Minerva – not your ordinary university

Virtual classroom. Active learning. World class professors. Half of the bill. Welcome to the future of higher education.

Education technology has been a hot topic in the higher education space. Many schools and ambitious entrepreneurs have been exploring the optimal model to leverage the many benefits that technology brings into the education space for a variety of reasons. So far, we have witnessed multiple online models emerged in the market, including buzz words like Mass Open Online Course (MOOCs), competency-based learning, or an online version of class we learn in a regular classroom setting. However, it seems like the extent of interactive experiences among faculty and students, which are proven by research as one of the most effective way of learning, could be compromised as the delivery model becomes more and more technology-reliant.

Minerva_higher ed landscape

Minerva emerges as the only player in the higher tech space that promises high interactive experience utilizing heavily of its proprietary online learning platform. Minerva is a four-year, full-time undergraduate program founded in 2012 that aims to deliver low-cost, Ivy League quality education through online platform. They strongly believe in the pedagogy of enforcing deep cognitive tasks, such as debating and applying materials, versus just simply listening and memorizing. By having small-sized seminar enabled by their proprietary online learning platform, Minerva enables students to be actively engage with their peers and faculty in means such as polling, debating, simulations and small-group breakout (check out the video attached to see how this actually works). It also enables professor to keep track of students’ performance with more data and video footage and increase the effectiveness of in-time feedback.

Although Minerva just started with its founding class of 29 students last year (and by the way, admission rate is less than 3%, another reason why they claim their admission process is even more rigorous than that of Ivy Leagues), I believe it could be a winner disrupting the higher education space going forward.

Minerva provides great value creation for its investors, faculty and students. First, with the absence of brick and mortar campus (Minerva only maintains a residence hall at San Francisco for all its students), Minerva is able to shed a large portion of its capital investment and ongoing operations and maintenance cost while maintaining high-quality education. This could yield attractive return for its investors. Second, faculty no longer need to spend class time on lecturing basic concepts (students should learn these through MOOCs), but rather focusing on helping their students improve their learning, something that is preferred by both faculty and students. Faculty could be much more flexible in terms of the time and location, while also allowing the school to find great professors from all over the globe to teach. Third, students receive an education that could arguably be more interactive than traditional classroom lectures, helping them to learn more effectively while paying less than half of what they would have paid for in a traditional university.

Minerva captures value mostly through student tuition. It also captures value through a rigorous admission process such that the cream of the crop students help build its brand equity. There are also other potential forms of revenue, such as licensing its proprietary online platform to other higher education players, who have shown a lot of interest.

Of course, it might still be too early to prove the success of the Minerva model. But with a disruptive model that seems to promise both high-quality education and cost effectiveness, as well as having ~100 million investment injected so far, Minerva does provide an opportunity for people to rethink the purpose of higher education, and how digital innovation helps to achieve that.


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Student comments on Minerva – not your ordinary university

  1. I think we’re still only seeing the first tendrils of digital transformation in higher education. In part, I think we’re waiting for the right technological moment.

    Like you mention, there’s a lot of excitement around things like MOOCs, but at the core, our ability to teach is not yet very scalable. Yes, people can watch a video, but even with high end technology used by, for example, HBS in “HBX” (http://www.hbs.edu/news/releases/Pages/hbx-live.aspx), we’re only really reducing infrastructure costs (buildings, travel), not human costs (paying the professor, hours worked, etc).

    When technology — maybe a combination of Virtual Reality and AI — allows us to really think about scaling the teaching experience, THEN we’ll be talking really big change. Side note: I recommend The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson for anyone interested in thinking about how education and technology might mix in the future.

  2. Thank you for the article, Jenny!

    I see that Minerva could be a really successful product for Executive Education within a relatively short time horizon.

    With regard to Ivy League college students, I am still hesitant, at least in the short term. An essential part of the higher education is a personality transformation – moving to a different city, state, country, living without your family and friends. Focus and motivation can be strengthened by the physical presence, the “nostalgia” of the school and its buildings, alumni legacy. Have you considered what the impact on the graduate student profiles would be?

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