Between a rock and a hard place.

I became fascinated by Ben Nelson’s Minerva Project long before I became fascinated with MOOCs.  You can see the product of that fascination in my one (and so far only) appearance at the Baffler, which is about this so-called “online Ivy.”  In fact, I think I’ve read all the major press about it (and if there’s one thing that Minerva is very, very good at it’s generating press) because I’ve been curious to find out exactly how this thing was (and now is) going to work.

Jeff Selingo is the guy who offered me my job at Vitae so take this with a grain of salt if you wish, but I think his piece yesterday is the best Minerva article I’ve ever seen because it approaches this subject with at least some of the skepticism necessary when tackling an idea that’s so obviously goofy:

[A] college seminar typically has an air of intimacy to it. This one feels oddly distant, even though the students, most of them in their apartments, are only a mile away from Minerva’s offices.

That’s the part of the model, I tell Mr. Katzman and others at Minerva, that I still don’t get: Why have online courses when all of your students live in the same city?

To even ask that question demonstrates that Selingo is not a member of the edtech cargo cult, that he is treating technology as something that requires a purpose rather than just an end in itself.

Minerva, on the other hand, demands that students and professors interact through their proprietary LMS even though everyone involved is actually in the same city, maybe even the same building.  In a way, you can say why.  A new educational startup like Minerva wants to be to its students as the US Armed Forces were to the citizens of Vanuatu at the start of World War II: Like Gods from another planet.  That’s why they’ve built the Caesar’s Palace of learning management systems when in fact everyone going for coffee together might be able to accomplish the same ends.

Don’t believe me?  Read Selingo’s description of a Minerva technology and try to argue that this doesn’t sound like torture:

The discussion is fast-paced. The professor calls on students, some at random and others who have clicked on an icon of a hand. In a typical seminar, a faculty member might call on a student who wants to take the conversation in a different direction. But on the Minerva platform, a chat window allows students to indicate how they want to contribute to the conversation, so the professor knows in advance. To gauge whether students understand a concept, flash polls and pop quizzes are given throughout the class, and students use emoticons to answer yes/no questions from the professor.

And that’s torture for both the students and the professor.  Why should you have to click an icon when you can just raise your hand?  Why should you have to look down a screen to see what’s going on in your classroom when it’s far easier to look at people – people who are already in the same goddamn city that you are already – who could be right in front of your face?  I’ll tell you why: Because Ben Nelson and Minerva’s investors have to sell their students something unique, otherwise they’re not going to make any money.

Selingo’s story reminded me of another recent higher education story about the college professor turned Republican Congressman David Brat.  Take it away Think Progress:

During a House Education and Workforce Committee proceeding on Wednesday to reauthorize the nation’s elementary and secondary education law, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) said, “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and then Plato trained in Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”

Brat is, of course, half right.  You don’t need much more than a teacher and a rock in order to get a great education.  The problem is that if all teachers had nothing but rocks, most people wouldn’t get a great education and Brat (now more than adequately protected by the political tenure that a safe Republican seat provides) wouldn’t care less.

However, you don’t need the Taj Mahal of LMSs either – especially for classes with only twenty people in them.  What you need is educational technology that exists and which is selected for its positive effects upon education, not because of its positive effects upon Ben Nelson’s bottom line.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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