and the big players weren’t always the colleges attracting top undergraduates. Now, leading universities from across the world are offering free online courses and seem to be moving rapidly to offer them to undergraduates for credit.

Nelson is not the least bit threatened by these massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Instead, Nelson called MOOCs ”manna from heaven” for Minerva. He said he never wanted Minerva to offer introductory classes to begin with. He expects Minerva students will be good enough to pick up basic things like Econ 101 on their own.

Indeed, he thinks it’s “not O.K. to charge” for Econ 101. So Nelson plans for Minerva’s professors to only teach classes where students are required to debate one another or where the professors can closely track students’ intellectual development using sophisticated software. Those things, he said, “can’t be MOOCed and therefore can’t be given away for free.”

Nelson’s confidence in this direction is born in part of a disdain for lectures. Lectures, the staple of most undergraduate education, “are not proven to work,” he said.

Nelson said MOOCs are victims to the same flaws as lectures and therefore make “absolutely no sense.”

Where, if not classrooms, will Minerva students learn? Well, first of all, in front of a computer. “We will not allow them to congregate” in typical classroom settings, Nelson said. The students will live together in residence halls, first in San Francisco and then in dorms Minerva plans to have in the world’s major commercial capitals. Minerva students will have hall advisors and faculty guides for education excursions, but no in-person classroom professors.

While MOOCs are basically supersized lectures offered to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of students, Minerva wants to use learning analytics to scale up Oxbridge-style tutorials to seminar-size online classes taught by professors who can work remotely from any location in the world.

“We are trying to deliver the world’s highest-touch education experience,” Nelson said. “And we believe that to deliver a truly high-touch delivery experience — we believe that if you tell 20 students to gather in a room that will not happen.”

Unlike MOOCs, which are based on recorded lectures, Minerva classes will be taught live online.

Minerva believes it can develop software to log students and professors’ every move and not only track but encourage participation and learning. This, Nelson says, will avoid the limitation of the in-person lecture — namely that whatever is said just “vanishes into thin air.”

Students in the back of a real class are not very engaged, said Robin Goldberg, Minerva’s chief marketing officer. But Minerva students, who could be in front of a webcam with their keystrokes being logged, will be on their toes. “You can barely blink without everybody knowing it. You can’t get up to get a glass of water without everybody knowing it,” she said.

The faith in the power of the software versus the lecture is at the heart of the company.

The software? It’s not finished yet.

The Faculty

A university also needs faculty and students. Last month, Minerva lured Stephen Kosslyn away from his job as director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences.

Kosslyn, who started full-time at Minerva on April 1, will be the new university’s founding dean. He will oversee the School of Arts & Science and its four colleges of natural science, social science, computational science and arts and humanities.

“I need to find distinguished academics who can head those, so if you can mention that in the article that would be great,” Kosslyn said.


The Minerva momentum seems to be building with Larry Summers signing on to lead the board of advisors, the announcement of the $500,000 Minerva Prize, and the announcement of the Kosslyn hiring: Minerva Project Names Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn As Founding Dean; Former Harvard Dean Will Lead the Academics and Curriculum of the University.

To be continued…

Minerva Project Announces $500,000 Prize For Innovation In Teaching

All of the big academic prizes go for research. But among the innovations emerging from the Benchmark Capital-funded Minerva Project is a serious prize to reward the educator who has contributed the most to excellence in education. The press release begins with this: 

April 22, 2013 – Minerva Project, which is redefining a top-tier university experience to prepare global leaders and innovators, today announced the launch of the Minerva Academy, a society of educators dedicated to promoting and rewarding innovation and excellence in teaching. Led by Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg, who will serve as Governor of the new Academy, the group will select and award the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education. This international honor and $500,000 prize, the largest of its kind, will be bestowed on one distinguished educator each year whose innovations have led to extraordinary student learning experiences. Nominations are open through November 30, 2013 at and the first Minerva Prize will be awarded in May 2014.

