Last week, former Silicon Valley CEO Ben Nelson announced that he has raised $25 million to start an “elite university” which would exist exclusively online. The Minerva Project launch comes at a time when public and private educational institutions are dramatically expanding their online presence. But can an Internet-only school really compete with Stanford, Berkeley and the Ivy League?

We talk to some innovators who are challenging the traditional university model.

Disruptive Innovation: Higher Education 9 April,2012forum

Ben Nelson, founder and CEO of The Minerva Project, a new online university, and former CEO of online photo finishing company Snapfish
Sebastian Thrun, Google vice president and fellow, part-time research professor at Stanford University and founder of Udacity, a company focused on bringing free university-level education to everyone
Salman Khan, founder and executive director of the Khan Academy, an educational non-profit focused on providing quality education for everyone
Anant Agarwal, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a teacher for MITx, an online learning initiative

  • Polk

    Lots of people simply cannot make use of online courses. I’m one of them. I need to interact with and be asked questions by a live teacher in the same room. I like to take part in team projects. I’ll never adopt the online format, even though I enjoy watching instructional videos on Youtube. A course is a special experience and it should never be passive or distant.

    • ML

      Minerva classes will have live teachers and Q&A

  • Ian Sears

    @af386689d1299f4bdb39c3970131d276:disqus Your sentiment is agreed upon in the context of what too many present as an online course. However, the idea that an online course is the equivalent of a presented PDF or recorded video is not an online course. These are merely resources. Correct use of the internet to remove the barriers of geography and time while enforcing defensible  trust that the connection/session is free from the abuse of critical thought and genuine discourse with integrity is the mark of the only successful implementation (of a genuine online course). This very much is possible now, does take place, and is accessible to those who understand what is at stake. And thus the issue is the spam of “me too!” online course presenters.

  • Mmmail

    20 years ago my poly sci professor at George Washington University in DC said that eventually the rich will have teachers and the poor will have computers. The resulting educated elite will have connections, & thus power, the poor don’t even have access to.

    Your panelists ignore how we are hard wired to work with others, that our bodies are ourselves. Also, less than half the people who start on-line courses finish them.

    • Micheleleighheidt

      where do you find these statistics and how do they compare with on campus students who drop courses they don’t like or can’t pass

  • Greatwork

    Great show but will all this widen the he digital divide?

  • Gayle

    I agree that there is a market for both the physical and virtual classrooms.  I am a student of a college located in AZ but live in SF.  The difference between this school from say, Phoenix, the student designs many of the courses in the form of contracts.  I thought this would be easy, but I assure you, it is much harder.  I’ve learned more through this process than I ever did in the traditional classroom.  That said, I still see a value and purpose for the traditional classroom.  Why not offer on-line students access to course lectures at nearby universities to supplement their coursework?  BTW, I have a more than full time job and couldn’t pursue my degree any other way.  Thanks much for this discussion. I’m hopeful online schools continue to improve to meet the needs of students.

  • nealjking

    I have attended classes at Berkeley and CalTech in physics. I can see how this online approach can usefully present the material, but what is missing is the personal interaction that is possible with a present professor. I was able to raise questions and challenges with Nobel Laureates – and to receive challenges in return. I ran into some of them at lunch, and had very stimulating discussions. This would NOT be possible online.

    • Ssun Ssu

      I have enjoyed similar such, but we must be cognisant of the very real fact that this is, and by its nature must be, an élite experience (at least until AIs can mimic specific individuals _extremely_ well).

      It’s a little like the loss of traditional Chinese characters on the mainland to simplified and pinyin:  yes, the great histroy and traditions embodied in the traditional forms is destroyed (except for specialists), but these were never really available to more than a few hundredths of the population.

    • physteacher

      I took an on-line physics class through UC Berkeley extension to refresh my knowledge before teaching a high school level course.  The course consisted of reading a chapter of the book, completing the assigned problems and submitting them to the instructor.  After paying $750 for the three credits, I really could have done this at home myself.  I think the potential is there for this kind of learning but needs a ton of work.

      • kenny-j

        @physteacher – I just finished the first free CS101 course at, and it was phenomenal! Much more that what it sounds like you paid big money for. Udacity uses short innovative video with graded quizzes, as well as homework, and a vibrant forum for discussion. I was amazed how efficient the learning was and how much we  learned in 7 short weeks. 

  • Reavisw

    Wondering what effect an online education format would have on a student’s ability to develop teamwork skills in the workplace?

    • Mmmail1

       In my business, which works with people in every department from sales to content management, we’ve found that people who come to us with only on-line educations simply don’t work well with others. They cannot separate personal  attack from constructive criticism. Also, many resent having to show up to meetings on time. Of more importance is the lack of general knowledge in favor of specificity that actually works against understanding of the immediate situation and ultimately words against their long term professional mobility.

