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July 09, 2014

Employees working at the Minerva Office in San Francisco (Courtesy of Jane Heaven).

If you had the opportunity, would you attend a college that sends you around the world to live in world-class cities while taking all of your classes online? The Minerva Project is a university that is raising eyebrows with its non-traditional approach.

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Entrepreneur Ben Nelson is banking on the notion that the world is ready for a new and different kind of university. 

"If you want to have a student experience that is around the concept of a campus, sheltered environment, go to your local football games, fraternities, you have plenty of options,” Nelson said. “But if you want to go to school while really immersing yourself in the best the world has to offer, we are your only option."

Nelson is the CEO of The Minerva Project, a for-profit university launching its first class this fall. Thirty freshmen, many from countries outside the U.S., will take online classes while moving around the world together throughout their four years. They will live first in San Francisco, then Berlin and Buenos Aires.

"Rather than secluding them away from society in a campus environment, we want our students to live in the most vibrant cultural, political, and economic capitols in the world," said Nelson.

Listen to our extended interview with CEO Ben Nelson:

Students will move to six different cities over the course of six semesters.

"In each of those cities they will have co-curricular activities, things which expose them to the major institutions and individuals in that society that shape progress in that environment,” Nelson explained.

So how much does all of this cost? Minerva students pay $10,000 per year plus living expenses.

While the students will be living and traveling together, they'll be engaged in what Nelson calls Minerva's "innovative" online platform, which is being fine-tuned this summer.

"We've incorporated responsive gesture control so you can control what happens on the screen just by moving your hands" Nelson said as he demonstrated.

An online demo shows a Minerva professor manipulating the image of a brain by moving his hands. As he rotates his hand, the 3D image of a brain on the students’ computer screens rotates at the same time.

Minerva Active Learning Forum from Minerva on Vimeo.

"You can do an enormous range of things with a computer that are quite difficult to do - not impossible but difficult - in a traditional classroom," said Stephen Kosslyn, Minerva’s founding dean.

Kosslyn has been charged with doing something many in higher education would love to do right now: start over with a clean slate.

As a neuroscientist and former dean at Harvard, Kosslyn believes Minerva can actually teach more effectively online.

"We collect a lot of data about the students and that forms a feedback loop, where the students will never be surprised about how well they're doing," said Kosslyn.

However, not everyone is buying this new model of higher education.

"You really do have an online program with a rather glorified meet-up system," said Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a higher education research firm in Boston.

Fleming says, even amid all this hype, and there is a lot of hype, it's unclear exactly how legitimate the Minerva Project really is. He wonders if enough students will find the model enticing.

"They're limiting themselves by saying, 'We want the best and the brightest.' I'm thinking, where are these people?" Fleming said. “Very bright people apply to Harvard and Stanford and Yale every year. Have they written books and started businesses? This is really what they're looking for."

Still, says Fleming, Minerva should appeal to a unique but small pool of candidates like Guillaume Picard of Scotland. Picard is a member of this fall’s incoming class. He did have some initial doubts about the start-up university.

"Even though it sounded like a tremendous opportunity, after I read about it on the Website,” said Picard. “You have nice videos and the colorful, very nice design. I said, 'Well, all this looks nice, but how does it work in practice?'"

After doing some research, though, Picard embraced the school's mission to train global leaders. Even though he was accepted at Dartmouth, he was drawn to Minerva's sticker price and the fact that each student is encouraged to start a business, write a book or make a film.

When I graduate in four years, I'll have a lot to show what I've done through the university," Pickard said. "I think I'll have the skills to start something on my own."

After this founding class, Minerva hopes to enroll more than 200 students next year, eventually growing to 10,000 undergrads.

Minerva's founding dean Stephen Kosslyn spoke at Georgetown's Future for Higher Education Forum in May about the new project: 

new business models, Minerva, technology and innovation

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