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Aug 19, 2014 - 9:45am

Will Technology and a New Model Transform Higher Ed?

Manager, Communications. Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation


Education key on a computer keyboard.
Education key on a computer keyboard.

Cross-posted from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's blog.

Technology continues to have an enormous impact in our everyday lives and has transformed almost every sector of our economy—health care, manufacturing, financial services, telecommunications, and countless others. However, one area where technology has yet to have a dramatic impact is on higher education. 

recent story in The Atlantic examines a tech startup called Minerva which was developed by a 39-year-old entrepreneur, Ben Nelson with the goal of replacing the modern liberal-arts college.  

Over the last 30 years, the cost of higher education has doubled (the average college graduate carries $33,000 of debt) while the delivery of higher ed has remained largely unchanged. 

“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,” the author writes. 

Located in San Francisco, Minerva won’t host any facilities other than a dorm for students. The idea is to trim out all of the “extras” of the college experience which contribute to high costs and just focus on student learning. Minerva will not have lectures. Instead, it will hold interactive seminars online that dive deeply into content. Any ‘101’ courses or concepts students are expected to learn on their own via countless free web tutorials prior to the seminar. The seminars are for “advanced discussion.”

The author writes, “Minerva’s model will flourish in part because it will exploit free online content, rather than trying to compete with it, as traditional universities do. A student who wants an introductory economics course can turn to Coursera or Khan Academy. “We are a university, and a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is a version of publishing,” Nelson explains. “The reason we can get away with the pedagogical model we have is because MOOCs exist. The MOOCs will eventually make lectures obsolete.” 

Nelson has a lot of confidence in the future of MOOCs and the impact they will have on higher education. “MOOCs will continue to get better, until eventually no one will pay Duke or Johns Hopkins for the possibility of a good lecture, when Coursera offers a reliably great one, with hundreds of thousands of five-star ratings, for free.”

Minerva has already received $25 million in capital investment from those who believe that this model can help bring higher ed into the 21st century. It remains to be seen whether this new model will succeed. But, when costs are out of control and the quality is being questioned, higher ed could use a little disruption. 

On a related note, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has recently submitted a panel for the upcoming South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in where we’ll explore how tech startups are changing the game in higher education. This panel will highlight policy obstacles and discuss disruptive influencers and trends—offering predictions, an overview of the landscape, and tips for startups seeking to engage in this space. 

To learn more and vote for this panel to be a part of next year’s SXSW conference, visit their website.

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Manager, Communications. Education and Workforce, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

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