“While academic research has long been internationally recognized, and rightfully so, communication of the passion that lies behind it has gone largely unnoticed. We seek to enhance the intellectual development of students and inspire their interest, while continuing to support the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge within the professoriate,” said Dr. Roger Kornberg, governor of the Minerva Academy. “The new Minerva Academy and Prize are a step toward balancing emphasis and recognition in higher education.”
The Minerva Academy is an honorary institution that will induct the best educational innovators from around the world. Academy members will be identified and invited based on recognized expertise focused on student learning as well as published research. The objective of the Minerva Academy is to promote, recognize and reward extraordinary advancements in teaching excellence by providing a forum for open exchange of new ideas and enhanced practices in higher education instruction.

The Academy will recognize achievement through the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education, to be awarded annually to one faculty member, from any institution worldwide, who has demonstrated extraordinary, innovative teaching and advancements in learning experiences. The Minerva Prize is the largest teaching award of its kind, focusing on significant advancement in student learning in higher education. One $500,000 cash prize will be awarded to the winner, who will be selected through a rigorous nomination and review process.


The new harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project


Calestous Juma was Project Director and Lead Author of this Harvard Kennedy School based study. Prof. Juma has generously made the 2011 book available for download at the Belfer Center. This is a wonderful example of open research. Buy the book if you can. If not please do read the download. This is the best single book I know of to learn the framework for sound policy for the future. You can see the quality of the work that has gone into this by just scanning the International Advisory Panel and Contributing Authors which includes many of the best, e.g., Robert Paarlberg.

This is more of the good work funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

African agriculture is currently at a crossroads, at  which persistent food shortages are compounded by threats from climate change. But, as this book argues, Africa faces three major opportunities that can transform its agriculture into a force for economic growth: advances in science and technology; the creation of regional markets; and the emergence of a new crop of entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent’s economic improvement.

Filled with case studies from within Africa and success stories from developing nations around the world, The New Harvest outlines the policies and institutional changes necessary to promote agricultural innovation across the African continent. Incorporating research from academia, government, civil society, and private industry, the book suggests multiple ways that individual African countries can work together at the regional level to develop local knowledge and resources, harness technological innovation, encourage entrepreneurship, increase agricultural output, create markets, and improve infrastructure.

I’ve included this book in my category “What are you optimistic about?” because it is such a good example of science-based policy research that will make a huge difference for the continent of Africa. Will the entrenched NGOs, the EU elites, Friends of the Earth et al let change happen?

Juma, Calestous. The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, January 2011.

What are you optimistic about: The Birth of Stochastic Science

…the environment for manmade discoveries is governed by a far, far more severe, wilder form of processes, those called “fat tailed”… Against what one might expect, this makes me extremely optimistic about the future in several selective research-oriented domains, those in which there is an asymmetry in outcomes favoring the positive over the negative — like evolution.

“Skeptical empiricist” Nassim Nicholas Taleb [Wikipedia] is optimistic – but for reasons that are likely to be surprising to most readers. I first encountered Taleb as the author of “Fooled by Randomness“, recommended to me by a hedge fund manager as “the most important book I’ve ever read”.

Taleb’s little essay for The World Question 2007 surprised me — proving that I had not generalized what I had learned from “Fooled by Randomness” to arenas outside the financial markets.

Herein Taleb’s theme is essentially this, that growth in research experiments/projects, and increasing variance of results – will lead to more positive “Black Swans”. Taleb discounts cause/effect as the source for important discoveries/inventions – favoring a view that is closer to evolution:

…These domains thrive on randomness. The higher the uncertainty in such environments, the rosier the future — since we only select what works and discard the rest. With unplanned discoveries, you pick what’s best; as with a financial option, you do not have any obligation to take what you do not like. Rigorous reasoning applies less to the planning than to the

selection of what works.

