This online school may replace modern liberal arts colleges | Quartz

Graeme Wood describes Minerva, challenging traditional education methods employed by liberal arts colleges:

The paradox of undergraduate education in the United States is that it is the envy of the world, but also tremendously beleaguered. In that way it resembles the US health-care sector. Both carry price tags that shock the conscience of citizens of other developed countries. They’re both tied up inextricably with government, through student loans and federal research funding or through Medicare. But if you can afford the Mayo Clinic, the United States is the best place in the world to get sick. And if you get a scholarship to Stanford, you should take it, and turn down offers from even the best universities in Europe, Australia, or Japan. Most likely, though, you won’t get that scholarship. The average US college graduate in 2014 carried $33,000 of debt.

Financial dysfunction is only the most obvious way in which higher education is troubled. In the past half millennium, the technology of learning has hardly budged. The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl. The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking. And even though we’ve subjected students to lectures for hundreds of years, we have no evidence that they are a good way to teach…

In recent years, other innovations in higher education have preceded Minerva, most famously massive open online courses, known by the unfortunate acronym MOOCs. Among the most prominent MOOC purveyors are Khan Academy, the brainchild of the entrepreneur Salman Khan, and Coursera, headed by the Stanford computer scientists Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. Khan Academy began as a way to tutor children in math, but it has grown to include a dazzling array of tutorials, some very effective, many on technical subjects. Coursera offers college-level classes for free you can pay for premium services, like actual college credit. There can be hundreds of thousands of students in a single course, and millions are enrolled altogether. At their most basic, these courses consist of standard university lectures, caught on video.

But Minerva is not a MOOC provider. Its courses are not massive they’re capped at 19 students, open Minerva is overtly elitist and selective, or online, at least not in the same way Coursera’s are. Lectures are banned. All Minerva classes take the form of seminars conducted on the platform I tested. The first students will by now have moved into Minerva’s dorm on the fifth floor of a building in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood and begun attending class on Apple laptops they were required to supply themselves….

The Minerva boast is that it will strip the university experience down to the aspects that are shown to contribute directly to student learning. Lectures, gone. Tenure, gone. Gothic architecture, football, ivy crawling up the walls—gone, gone, gone. What’s left will be leaner and cheaper….. Yet because classes have only just begun, we have little clue as to whether the process of stripping down the university removes something essential….

Minerva will, after all, look very little like a university—and not merely because it won’t be accessorized in useless and expensive ways. The teaching methods may well be optimized, but universities, as currently constituted, are only partly about classroom time. Can a school that has no faculty offices, research labs, community spaces for students, or professors paid to do scholarly work still be called a university?

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