      • Micheleleighheidt

        reviewing your own writing may say a good deal about your opinions —
        how about ultimately w
        orks against their long term, etc… instead of ‘words’ = what IS ‘your’ business??  It may not be conducive to online learning at all.

  • Pete

    To achieve the goal of universal, decoupled credentialing, should these various projects be working together? 

  • Karl

    Higher education is an economic bubble, and online learning is a bubble on top of that bubble. Online courses are low quality, high cost, and from what I’ve heard the degrees earned don’t seem to help people get jobs.

    • Iown You

      So, are you saying that Harvard who offers several degree programs online are low quality? What about the number of other top tier schools that offer them? All low quality? Based on what facts? You’ve certainly never done a Harvard course, and you’ve certainly never been to all of these schools. Therefore, your assertion is nothing more than uninformed rhetoric.

      You sound like a person who has never spent a single day in an online course and knows very little about the subject.

      Online courses have lectures, interactions between students and faculty, as well as the same textbooks and study materials as those found in a physical classroom. Do a little research and you’ll find this to be true.

      I also have a newsflash for you: degrees of any kind aren’t helping people find jobs as much as they used to. This is not a problem squarely on online degree programs; this is a multi-layered problem that goes far beyond.

  • Ayn Marx 666

    I’d like to thank Prof. Thrun for the robot car course, which I just completed.  I’m of two minds though:  I might not have passed had the final not been so easy (and so self-checkable); on the other hand, I think that grade inflation in this new area is a danger for reasons similar to those which cause inflation in the economies of massively multiple on-line role-player games:  without enough of a dopamine tickle every now and then, the player (or student) doesn’t have enough incentive to continue.

    Personally, I think this will be more of a boon in cultures where education were actually _desired_; until mastery of difficult subjects is more likely to win you respect in the general population than derision, literally all the courses in the world will not help.

  • Brian

    Higher education is an elitist institution where the the elite interact with each other.  It is less about true education than it is about social interaction.  The “best” schools share the same books as the “worst” schools, yet the products of elite schools are considered better.  The difference is not the actual knowledge, but rather, it is all about the people who have been passed the filter of admissions.

    Online education is wonderful for self-education and self-improvement and for making knowledge universally accessible, but it is no better than reading a book on one’s own.  It will never be a true substitute to persons networking and physically interacting with each other in obtaining the kind of elitist “education” that elitist employers are looking for in the modern business world.  The “Electron-League” will never come close to being anything like the “Ivy-League.”

  • Sam

    Online classes can be a good resource to help students, and such a resource can reduce the amount of resources required to educate a person, but physical university institutions are important too. They provide a place for students to work together and learn in person, and small classes and discussion seminars are an essential part of higher education. Why pursue all-online universities as an option when bringing online class options would be more efficient and bring the benefits of both systems to all students equally? This could be a good way to save access to brick-and-mortar universities (especially our public universities) for poor students by making them more accessible instead of as an alternative to brick-and-mortar universities. It would bring the benefits of both systems to all students, instead of pretending that an all-online option is somehow a palliative for rising tuition costs.

  • I work in online education technology at a major university in the Bay Area, and the trend I am seeing at the university level is the “flipped classroom” where the lecture is prerecorded and pushed up online. Students are expected to watch the lecture before coming to class and the “on-grounds” sessions are set aside for in class discussion. I would be interested in the panelists comments on this.

  • Scott from Hercules

    If you were mentoring somebody who had a project that you believed would be even more beneficial than the projects you are working on, how would you advise them to get funding?

    (assuming the project needs to be non-profit for ethical reasons)

  • Gerald Fnord

    This is wonderful for autism-spectrum people, for whom social interaction is a positive impediment to learning. 

  • Oz

    As an architect, my university education came from real time, personal interaction with my instructors and fellow students where our work was discussed and dissected in person.  Granted, this was 20 years ago but I do not see the online instruction revolution being applicable to certain professions where personal interaction is necessary.  For example, can you teach a chemistry lab online?  Can a student preparing for a career as a religious leader learn their craft online?  What about an acting student?

    Also, I work for  an architectural start up that relies on cloud applications to conduct business, thus we do not have a physical office.  I find it ironic that I would not be where I am today in my profession if it weren’t for interaction I’ve had in my education both in and out of university, yet our business is thriving in part because we avail ourselves of technology that allows my colleagues and I to work in different locations.

    • Iown You

      You do realize that schools which require labs make it mandatory that students attend the labs physically at a local school, or at the school that’s serving their program?

