AUGUST 13, 2014
A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?
On a Friday morning in April, I strapped on a headset, leaned into a microphone, and experienced what had been described to me as a type of time travel to the future of higher education. I was on the ninth floor of a building in downtown San Francisco, in a neighborhood whose streets are heavily populated with winos and vagrants, and whose buildings host hip new businesses, many of them tech start-ups. In a small room, I was flanked by a publicist and a tech manager from an educational venture called the Minerva Project, whose founder and CEO, the 39-year-old entrepreneur Ben Nelson, aims to replace (or, when he is feeling less aggressive, “reform”) the modern liberal-arts college.
Minerva is an accredited university with administrative offices and a dorm in San Francisco, and it plans to open locations in at least six other major world cities. But the key to Minerva, what sets it apart most jarringly from traditional universities, is a proprietary online platform developed to apply pedagogical practices that have been studied and vetted by one of the world’s foremost psychologists, a former Harvard dean named Stephen M. Kosslyn, who joined Minerva in 2012.
Nelson and Kosslyn had invited me to sit in on a test run of the platform, and at first it reminded me of the opening credits of The Brady Bunch: a grid of images of the professor and eight “students” (the others were all Minerva employees) appeared on the screen before me, and we introduced ourselves. For a college seminar, it felt impersonal, and though we were all sitting on the same floor of Minerva’s offices, my fellow students seemed oddly distant, as if piped in from the International Space Station. I half expected a packet of astronaut ice cream to float by someone’s face.
Within a few minutes, though, the experience got more intense. The subject of the class—one in a series during which the instructor, a French physicist named Eric Bonabeau, was trying out his course material—was inductive reasoning. Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. In an ordinary undergraduate seminar, this might have been an occasion for timid silence, until the class’s biggest loudmouth or most caffeinated student ventured a guess. But the Minerva class extended no refuge for the timid, nor privilege for the garrulous. Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.
Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. No one needed to shuffle seats; Bonabeau just pushed a button, and the students in the other group vanished from my screen, leaving my three fellow debaters and me to plan, using a shared bulletin board on which we could record our ideas. Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked. After a representative from each group gave a brief presentation, Bonabeau ended by showing a short video about the evils of overfishing. (“Propaganda,” he snorted, adding that we’d talk about logical fallacies in the next session.) The computer screen blinked off after 45 minutes of class.
The system had bugs—it crashed once, and some of the video lagged—but overall it worked well, and felt decidedly unlike a normal classroom. For one thing, it was exhausting: a continuous period of forced engagement, with no relief in the form of time when my attention could flag or I could doodle in a notebook undetected. Instead, my focus was directed relentlessly by the platform, and because it looked like my professor and fellow edu-nauts were staring at me, I was reluctant to ever let my gaze stray from the screen. Even in moments when I wanted to think about aspects of the material that weren’t currently under discussion—to me these seemed like moments of creative space, but perhaps they were just daydreams—I felt my attention snapped back to the narrow issue at hand, because I had to answer a quiz question or articulate a position. I was forced, in effect, to learn. If this was the education of the future, it seemed vaguely fascistic. Good, but fascistic.