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A Virtual Connection: Minerva Schools at KGI Strengthens 7C Partnership

On a typical weekday morning, Zoey Haar arrives early to class, chatting with her professor about how she’s adjusted to college life a month into her first year. It’s a typical scene at many college campuses around the nation—except that Zoey and her professor aren’t in the same room, let alone the same state. 

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They’re video-chatting with the help of an online platform, their faces displayed on laptops. Once class starts, a multiple-choice quiz will pop up on Zoey’s screen, testing her recall on the class’s assignment. 

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Welcome to the Minerva Schools at KGI, the product of a partnership between the Minerva Project and the youngest member of the 7Cs, the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI). The 29 students that constitute Minerva’s founding class live together in San Francisco and participate in online discussion seminars.

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A for-profit company, the Minerva Project has lofty ambitions to modernize the liberal arts college by blending the flexibility of an online education with traditionally small classes. In 2013, the fledgling online university approached KGI about a potential partnership, hoping to find a home institution and accelerate its accreditation process. 

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Amid its ascending profile—Minerva was treated to a lengthy cover story in the September issue of The Atlantic—5C students, alumni and professors are hoping to join in on this new model of education.

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Of Minerva’s five founding deans, two hail from the Claremont Colleges. Diane Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, left her tenured post to join Minerva as its founding dean of social science. Jim Sterling, a professor at KGI since its founding in 1997, is Minerva's interim dean of natural sciences. 

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At Minerva, Sterling teaches Empirical Analyses, one of the four cornerstone courses all first-years take, and coordinates mentored lab experiences for students during their summer breaks. He said Minerva’s entrepreneurial spirit appealed to him.

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“We saw that it was a really neat fit and something that the Claremont Colleges need to be on top of,” Sterling said. “If there’s a lot of change happening, we don’t want to ignore that change and not be a part of it.”

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In addition to faculty crossover, Minerva is linked to the 7Cs through Honnold/Mudd Library. Without a library of their own, Minerva students are given access to the electronic resources of the library and are provided with online library instruction. 

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The expansion of Minerva's student body could place considerable stress on the library’s resources, said Rebecca Lubas, the associate dean of the library. In response, the library has commissioned a study, expected to be completed by winter break, to assess the impact that Minerva and other study-abroad or online programs will have on its resources. 

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The projected growth of Minerva, Lubas predicts, will prompt the library to develop customized online instruction. 

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“This is not just going to help the library serve the Minerva schools better but also serve any alternative programs that might come through the Claremont Colleges and give more options to students who are on campus,” Lubas said.

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What distinguishes Minerva from other online universities is its goal of using technology to improve the pedagogy of a traditional liberal arts education. 

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Sterling spoke highly of Minerva’s technology software, saying that it forces students to be engaged. 

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“Nobody can zone out; nobody can go to sleep; and nobody can miss class,” he said. “They have to prepare beforehand.”

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At Minerva, each class begins with a quiz, followed by a conceptual poll in the middle of the period and time for students to reflect and provide feedback at the end of class. 

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“[At Pomona College], people say things like, ‘You’re not learning what to learn, you’re learning how to learn,’” said Gillian Grindstaff PO ’14, a curriculum assistant at Minerva. “Minerva is trying to take all those things which are valuable and kind of intangible and lay them out explicitly for the students.”

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Sean Xin PO '16, who interned at Minerva over the summer, helped test-drive the interactive software, known as Minerva’s Active Learning Platform. The seminars he participated in were sometimes disrupted by technical difficulties, he said. Still, Xin sees Minerva as a promising venture that could help provide a liberal arts education for a global audience.

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Minerva, Xin said, “opens the door to people around the world who just want to be one of us but don’t have the opportunity to do so.” 

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Haar said that she has learned more about problem-solving in the past few months at Minerva than she did during all four years of high school, which she thinks is a result of Minerva’s “intuitive” technology platform. 

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“It’s very intensive,” said Or Segal, another Minerva student. “We are studying a lot, which is something that, in a way, surprised me. I already came from a very intensive course of study, and it went even further.”

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Colleges around the nation, and the 5Cs in particular, have seen ballooning tuition costs in the past few decades. Sterling said that Minerva may push the Claremont Colleges to reconsider their established business models. In contrast to the near-$60,000 annual sticker price of the 5Cs, Minerva's estimated annual cost is $27,950.

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However, many 5C professors are not convinced that Minerva represents the future of higher education. 

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Before its partnership with Keck, Minerva approached Pomona about a potential collaboration. The proposal was rejected by the administration and faculty. 

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Pomona President David Oxtoby previously told TSL that Minerva’s proposition was declined over concerns about its status as a for-profit organization. Administrators and professors were also concerned by Minerva instructors' three-year contracts and unclear involvement in curriculum creation. 

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Despite those reservations, the Minerva Project is here to stay, and the Claremont Colleges must now figure out what role this new institution will play in the consortium. 

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“One of my favorite aspects of the consortium model in Claremont was the sense of partnership and community among the different colleges,” said Rena Levitt, a former Pomona math professor who serves as academic director of computational and natural sciences at Minerva. “I hope Minerva and the members of the consortium will be able to build an effective partnership as well.”

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