Does Minerva Schools at KGI offer a valuable alternative for higher education?: thoughts on online learning

By Immy Higgins, Milly Munro, and Rachel A Doyle

Immy Higgins

Whilst munching on my morning toast during lockdown I read a piece in Times 2 about the Youtube Star ‘UnJaded Jade’ who started at Minerva School in 2019. Intrigued by her undergraduate experience at this innovative higher education institution, and the enjoyment she shows in her YouTube videos, I dived into a Google-search research hole.*

Based in San Franciso, Minerva Schools at KGI offers a 4-year undergraduate arts and sciences degree programme which is based on a multi-disciplinary approach. This is very different to studying an English Literature Degree at Durham. Instead of selecting six modules in first year, you study four Cornerstone courses (Formal Analyses, Multimodal Communications, Empirical Analyses, and Complex Systems) which teach you skills that can be transferred across disciplines.

One of the aspects that most struck me about the Minerva educational experience is its practice of online, discussion-based learning.

Students at Minerva do not stay in one place. Semesters are spent in seven different cities – San Francisco, Buenos Aires, London, Berlin, Hyderabad, Seoul, and Taipei – which allows students to develop life skills through diverse cultural immersion.

The learning experience also goes beyond just classes and coursework; students participate in practical, experiential learning programmes in each city. From collaborating with civic organisations, to participating in hosted discussions with important cultural figures, these activities and projects are designed to develop characteristics of curiosity, empathy, resilience, cooperation, focus, accountability, and drive.

The whole experience is entirely different to what we have at Durham. No lecture halls, no Durham city claustrophobia, no unnerving amount of free time. One of the aspects that most struck me about the Minerva educational experience is its practice of online, discussion-based learning.

Students at Minerva do not stay in one place.

All classes are online seminars, conducted over a forum created specifically for Minerva, and are structured around a focus on active learning, most similar to the tutorials that we have at Durham. Students participate in breakout groups, debates, quizzes and polls, and real-time simulations; the information is actively absorbed, instead of passively received.

There was a lot to think about after researching Minerva, but as Durham students face the prospect of online learning next academic year I was most curious to find out what people think about the Minerva model of online education. As co-editor of Features, I asked people for their thoughts on online learning.

*check out the Minerva website for more information

Minerva offers what some would call a too-good-to-be-true education; one where teaching is done entirely online and you have the freedom to learn wherever you like in the world. Admittedly, this type of learning, especially for independent higher education students, is definitely appealing.

In times like these, online learning may be adequate, but I find it hard to argue that it should become a more permanent fixture in higher education.

However, it is difficult to argue that online learning provides a good substitute for face to face teaching, and there are many students whose recent experiences can attest to this.

After coming home from a year abroad two months early this year, I found motivation very hard to come by. When Durham announced that exams this year would go ahead, many students felt that this online alternative didn’t consider things like different home lives or socio-economic backgrounds, and rightly so. In times like these, online learning may be adequate, but I find it hard to argue that it should become a more permanent fixture in higher education. 

Rachel A Doyle

With the world imminently entering an educational crisis following lockdown, Minerva Schools at KGI proposes an alternative form of higher education that could act as the future of learning. Minerva’s pedagogy tackles a conflict that the education system has long been battling; that of embedding understanding and application of knowledge, rather than focusing on factual recall and rote learning to pass an exam.

My main worry about a potential future of online learning is the widening of the already existing attainment gap.

Minerva is also extremely accessible to those all over the world and to those with different needs, elements which are particularly important in the context of the global pandemic. Minerva offers a new adaptable way of learning, when face-to-face teaching is not possible.

However, as a teacher in training, there are many worries that other practitioners and I have about the future of an education that occurs through a computer screen alone. Aside from the lack of social interaction, eye contact, and genuine social engagement that students receive through face-to-face teaching, as well as the fact that online learning will not cater to all courses like music performance and lab work, my main worry about a potential future of online learning is the widening of the already existing Attainment Gap.

Minerva Schools at KGI proposes an alternative form of higher education that could act as the future of learning.

The socio-economic status of a child, something they did not choose or cannot control, will affect the availability of infrastructure and facilities that are necessary for online learning. Adults or children in low income households may not have access to a computer or WiFi, making an entirely online education system impossible for them to learn. I worry that online learning is not fully inclusive and fails to provide all learners with their full right to education.

Illustration by Simon Lake

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