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Project Minerva: The future of academia?

The transfer of knowledge through face-to-face lectures was a valuable resource in the past, but today we enjoy online access to a huge variety of courses through the web. What, then, is going to be the uniqueness of the universities in the twenty-first century? What is the added value they will provide to students, if any?

Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, in a lecture at the World Economic Forum in Dubai.
Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, in a lecture at the World Economic Forum in Dubai.

Imagine you are watching a car race from the sidelines. On the track, the various social bodies and institutions race in front of you, when they are arranged according to the pace of their development and perfection and their willingness to move forward into the future. In such a race there will be a number of clear winners and a number of clear losers. In the first places we will find the start-up companies and the entrepreneurs, whose whole goal is to create a change in society. In the middle we can find the larger companies, such as IBM and Intel, who understand that changes are coming and that they must prepare for the future - and sometimes also bring it about on their own. And far behind, dragging with excruciating heaviness, we see the traditional education system, which has hardly changed substantially in the last centuries.

This metaphor, which appears in the book "Revolutionary Wealth" by the futurist Alvin Toffler, emphasizes the lack of development of the education system. Today we learn in the schools and universities that are based on ideas that are centuries old. Children today acquire knowledge from Wikipedia in the evenings, and study physics, mathematics and biology at the Khan Academy. Then, every morning, they go back in time and spend six hours in buildings that were erected decades ago, and are great sufferers of an education system that still sanctifies the transfer of information through frontal lectures, over discussion, inquiry and self-study.

It is difficult to blame the universities, since they - like any large and bureaucratic institution - have difficulty reforming themselves. In many courses, the lecturers focus on the transfer of information and knowledge only, and not on imparting insights to the students, or on encouraging critical and creative thinking. The transfer of knowledge through face-to-face lectures was a valuable resource in the past, but today we enjoy online access to a huge variety of courses through the web. What, then, is going to be the uniqueness of the universities in the twenty-first century? What is the added value they will provide to students, if any?

Nobody knows the answers to these questions yet.

Many in the academy understand the transformation taking place these days in the education systems. Professors who have dedicated their entire lives to identifying and characterizing superior teaching methods, understand that these do not find their place within the walls of academia. Some universities are beginning to recognize CMPs (Massive Open Online Courses - MOOCs), as a tool for student learning, but are wary of providing academic credit points to students who do not pay tuition. A number of professors - you can name them on the fingers of one hand - are trying to incorporate principles of playfulness (gamification) into courses. Others are trying to stop using face-to-face teaching methods - one lecturer in front of one class - and switch to models of small study groups, who learn the material themselves and come to the 'lecturer' only to get help and clarifications.


All of these are buds for change, but they emerge from within the system. They cannot bring about substantial change in the coming decades, since they operate within the limitations of the academic system within which they emerged. There is a desire for change, but there is not yet a university that tries to rebuild academic education: throw away the old methods, and try to walk boldly in the new paths that technology opens up for us, and that the sciences of psychology and cognition have revealed to us about the learner.

At least, there was no such university, until one year ago, when Ben Nelson founded the Minerva Project.

the new university (?)
The Minerva Project, or officially Minerva Schools at KGI - is, "the first Ivy League-level university established in the United States in more than a century." Explains Ben Nelson, who conceived and established the project, and has already raised 95 million dollars in investments for it. "Because we're brand new, we've rethought and perfected every aspect of the university experience."

Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, in a lecture at the World Economic Forum in Dubai.

As befits a man interested in breaking down existing institutions and replacing them with new ones, Nelson himself defied expectations. Despite being the son of two scientists (his father won the Israel Prize two years ago), he only completed a bachelor's degree at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he moved into the world of business. There he helped build, found and eventually run the startup company Snapfish, which offered micro-publishing services to anyone. The company was sold to HP for 300 million dollars according to reports, and in 2010 Nelson began to look into the possibility of realizing a dream from his time as a student, and fundamentally changing the education system.

His experience in the frenzied start-up arena increased his belief in his abilities, and he decided to dream big. "I saw that you can create great institutions from scratch, with just an idea." He tells me in a personal interview. "I realized that this is the way universities will change - that the largest university in the world should be built so that the others will copy it."