      Secondly, webcams take care of situations where face-to-face contact is necessary. Not to sound harsh, but your concerns sound like you just stepped out of the stone age and don’t realize what year it is.

  • Oscar

    What about PhDs programs? is there going to be more (any) offer of these kind of programs on-line? I am a 40-year old dad, with two daughters, a full-time demanding job, finishing my (second) masters degree in the evenings at a local University and I would love to pursue a PhD program, but all of them require full dedication. I think a lot of people, later in life could benefit of this.

  • Blairtaffuri

    I’m enrolled at national University to earn my teaching credential. which is a private mainly online school. 21,000 a year. And I’m a little woried if the program will train me properly and give me the experince i need to be an effective teacher. Are there any free on line teaching credential programs at this time? And do you know if National University is a good school for teacher preparation?

  • SFSUstudent

    Poor people used to have access to physical public universities. These institutions are becoming inaccessible not due to the lack of online classes but to a large part from budget cuts. To fix the problem of accessibility by going to online-only universities and saying the poor can’t get access to those (when their access to the internet is questionable to begin with) is missing the point about an “austerity society”. The physical university institution is something which should be accessible to everyone. Online classes should be something to make traditional universities more efficient instead of pursuing all-online “universities” as a palliative for a problem caused by budget cuts. As a Master’s student, the opportunity to go to a physical institution of the university was a critical aspect in allowing me to pursue my education on a deeper level.

    • First, this isn’t just about poor students. I have a good job at a top Valley firm. I have no desire to quit in order to go back to school. (which I always found to be a very poor educational format anyways) People like Sebastian Thrun and Anant Agarwal allow me to have my cake and eat it too. I can work and get the intellectual development I am looking for.

      Now consider this for a poor student. Even if university was free, living expenses can be quite high. When their job and educational commitment get in conflict, one or the other has to suffer often in an irreparable way. (Not to mention the enormous amount of resources wasted) When my work got in the way of my finishing one of my online classes, I just dropped it secure in my knowledge that it or one like it will be offered again.

  • dl

    It’s clear that the we as a a society wil not be able to continue the past models of education and training. The cost is just not sustainable. However, there is great value in the in-person interactions provided in the older models. Perhaps what’s need is a hybrid approach: most fundamental course work accomplished through online communities, with added practical project work that is accomplished through in-person meetings. This would provide the  practical collaborative work experience that most employers find lacking in recent graduates.

  • Cate

    One way that online education can be of great service is as a supplement  or resource for a project based portfolio.  I am thinking about National Boards for Teachers, who have to submit a portfolio for their certification, but who can have an online support system to help them critique their writing and analysis of their lessons.

  • alex rodricks

    It’s not about one or the other, it’s about providing an alternative for those of us all over the world who can’t make it to elite universities. It is also a safe learning environment: I have tried “traditional” math classes forever, always embarrased at how horrible I was at it, and using the resources provided (teacher office hours, etc) and it never worked for me, I never passed a class. I then watched the Khan Academy videos and FINALLY understood what I needed to know, enough to challenge my math courses. It’s about the QUALITY.

    And yes, I would take classes and I would do the certificate.

  • Lauren

    UCSF, the Howard Hughes medical institute and the American society for cell biology have a online resource project called iBio seminars and magazines. They are freely available videos from top biology professors about their research. They can be accessed by anyone, include teaching tools and are can be incorporated into any college level class. The goal of this project (started by Ron vale at UCSF) is to bring high quality lectures to everyone. Since by can be used in a physical classroom, they also allow discussion between students at a community college or university.

  • Karl

    In the end, a bad teacher is bad whether in person or online.
    Most people cannot teach well and many of these online colleges are taught by awful teachers.
    This is what leads to the high attrition rate in online courses, including free ones.

  • hoj201

    I would like to use these materials in my own calculus course.  Sal is frequently more clear than myself.  Are there copyright or other such technical concerns I should be aware of?

  • Janice

    Part of the college experience is forging friendships and connections that enrich life and may also emerge as career assists later on. The disembodied disconnectedness of physical presence inherent in online learning makes it less valuable except for people all ready in jobs just looking for incremental advancement or for those with handicaps that preclude them from being on a real college campus. 

  • Fabian

    Some people, I think, project their own fear on Dist Education. Online classes will not replace
    face-to-face classes. Dist Ed is not for everyone. I think people are comparing
    apples and oranges. 

  • Drivereturn

    Relating to the question earlier about how learning online affect learning workplace teamwork:  I’ve noticed a few people I know who are engineers actually do quite a bit of work remotely, online, from their work-assigned laptops, from home or when they are abroad on business.  Learning through online courses might actually help people adapt to working remotely in professional settings.

