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How the virtual revolution exposed the need for active learning

In the era of virtual classrooms that run on low morale and stale lesson plans, one institution has leveraged technological innovation to unlock a heightened learning experience.

Minerva Project is a comprehensive approach to online and hybrid educational programming. Their methodology is based entirely in learning science, and their university partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute, Minerva University, has a 1% acceptance rate, despite their notably recent establishment in 2012.

You could call it a sign of the times that a virtual-by-design program has had so much success in the wake of a global pandemic, but to do so would trivialize a narrative far more thought-provoking.

The origin story

Founder, chairman and CEO Ben Nelson discovered his passion for Minerva Project in trying and failing to improve the curriculum at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

When he attended Penn’s Wharton School in the 90s, he was dissatisfied with the lack of interest in education on campus. “There was no illusion; students didn’t go to university to learn anything, professors weren’t there to teach, administrators didn’t care about either, and they were kind of blunt about it,” he remarks.

Nelson created a blueprint for curricular reform, and later became the chair of the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education. But when he proposed that they breathe intellectual life into the institution with a focus on systematic thinking, he was denied on the basis of the colossal effort this change would demand.

While the many barriers he met kept him from fixing Penn from the inside, the issues he identified and their real-world implications were unshakeable. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.

“Formal education is useless,” Nelson asserts, “So, why are we trying to fix formal education?” He goes on to elaborate that universities train students to become academics—to progress through the funnel from undergraduate, to grad student, to doctoral candidate, on and up until they become a professor.

“But that’s not an excuse for not trying. It’s not an excuse to pretend that education doesn’t matter. The fact that we didn’t get one doesn’t mean it’s not important,” he says.

Intersectionality of class and educational attainment

In 1970, those in the highest income quartile were 6.6 times as likely as those in the lowest quartile to attain a Bachelor’s Degree by age 24 (40 percent vs. 6 percent). In 2016, more than 50 years after the introduction of Pell Grants, estimated Bachelor’s Degree attainment rates by age 24 were just 5 times greater for those from the highest family income quartile than for those from the lowest family income quartile (58 percent vs. 11 percent).

Despite public policy advancements and liberal university leadership, the disparity between those born at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic distribution has only worsened.

100 is the average IQ score, meaning 50% of the population fall above or below. But, “There’s zero correlation between your IQ and how rich your parents are. Let’s be crystal clear—colleges deny education to poor Americans in order to educate rich Americans,” Nelson summarizes. There’s plenty of evidence to support his claim.

Low-income students have a worse chance of achieving a post-secondary education, and a better chance of accruing immense student loan debt, should they manage to overcome that initial hurdle.

This predicament lends itself to exploration of the “make college free” argument, which lends itself back to a question we’ve already answered: “Who is college for?” The rich. This is not to mention the various other glaring flaws that the no-tuition movement glosses over.

The methodology

The challenge is clear, so what’s the solution to the American higher education system’s complex curricular conundrum, then? Nelson honed in on what he refers to as “the most famous study in the science of learning geeks” to lay the groundwork.

“The 2 Sigma Problem” was a study conducted by Benjamin Bloom at MIT in 1984, which compared student learning under three different conditions of instruction. The control group received traditional lectures and exams. The mastery learning group had the same with corrective procedures and follow-up exams. The tutored group was instructed one-on-one then tested the same as the mastery group.

The title derives from the results: The average tutored student’s final achievement measured two standard deviations (two sigmas) above that of the average control group student’s.

Never before had anyone been able to prove such drastic advancements in educational outcomes, but it was dismissed for the obvious impracticality of scaling this one-on-one style by dozens of students per instructor.

Bloom thus argued not that every student should be tutored, but that engagement was the critical factor in his praxis. Active learning is integral to the educational success of students.

“That, at its heart, is what Minerva is all about. And bizarrely, we’re the only institution in the world that is actually focused on doing that correctly,” Nelson says.

Selectivity that flouts privilege

Minerva University received tens of thousands of applications in 2020, and accepted just 1% of those applicants, making it the most selective degree program on a global scale. Yet, their student body doesn’t exactly resemble the socioeconomic landscape of the undergraduate populations at other elite institutions—quite the opposite.