The only way to do this, Nelson realized, was to create an entirely new system, with different rules than anything accepted at the major universities. In this, at least, he succeeded. The students accepted for a bachelor's degree at Minerva do not study in the old way of face-to-face lectures. In fact, these kinds of lectures are completely forbidden at Minerva. Their place is taken by seminars with the full participation of the students, panels of questions and answers, think groups that report to each other on their findings and a variety of other ways of studying. Many meetings do not take place in the physical world at all, but in online video calls between the students and the course teacher.

This way of learning, in which the student is obliged to constantly embrace his abilities, analyze situations and positions and formulate his own new ideas, does not come easily to everyone. This is why Minerva's entrance exams set a high bar equivalent to the best universities in the United States, and why the first year of studies is dedicated to courses that instill in students basic skills of the twenty-first century. The students learn how to find information on the Internet and analyze it with the necessary care, plan scientific experiments and interpret their results, think about new information and derive insights from it, and speak in front of an audience and effectively convey new ideas to the listeners.

The focus on learners, instead of studies, characterizes Minerva in general. "Universities raise more than a hundred billion dollars a year 55 in the United States alone, and most of the money is wasted on high-cost infrastructure and overhead." Nelson tells me. Minerva is heading in a distinctly different direction: instead of maintaining an entire campus, the students spend each semester in a different city - Buenos Aires, Berlin, Hong Kong, London, New York or Mumbai - and gain practical experience in getting to know the world and making connections. Many of the 'lectures' are conducted online and therefore do not require maintaining a classroom or an office for the professor. Minerva also encourages her students to learn on their own from Cramps and online courses, thus optimally utilizing the resources that the Internet makes available to everyone today.

"The education model is about the distribution of information, but the information can be distributed for free on the net." says Nelson. "Today's universities should focus on the development of the intellect and learning through the experience of each student, and not on lecturing them. This is why the existing universities are not good enough, and they must be reformed... America's elite universities have not had to compete with innovative models for more than a hundred years. What other products or services do you buy from companies that existed in the 19th century?”

What is the new university model?
It is still too early to say whether Minerva constitutes the new generation of universities, but at least one thing is clear: the higher education systems are finally beginning to move towards the future. In the last decade, many companies dealing in the field of education and trying to promote it through advanced technologies have emerged. Some arose for profit, as Newton, Coursera and Minerva. Others, like the Khan Academy, serve the public on a non-profit basis. These companies receive impressive and significant investments and wide exposure from the media, for one simple reason: everyone understands that change is needed, and that the big successful ones in the field of education will serve large sections of the public - and rake in huge profits along the way.


Minerva's business model is supposed to be based mainly on tuition fees, and contains a pleasant surprise for students from abroad: it is only 10,000 dollars a year. At the moment it appears that many of the students at Minerva will receive scholarships that will cover the tuition fees, and even so, this amount may cause knee-jerk reactions among the Israeli students, whose annual tuition is only NIS 10,000. However, tuition at the elite American universities such as Harvard and MIT is almost $45,000 per year, so this is a significant discount - and provided that Minerva is able to provide studies (and prestige) at a level comparable to that provided by those universities.

And this, of course, is one of the most prominent conditions for Minerva's success. The model she proposes has never been proven, for the simple reason that the technologies that make it possible never existed. Minerva carves a new path in the existing rock - and she may find gold, but she may also find herself dead end, in a pit she has dug for herself. This, since time immemorial, is the danger facing pioneering entrepreneurs: to discover that they have invested all their efforts in the wrong direction.

Even if Minerva's model proves to be an overwhelming success in student learning, it is not clear how it will deal with the teachers and researchers it will employ. On the one hand, Nelson was able to attract renowned professors, such as Stephen Koslin, the former dean of social sciences at Harvard and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a university that is unable to open real laboratories will be able to attract researchers in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology.

