Ben Nelson, the former Silicon Valley CEO, has $25 million in seed money to create an elite global university online. The Minerva Project will be a for-profit undergraduate college.
"The only way we're going to find out what works is to do it, rather than sit there opining," said David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. "Bring it on."
College is becoming an extremely expensive gamble for students who will graduate with an immense amount of debt and no job guarantee, Nelson and his backers feel that the world may be ready for a new higher education model. While tuition fees have not been set yet, Nelson has said that he plans to charge much less than $20,000 a year for an education he claims will rival the Ivy League.
The value of the American college experience has come into question. In the book "Academically Adrift," two educators tracked more than 2,000 undergraduates at 24 colleges and found that nearly half had shown no significant improvement on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing after their first two years on campus.
As the academic rigor of the traditional brick and mortar universities has come into question, and the cost of attending has spiraled out of control, a number of online alternatives have sprung up, but they typically mimic the structure of their traditional counterparts, are plagued by high dropout and low graduations and the level of respect given to the degrees offered by employers varies heavily.
Nelson is ebullient about the Minerva Project's potential.
He plans to recruit top students from around the world, many of whom are shut out of higher education either because of the cost or because the few universities in their country are over-crowded. "The majority of students won't be from the U.S.," he said.
Once enrolled, students will log in to watch weekly lectures recorded by big-name professors. But they will also join small-group discussions led by skilled teachers who will be able to pause the lectures to take questions or spark an online discussion by keyboard and video chat.
Nelson has left his corporate positions to focus on the Minerva Project. The $25 million seed money is being provided by Benchmark Capital, and their faith in the new project is highlighted by the fact that this is the largest seed investment in their 17 years of operation.