  • alex rodricks

    Two more things:
    1. online classes eliminate the issue of scheduling/overlap, therefore opening up choices for what one is really interested in of the best ways to learn is to teach, and people in such a project will come from different backgrounds and different levels, therefore making the learning environment incredibly diverse. Many times, I get very valuable explanations to my questions from other students

  • spartanblogger

    It appears that the debate surrounding the so-called disruptive innovation in online education is constrained by functional fixedness. True innovation in online education may recreate a brick-and-mortar education using technologies like the equivalent of Siri and virtual reality.

    Imagine wearing a pair of glasses to be seated in a virtual classroom, with an instructor-avatar with Siri-like capabilities answering your questions in real-time. You could interact with other students in the class (who also are in fact wearing virtual reality glasses).

    Such a scenario would approximate true disruptive innovation in higher education.

  • shroomduke

    Online Education is a great tool but God help us all if it replaces Americas Education Infrastructure! It’s not a panacea or the way to solve the problem of defunding education by corporate sycophants in congress who want to hand ALL our infrastructure and assets over to the Arrogant, Irresponsible, Greedy Wall Street Crooks and Corporate Marauders!

    I am always supprised at how easily so many people are taken in by the same old scams! Privatization is a scam and it’s the End Game to defunding Education!

    America needs to innovate and invest much more in traditional Public Eucation INSTEAD of defunding and privatizing it, We see what wall street did to the Economy, we can’t let them get their filthy hands on our Educational Infrastructure!

    It’s tragic that the rest of the world values education more than we do these days!

  • Liza

    This was a fantastic program; thank you!  My education and training for my first career was entirely pre-Internet (and largely pre-personal computing).  I spent 7 years as a full-time undergrad and graduate student, and in order to begin working I had to abandon my university program just before completing my master’s thesis (the culminating requirement for the master’s degree).  This was largely because my work took me away from my university community and the professors on my thesis committee.  I worked successfully in my professional field for over 20 years, but it always bothered me that I didn’t get that M.A. after my name.

    The inflexibility of my traditional university program made it impossible for me to adjust to changes in my family and work life and realize my educational goal.  Had the Internet been available I am certain the outcome would have been different.   

    I am enjoying a second career for which most of my education was (and is) Internet-based.  My initial and continuing education takes the form of live webinars (with lots of active “chat” and open audio discussions); self-paced instructive programs with frequent quizzes and instant feedback on one’s progress; in-person conferences with numerous breakout learning sessions; direct mentoring via email and telephone appointments; and   a very busy online “community” advising, supporting, and networking with others in my field with a great variety in background, specialization and years of experience.  I earned accreditation from several certifying entities that are universally recognized in my field.  Certification exams are held under well-controlled circumstances and I think it would be very difficult to try to cheat in any of these programs.

    I now have three adult children.  Two of them have attended some community college but had to choose between making a living and continuing their traditional classroom education.  I’m now seeing them take advantage of online education options which can accommodate their lives rather than requiring an “all or nothing” choice like the one I faced.

    One of your guests offered the analogy of cinema versus traditional live theater, in looking at web-based education vs. traditional classrooms and campuses.  I see this “disruptive innovation” in the same way.  The film and television industry has created audiences in virtually every place on earth, but live theater still thrives.  The innovations discussed today, creating ways to reach students everywhere with world-class education are nothing short of heroic.  It was thrilling to hear your guests share their ideas.  Thanks to all.

  • guest

    Where can I get the transcript for this interviews?

  • Rex Elfo

    This on-line university idea reminds me of the University of Phoenix: “It is a para-university, which has the operational core of higher education, without a campus life, or even an intellectual life; there are no tenured professors…”
    Read more

  • Michelle

    very interesting

  • SKR

    Great panel of guests. I have been very interested in the online education content offered by Stanford and MIT recently and these courses truly help people like me who are not interested in credentials but want to learn these subjects for the sake of learning. These courses have wealth of information from the best of the best in the world

  • Anthony Stevens
  • Ewollin

    When I was visiting colleges with my daughter a couple of years ago, I was appalled at the lack of diversity in the student population. We are perpetuating the racial and economic inequalities with our education model where even at public universities the tuition results in a student body from  the elite . Every university has on line curriculum. What is needed is a nationally accredited on  line university with nationally accredited certification exams. As far as personal interaction with professors, that is rare. The current education model of  ruinously expensive in person education, is going the way of the dinosaur. Many schools have ‘mandatory’ curriculum of fluffy and irrelevant courses. Anyone who has the motivation and drive to acquire education skills should be able to do so relatively inexpensively and demonstrate proficiency on national qualifications tests like the CPA exam. 

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