Nelson claims that the faculty staff will continue to be active in research, and that the research that the faculty members will carry out will be funded through research grants, and not from the students' tuition fees. Even if we assume that research grants can cover from scratch the purchase of all the advanced scientific equipment necessary for the laboratory, it is not clear whether they can be used to cover current costs such as electricity and heating. Even so, one must ask whether such a model - of individual laboratories scattered around the world - would not damage one of the greatest advantages of the academy: the ability to group brilliant minds in one building or campus, and have them be exposed to each other and cooperate (often reluctantly) to raise Bigger, more complex and spectacular ideas.

From my position as a doctor and research fellow today, these issues are of particular interest to me, but they are questions of researchers, not of students. It seems logical to me that Minerva will concentrate more on students, while providing the best lecturers from the existing universities through online means, thus combining the best of both worlds: focusing on students as the target audience, and excellent lecturers who strive for excellence and teach the skills necessary for success in the new world. The combination of these two has the potential to create a new type of academic institution, which will also serve as an example for other educational institutions that will surely be established in the future.

I don't want to tell others what to do, and I'm already too old to go back to being a student. But if I were 21 years old again, one thing is certain: you could find my name on the list of candidates for a project that tries to fundamentally change education. If you also want to take part, now is the right time - the deadline for registration is March 15.


Link to the Minerva website.

Full disclosure: Officials related to the Minerva project asked me personally to write about it, so that more people in Israel would be exposed to it. The more I heard about the project the more it excited me, so I agreed to take on the task. I did not receive payment or favors of any kind for writing.

3 תגובות

  1. will not work.

    Already many years ago I thought that the method of frontal lectures was a bad method of teaching. The best method is high-quality textbooks (the teacher/lecturer is just their bulldozer). But - I saw that the frontal method is too firmly rooted (in the existing system) for it to be replaced.

    On the other hand, in my estimation, the internet will eventually displace face-to-face teaching as the main medium for undergraduate studies. After all, it is much more convenient to learn "easy subjects" through virtual study groups on the Internet. From here, the way to change the frontal lecture method to the tribal part of most courses is short.

    Initial study by way of discussions seems nonsense to me. Before reaching the discussion stage, there is a long and tedious stage of learning the basic material through reading and reading comprehension. Those who do not "know the basic material" are not at a level that allows them to litigate.

    More advanced study (say a master's degree or advanced courses in a bachelor's degree) probably requires frontal courses. (Because here it is important that the lecturer be very knowledgeable about the material and also the study material changes all the time, and other reasons).

  2. I really enjoyed hearing the interview you had on Orly and Guy's show. But I have a very painful problem in the field of medicine that there is still no breakthrough in juvenile diabetes. What does science have to offer me? is nothing.

  3. There is another reason that I heard from one of the scientific panels on the network is that there will be a greater variety of ways
    On the way to a degree so that more types of people will be partners in the circle of knowledge
    And so we will also get a greater variety of people who can contribute to us in solving problems and finding directions
    new from the fact that they are different,
    It is likely that the ability to learn in a variety of ways that are adapted to different people begins already at the children's ages
    that there are also attempts to create different forms of education including a greater diagnosis of whether it is in the lower part of the spectrum or excelling and gifted which once some
    Thrown out of the system hindered by incompatibility and all their tremendous potential was lost,
    So if the company targets only a certain type of people from early childhood through the entire educational system including the university
    We may be losing a great deal of human capital,
    Perhaps ego and fear also play a role here, any attempt to create other study systems is scorned by the academy
    which is basically conservative, conservatism is not always bad because in many cases the results of changing abilities are not good
    Further damaging the company, but also freezing in place can lead to lagging behind those who find better ways
    To move forward, as someone who sat in courses I always didn't understand why there isn't the best course on a computer from the best lecturer with the best films with the best sub-explanations that have been improved and refined over the years,
    Why are you sitting in the fifth row, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, one dying of fever and one dying of cold
    In the endless air conditioner war, either the course is terribly slow or it's too fast and she didn't understand anything
    If she was in the reserves for a month, she went through the course and you have to remember that not everyone has these enormous resources to study for years, it was expected that the level of online courses would be in a different league. The state's desire to instill the knowledge
    But it is blocked diffusely and not at the desired level.

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