A corollary of the Taleb model is advantage America, where the high-variance new stuff gets generated onshore, while the drone jobs get outsourced:

…I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim …It fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists… it produces “doers”, Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable and fat-tailed part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and “cultural” states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people’s ideas.

Another factor favoring America over say, Germany, is more small bets instead of allocating the same budget to a few big-company projects:

But if the success rate is very low, the more we search, the more likely we are to find things “by accident”, outside the original plan — or the more an unspecified original “plan” is likely to succeed. Looking at the swelling pipeline, something tells me that the discovery of cures, or near-cures for unspecified diseases is about to happen — except that I do not know which one, nor do I know where it is coming from. More technically, I see the sign of fractal randomness in these payoffs from the fact that results are more linear to the number of investments than they are to quantities invested — thus favoring the multiplication of small bets.

…This idea applies to so many other technological domains. The only bad news is that we can’t really tell where the good news are going to be about, except that we can locate it in specific locations, those with a high number of trials. More tinkering equals more Black Swans. Go look for the tinkerers.

Highly recommended. And for me, it is time to reread Fooled by Randomness. And if you care to know more about “fat tailed” distributions, see “Mandelbrot makes sense” [PDF].

What are you optimistic about: Freeman Dyson

I am optimistic because I see the discovery of HAR1 as a seminal event in the history of science, marking the beginning of a new understanding of human evolution and human nature.

Physicist Freeman Dyson is an optimist’s optimist. But did you know about the discovery of HAR1 ( Human Accelerated Region 1)? Finally a hint of what is truly novel about the human genome:

…I am especially optimistic just now because of a seminal discovery that was made recently by comparing genomes of different species. David Haussler and his colleagues at UC Santa Cruz discovered a small patch of DNA which they call HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. This patch appears to be strictly conserved in the genomes of mouse, rat, chicken and chimpanzee, which means that it must have been performing an essential function that was unchanged for about three hundred million years from the last common ancestor of birds and mammals until today.

But the same patch appears grossly modified with eighteen mutations in the human genome, which means that it must have changed its function in the last six million years from the common ancestor of chimps and humans to modern humans. Somehow, that little patch of DNA expresses an essential difference between humans and other mammals. We know two other significant facts about HAR1. First, it does not code for a protein but codes for RNA. Second, the RNA for which it codes is active in the cortex of the human embryonic brain during the second trimester of pregnancy. It is likely that the rapid evolution of HAR1 has something to do with the rapid evolution of the human brain during the last six million years.

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What are you optimistic about: We Will Lead Healthy and Productive Lives Well Past Our Tenth Decade

Dr. Leo Chalupa, Ophthalmologist and Neurobiologist, University of California, Davis

…The other two factors fueling my optimism stem from recent advances in biomedical sciences that offer not just hope, but a virtual guarantee, that we’ll soon be living longer and better lives. What are those recent advances? They come from two major research fronts.

There are some very exciting results showing that manipulations of basic cellular functions can prolong longevity. The literature on this topic is too extensive to summarize here, but one example will suffice. A molecule produced by a variety of plants called resveratrol (think red wine) has been found to significantly improve the lifespan of many different organisms, as much as by 59%, and this even occurs in obese animals! The significance of the latter point is that until recently it was thought that the only way to increase longevity is by going on a strict starvation diet, but now it seems that you can eat your cake and expand your lifespan!

The other relevant scientific breakthroughs come from neurobiology, my field of expertise. We used to think that with age there is a progressive deterioration in brain cell structure and function. But that widespread assumption has proved wrong. New nerve cells have been found to be generated in the brains of old animals, and we’re learning more and more how this amazing property of the aged brain can be manipulated. Low levels of regular exercise, for instance, have been found to significantly enhance neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a brain structure that deals with memory. Moreover, a recent study from my laboratory showed that certain nerve cells in the eyes of old mice are capable of growing new processes. We have also found such growth of nerve cells in the eyes of old people. And then there is the tremendous promise of stem cell research that is still in its infancy for replacing damaged or dysfunctional body organs.

