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The Minerva Project and the Future of “E-lite” Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I have written previously about the challenge of crafting a liberal arts-like experience for the online learner. My conclusion was that, while there are no such programs currently available online, it is possible, with a good deal of legwork and offline support, to create your own, customized liberal arts experience, even at a distance. The recent announcement of the Minerva Project has taken that question to a new level by proposing the first elite, Ivy League online educational experience. Is it possible to create an elite educational experience, on par with an Ivy League University, online (Menard, 5 April, 2012)? And if it is, is this new model  of “e-lite”-ism really any better than traditional ones?


(Minerva Project)

Springing from the Head of Jupiter
Minerva is the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Athena and the two largely share the same mythology, including her familiar animal, the owl of wisdom, and the story of her birth – springing fully formed from the head of Zeus/Jupiter. These images seem to be fitting metaphors for the Minerva Project which seems to have sprung as a nearly fully formed idea from the heads of its creators. Here is the Mission statement from the Minerva Project homepage:

"Minerva seeks to accelerate the life trajectory
of the most brilliant, hardest-working students in the world
to positively shape our collective future."

(Minerva Project)

This is an ambitious statement on all fronts. They want to take the most brilliant, hardest-working students and place them on the fast track to shaping the future of humanity. While the notion of a broad-based view of innovation and progress is welcome, who is to say that Minerva’s criteria are the best ones for shaping our collective future? Though there is currently little concrete information available on the project, here is the thumbnail of how they propose to do this:

  • "In the admissions process, The Minerva Project relies strictly on the world’s most demanding intellectual standards, while giving no weight to lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate."
  • "Minerva acknowledges that the Internet will continue to see a proliferation of free, high quality knowledge available to all. Minerva’s pedagogical role is to deliver only the most rigorous, analytical courses that synthesize such knowledge to prepare students to thrive in the real world."
  • "The Minerva Project will be fully invested in its students’ future success as they apply their studies to become inspirational leaders and innovators. It is committed to making the world’s newest elite undergraduate experience affordable. The Minerva Project will also commit substantial resources not only to career services for current students, but to supporting its alumni throughout their careers with academic programs, personal publicity, and active participation in career management."
    (Minerva Project)

This is an ambitious undertaking, but one to be that is appealing for what it represents in terms of educational equity and opening up access to elite higher education to a wider audience. The proposal here is to create a model for higher education that looks strictly at the leadership potential of all students and their ability to advance the future of the world. This is a pragmatic approach to elite higher education that seeks to directly counteract what it has traditionally meant to be "elite." However, there is an inherent bias in this in the use of the "most demanding intellectual standards." It is well documented that there is a cultural bias in most standardized measures of intellectual ability. Reliance on arbitrarily established "intellectual standards" is going to automatically exclude a significant portion of the world’s population. Essentially Minerva is a project which proposes the de-elitism of elitism, through what creator Ben Nelson calls, "E-lite" education. But can any system that promotes any one group of people over their brethren truly be a liberating experience for all humanity?

The Goddess of Art and Commerce
Certainly the very naming of the endeavor, "Minerva Project," seems to speak of a certain amount of arrogance on the part of the progenitor of this endeavor, Ben Nelson, the former CEO of Snapfish. But the branding of the effort as "E-lite" refers not to the audacity of the undertaking, but rather to the revolutionary thinking behind it. This is not an attempt to enter the pantheon of elite institutions such as Harvard and Princeton, but rather to transcend the archaic model that they represent with a new concept that subverts the very notion of elitism. Here is Nelson explaining the project during a TEDx event in San Francisco:

According to Nelson, 100 percent of the courses in an undergraduate program need to be life changing and the curriculum surrounding those courses needs to be changed to facilitate creating leaders and innovators. In addition, he proposes that the concept of the classroom needs to be re-imagined to ensure that everyone involved maximizes their learning potential while preserving the power of live debate. These still abstract changes do have great potential for advancing the state of education, but there is too little detail available to make an informed judgment at this point.

The Goddess of Wisdom and Schools
Regardless of how Minerva bills itself, the presence of former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers, and former U.S. Senator and New School president Bob Kerrey on its board of directors, as well as the initial $25 million startup funding that it received from Benchmark Capital of Silicon Valley (Menard, 5 April, 2012), indicates that it is serious about its mission to create an "E-lite" online education. But what does that "E-lite" education look like and where are the high-profile educators on the board?

Nelson does not offer specifics about what this new "E-lite" education looks like, only that it needs to be a complete rethinking of the classroom, classes, curriculums, and the idea of elitism. He states in the TEDx video that the Minerva Project is designed to be a transformative experience for students that molds them, formally prepares them to be innovative thinkers and "launches them into the areas that they are most passionate about to help them create and move the world forward."

The focus of Minerva is, according to Nelson, to change the conversation about education from a system that looks to exclude some members of society, to one that theoretically includes everyone in order to ensure that the people with the most potential are given the greatest collective push forward by society regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, geographic location, or any other traditional limiting factor.

When it comes to the actual design of courses, curriculums and classrooms for Minerva, Nelson is likely to find that having grand ideas is wonderful, but putting them into practice is something entirely different. It is not impossible to design an educational experience that is 100 percent transformational – they have set the bar very high for themselves.

The Goddess of Online Education?
It is interesting to live at a point in history where there seems to be a new god, goddess or savior of education created from the Chaos of the universe every few days – saviors which often disappear like a flash of lightning flung from Zeus’ hand. The Minerva Project is the latest in a recent string of efforts to transform education through technology that includes The Khan Academy, Udacity, MITx, and many, many more. One thing to like about Minerva more than most of the others is that it has a truly transformative vision for what education can be.

That vision includes overcoming the obstacles of distance through the use of the online medium, but it also represents a turning away from the tradition of education that limits individuals and looks to prepare followers rather than leaders. While there is little concrete information about this concept to build an evaluation upon, it has the potential to do what it says in regard to moving society forward by creating a system that acknowledges and supports the brightest minds in the world regardless of location or other constraints.
While this is a noble goal and probably necessary for our survival as a species, the message that there are and need to be elite individuals who shepherd the rest of the human flock is somewhat disturbing.  I would be more appreciative of an effort that looked to raise the critical awareness and innovative thinking skills of all rather than focusing on a select, elite class, regardless of how they are chosen. The Minerva Project seems to be flashing back to the Platonic model of the philosopher-king, raised from birth to lead the nation because of his superior intellect and training. I think it is time to move beyond the need for a ruling elite regardless of how they are chosen.

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