The coronavirus pandemic is prompting universities across the globe to adjust the way they deliver their academic courses. Trinity has not been immune to this: Provost Patrick Prendergast confirmed this month that lectures and classes of over 25 people would be delivered online for at least the first semester.
Such seismic shifts to online teaching are sending shivers across the future of colleges everywhere. But they’re not being sent to every college.
One college already had online learning platforms set up pre-pandemic. It had received both scepticism and acclaim.
Established by former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson in 2012 to provide “an extraordinary liberal arts and sciences education to the top students in the world”, Minerva Schools at KGI (Keck Graduate Institute) are operating in a world of their own – all over the world.
There is data in the technology that allows you to both measure and change the way you teach so you increase engagement
Aiming to provide Ivy League-quality education at a lower cost than other private universities in the US, Minerva uses some rather unorthodox methods to achieve this.
Namely: it does all its teaching online, and it has no campus.
“The university hopes to transform education”, says Diana El-Azar, a senior director of strategic communications and markets development at Minerva. She admits it’s a tough goal to deliver on, but says that by connecting with other schools and universities, it has high hopes of success.
In many ways, Minerva is both a college of our times and a college for our future. Because the world is rapidly changing, with societies and industries becoming increasingly interconnected, many of today’s careers will become obsolete while new ones will be created. With this in mind, Minerva believes that a new approach to specialisation is necessary, starting with its major programmes, which it differentiates from all others. Here, students can choose to earn their undergraduate degree in five accredited colleges – Arts & Humanities, Business, Computational Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Social Sciences – all based online.
Now, with a pandemic shining a spotlight on online learning, Minerva’s goal has rarely seemed so ahead of the curve. But its virtual platform isn’t just about putting things online for the sake of it, El-Azar insists. Instead, she says, “it’s really about utilising it in the right way” – in a way that would not be possible in a traditional classroom environment.
In fact, in some ways it seems more effective than traditional teaching. She says: “There is data in the technology that allows you to both measure and change the way you teach so you increase engagement.” This is what separates recorded online “corona lectures” from Minerva classes, El-Azar says. In the small seminar online classes, speaking out is required of all students at Minerva.
By all appearances, lockdown has not seemed to affect Minerva’s students too much on this issue.
Antonia Boorman, a student hailing from Northern Ireland, is full of praise for the university’s style of teaching: “Minerva’s curriculum itself is highly impactful in terms of what I’ve learned and how I’ve learned.”
Having a platform that allows students to develop and expand upon their knowledge throughout all stages of their degree is to Boorman, one of the highlights of the degree programme. In fact, Boorman says it outperforms many of its competitors such as Zoom or Google Hangouts – lockdown favourites of most academic institutions.
“Something unique about the Active Learning Platform is that it is designed to encourage learning”, Boorman says. “For example, professors can’t talk for longer than five minutes or they get cut off, so that helps encourage discussion and debate and delving deeper into the subject matter.”
Such is the early success of Minerva that YouTube star Jade Bowler – most commonly known for her YouTube channel UnJaded Jade, which has amassed over 430,000 subscribers since 2017 – was lured to the modern learning experience. In an email, she writes: “The nature of education via the Active Learning Forum means I’m a lot more engaged in class than I was in traditional lessons.”
The Active Learning Forum described by Bowler allows for a modern educational experience. One of her favourite features of online teaching is its fluidity, allowing for a seamless education: “I love that we can take a class from anywhere with good Wifi. It allows flexibility, without compromising the quality of education.”
Teachers are not there to speak at you – rather they are the carriers of conversation
Pablo Guarneros, a second-year student majoring in arts and humanities and computer science, is equally enthusiastic. Although he says the unfamiliarity of the online format of classes for many teachers is harming the merits of online learning, it is the style of teaching that speaks volumes: “Teachers are not there to speak at you – rather they are the carriers of conversation.”
For Guarneros, Minerva is not just an “online school” – he says “living school” is a better description. The diverse environment that makes up Minerva is a draw for many students, which, by implication, extends to a diverse student body. Guarneros tells me that in a 12-person seminar, “there will be at least seven or eight different countries represented”.
Indeed, perhaps the most talked-about feature of the undergraduate degree at Minerva is this diversity: the opportunity for students to live in seven different cosmopolitan cities around the world. During their four-year degree, students spend their first full year in San Francisco in the US, and the remaining three years in up to six other mouth-watering destinations: Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and Taipei.
Needless to say, the pandemic presents many obstacles. When I raise the issue of restrictions to travel and movement of people to El-Azar, she reassures me that regarding the academic side of the programme, “nothing will change”. However, as the situation with the virus varies in each country, she says the living situation for students will be continually monitored. If unable to study in the seven cities, Minerva plans to implement the “experiential learning” portion of their course online.
But what shape will this take? The multicultural living experience that Minerva provides its students seems pretty integral to the entire ethos of the university and as such, continuity of the offer would be crucial to its continued success. For Bowler, it is make or break: “My academics are definitely enriched through applying them to the city immersion. The global rotation gives us a broader world perspective to better understand modern challenges from different cultural angles.”
Boorman agrees: over her four years at Minerva, she says, the global immersion program has shaped her understanding of the world and global issues. She tells me that from her experience, “Minerva’s global model shapes people to be a lot more open-minded and understanding”.
My academics are definitely enriched through applying them to the city immersion
To understand fully how online learning works at Minerva, I speak with faculty member Suzanne Kern, an assistant professor of natural science. Kern says that Minerva’s focus on active learning is “nearly antithetical to lecturing”. Unlike most university teaching models where lectures resemble something akin to a pitying form of a one-person show performed to an unforgiving audience, it is extremely rare for a professor or student at Minerva to talk for over two minutes during a class.
Pedagogically speaking, then, Minerva is making some interesting decisions. But questions remain on the practical side of things – especially when it comes to science-based subjects, like Kern’s which normally involve lab work.
“The department of natural sciences,” she says, “emphasises not the physical techniques … Instead we focus on how people do research in the field.”
If lockdown restrictions continue, professors, researchers and university students will all have to grapple with the issue of space – and the lack of it. But those who work and study in Minerva say it is simply a matter of shifting the focus of learning away from labs and onto research and scientific thinking.
Aside from access constraints, the biggest challenge that Minerva faces due to the virus is accommodating students in a wide range of time zones, a challenge faced by many universities with a diverse student population. However, with a faculty already experienced in online teaching, it seems Minerva students have faced comparably less upheaval in their educational experience during the pandemic than most other students.
Boorman’s experience is proof of this, as she tells me that the Active Learning Forum has worked for her during her time studying around the world. Its greatest strength, she says, is that when “moving to seven different cities, you need something very flexible and rigorous, and that’s what the platform provides”.
Indeed, the perks of operating an online college have never been so apparent. Although Minerva has raised eyebrows in the past for its so-called progressiveness and lack of physicality, in today’s surreal times, maybe it is not something to be laughed at, but to be learned from.
As for its students, they couldn’t agree more. Guarneros says: “Now is a perfect opportunity for teachers, students and institutions to reflect on that and not say: ‘Hey, let’s replace this’, but instead: ‘Hey, let’s make this better.’”