Taken together, the implications of these and many other findings in the biomedical sciences are clear. We will be able to regenerate parts of the brain that have been worn out or damaged during the course of a lifetime, providing renewed capabilities to those who are currently considered old folks. So better start thinking what you’ll be doing with all those extra years of life.

What are you optimistic about: Growing Older

Peter Schwarz has an outlook similar to Ray Kurzweil’s:

I am very optimistic about growing older. I turned 60 this year and several decades ago I would have looked forward to a steady decline in all my physical and mental capabilities, leading into a long and messy death. The accelerating pace of biological and medical advances that are unfolding in front of us are heavily focused on reducing the infirmities of aging and curing or transforming the diseases of old age from fatal to chronic. It means that ninety really will be the new sixty and there is a good chance that I will be among the vigorous new centenarians of mid century, with most of my faculties working fairly well. Vision, hearing, memory, cognition, bone and muscle strength, skin tone, hair and of course sexual vigor will all be remediable in the near future. Alzheimer’s may be curable and most cancers are likely to be treatable if not curable. And regenerative medicine may truly lead to real increase in youthfulness as new custom grown organs replace old less functional ones. And within a few decades we are likely to be able to slow aging itself, which could even lead to life beyond 120.

What are you optimistic about: The End of the Commoditization of Knowledge

Computer scientist Roger Shank is optimistic that control of knowledge by various elites will soon end:

Fifteen years ago I was asked to join the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. In short order, I learned that these editors saw themselves as guardians of knowledge. They knew what was true and what was important and only knowledge that fit those criteria would be in their encyclopedia. I asked if the encyclopedia could be say, ten times bigger, economic issues aside, and they said ‘no’ the right information was already in there. I started to explain that the world as they knew it was going to change before their eyes and they would soon be toast, but they didn’t understand.

I have had similar conversation with newspaper editors, librarians, heads of testing services, and with faculty at top universities. Like the Britannica folks, they see themselves as knowing what is true and what is not and what is important and what is not.

I am optimistic that this is soon all about to change.

What I mean by ‘this’ is the era that we have lived in, ever since the invention of the book, but clearly including the era where knowledge was contained in scrolls. In this era, knowledge is a commodity, owned and guarded by the knowledge elite and doled out by them in various forms that they control, like books, and, newspapers, and television, and schools. They control who can get access to the knowledge (through admission to elite schools for example) and exactly what knowledge matters (through SATs but also through intellectual publications that true knowledge owners would be embarrassed to have failed to have read.)

MIT’s OpenCourseWare is certainly one example of the barriers falling. Shank refers to Harvard, but I think he is predicting:

We are beginning to see the change in all this now. If anyone can take Harvard’s courses on line then one wonders why one has to go to Harvard. Elite universities have struggled with this new world, but eventually people will take whatever course they want from whomever they want and a real competition about quality will take place.

…Today print media is being challenged by on line material, but it is still prestigious to publish a book and newspapers still exist. More importantly, schools still exist. But they are all going away soon. There is no need to buy knowledge when it available for free, as newspapers are learning. When everyone has a blog and a website, the question will be whose information is reliable and how to find it. No one will pay a dime. Knowledge will cease to be a commodity.

I assume Shank is overstating to make his point – who does he think is going to feed the researchers who produce the open courseware?

What are you optimistic about: The Evolutionary Ability of Humankind To Do the Right Things

Physicist Haim Harari is an optimist of my stripe. I will quote Harari in full because he has encapsulated the principles so succinctly:

I am optimistic about the evolutionary ability of humankind to do the right things, even though it sometimes happens only after all possible mistakes are exhausted.

I am optimistic about technology and world leaders (in that order) discovering ways to combine energy savings and alternative sources of energy (in that order), so that our planet is saved, while we still have a reasonable standard of living.

I am optimistic about the irreversible trend of increasing the economic value of knowledge and decreasing the relative economic importance of raw materials, reducing the power of ruthless primitive dictators and increasing the rewards for education and talent.