The private sector of higher ed in America approaches admissions in a manner that prioritizes students for their wealth. Inside Higher Ed’s 2018 Surveys of Admissions Leaders found that 42 percent of admissions directors at private colleges and universities said that legacy status is a factor in admissions decisions at their institutions.

This practice is thwarted by blind applications. That’s to say; no SAT scores, no pre-written essays, no mention of where a student’s parents went to school or how much money they make.

Minerva’s admissions criteria are based entirely on a student’s potential. “We have our own set of assessments. We do a live recorded interview, and you’ll answer your essay question on camera so we can see that it’s you and not somebody else,” says Nelson.

“It’s all based on formulas. We look at how well you did in high school compared to your peers—we don’t treat the valedictorian of Phillips Exeter any better than the valedictorian of a public school in northeast Brazil.”

“We just don’t discriminate,” he states. Each individual is held to the same standards. “It’s hard to get in. You have to be an exceptional student to get into Minerva, but your wealth is not going to help you.”

Because of this, most of their students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. They can only admit as many students as their grants allow for, making expansion a tricky task. Minerva Schools currently have to raise $7 million per year for scholarships alone. They charge only $30,000 per year for tuition.

COVID the catalyst

Minerva at KGI knows technological innovation, which may explain their success with the Unibuddy peer-to-peer chat platform. They’ve had more than 450 prospect sign-ups to the widget since launching in September—strong evidence that their prospective students are naturally predisposed to engage digitally, perhaps even more so than the average Gen Z student.

When asked if he believes COVID-19 expedited an inevitable pivot toward digital learning, Nelson replies that it had almost no impact on Minerva: “COVID demonstrated to a lot of universities that teaching online is not any worse than teaching offline, and that’s the crux of the problem. There’s no technology that makes your awful lecture bad, but there’s also no technology that makes your awful lecture good.”

Virtual learning effectively exposed the pre-existing flaws of the common curriculum as we know it. “In reimagining what should happen in an educational setting, all of a sudden, you bump up against the limitations of offline education,” he shares.

Minerva utilizes tools that track how long students speak and can instantly assign them to breakout rooms. These tools don’t exist offline, not to mention the data they collect from students that serves to develop individual intellectual development arcs.

Teaching is difficult, lest we forget. Tutoring is more like having a conversation with a student, and it’s a better way to spark inspiration too. “The beauty of technology,” Nelson says, “is that it can create and alleviate what would otherwise be a very hard task.”

Zoom-fatigue and mental health concerns

Minerva’s students learn through participation in robust discussion as opposed to rote memorization of lectures, and their progress is tracked robustly as well—all of their actions are coded.

Given the widely known truth of deteriorating mental health on college campuses across the nation over the course of the pandemic, it’s natural to assume that this kind of learning environment may prove to be emotionally draining for some who are fighting their own battles outside the classroom.

Even a mentally healthy student has surely experienced some form of the anxiety or Zoom-fatigue that many report due to the various online learning surveillance methods that have emerged. I asked Nelson how off-days are accounted for—when a student isn’t feeling in the right headspace to engage at such a high level.

“That’s the beauty of having a formative feedback system that generates summative outcomes as opposed to tests without feedback. I keep telling our students this even though they don’t believe me, but I try to prove it to them: Algorithmically, almost nothing they do in their first year matters. It matters from a learning perspective, but not from a grade perspective,” he explains.

Students’ learnings from the first year are assessed over the next three years and continually applied throughout the program. The weighting of their assignments and classes becomes more substantial over time. “So if you have a bad day in class, getting the feedback is not going to be great, but you learn from it. A bad day is not gonna throw you off,” he says.

This formative feedback system transcends the linear grading scale so that depth of mastery need not be defined numerically. That is to say, it does away with the notion that a 92 is good but an 89 is not so good.

The primary benefit of the Minerva process is the breadth of application. When you take a cognitive tool and apply it to different contexts, apply it prompted versus spontaneously, or critique somebody else’s work against your own, those are dimensions of transfer that indicate whether you’ve actually learned something.

“And as far as I know,” concludes Nelson, “we’re the only educational institution in history that has ever employed that kind of tactic.”

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