I am optimistic about the emerging ability of the life sciences to use mathematics, computer science, physics, and engineering in order to understand biological mechanisms, detect and prevent medical problems and cure deadly diseases.

I am optimistic that more scientists will understand that public awareness and public understanding of science and technology are the only weapons against ignorance, faith healers, religious fanaticism, fortune tellers, superstitions and astrology, and that serious programs will emerge in order to enhance the contribution of the scientific community to this effort.

I am optimistic that, in the same way that Europe understood during the last Fifty years that education for all and settling disputes peacefully are good things, while killing people just because of their nationality or religion is bad, so will the Muslim world during the new century.

I am optimistic that we will soon understand that wise medical and genetic ethics mean that we should not absolutely forbid any technology and we should not absolutely allow any technology, but find ways to extract the good and eliminate the bad, from every new scientific development.

I am optimistic about the fact that an important fraction of the nations on this planet succeeded in refuting the extrapolations concerning a population explosion and I hope that the remaining nations will do likewise, for their own advancement and survival.

I am optimistic about the power of education to alleviate poverty and advance health and peace in the third world and I am hopeful that the affluent world will understand that its own survival on this planet depends on its own help to the rest of humanity in advancing its education.

I am not at all optimistic that any of the above will happen soon. All possible mistakes and wrong turns will probably be attempted. The weakest link is our chronic short sightedness, which is bad in the case of the general public and is much worse for its elected political leaders, who think in terms of months and years, not decades and certainly not centuries.

Don’t miss this earlier post re Harari and the Israeli-Arab conflict:

This April 2004 speech by theoretical physicist and Weizmann Institute President Haim Harari is entitled “A View from the Eye of the Storm“. A remarkable speech, getting directly to the central issues, and expressed plainly as from the “proverbial taxi driver”. The reader-of-the-whole-thing will be richly rewarded.

What are you optimistic about: We Will Finally Get Mathematics Education Right

Mathematician Keith Devlin thinks the cellphone and 3D gaming technology are the watershed technologies for learning mathematics. I don’t agree on the $100 laptop — it’s impossible to anticipate the innovative ways that technology will be exploited.

For the first time since Euclid started the mathematics education ball rolling over two thousand years ago, we are within a generation of eradicating innumeracy and being able to bring out the mathematical ability that research has demonstrated conclusively is within (almost) everyone’s reach. The key to this development (actually two developments, one in the developing world, the other in affluent, technology-rich societies) is technology (actually two technologies).

First the developing world. Forget the $100 laptop, which I think has garnered the support it has only because of the track record and charisma of its principal advocate (Nicholas Negroponte), the ubiquitous computing device that will soon be in every home on the planet is the mobile phone. Despite the obvious limitations of a small screen and minimal input capability, with well-crafted instructional materials it will provide the developing world with accessible education in the basic numerical and quantitative reasoning skills that will enable them to escape from the poverty trap by becoming economically self-sufficient. Such a limited delivery system would not work for an affluent consumer who has choices, but for someone highly motivated by the basic desires of survival and betterment, who has no other choice, it will be life transforming.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, the immersive, three-dimensional virtual environments developed by the gaming industry make it possible to provide basic mathematical education in a form that practically everyone can benefit from.

We have grown so accustomed to the fact that for over two thousand years, mathematics had to be communicated, learned, and carried out through written symbols, that we may have lost sight of the fact that mathematics is no more about symbols than music is about musical notation. In both cases, specially developed, highly abstract, stylized notations enable us to capture on a page certain patterns of the mind, but in both cases what is actually captured in symbols is a dreadfully meager representation of the real thing, meaningful only to those who master the arcane notation and are able to recreate from the symbols the often profound beauty they represent. Never before in the history of mathematics have we had a technology that is ideally suited to representing and communicating basic mathematics. But now, with the development of manufactured, immersive, 3D environments, we do.

Good stuff — enjoy.