Can E-Learning Be Elite? One Startup Thinks So

Can E-Learning Be Elite?E-learning is, no doubt, moving closer to the education word's mainstream. Cash-strapped public universities are moving more and more classes online, and many private schools offer entire degree and certificate programs over the Web. Late last year the state of Idaho became the first in the nation to require high school students to take at least some courses online.

And while most educators have acknowledged the inexorable march toward e-learning and blended education as a sensible solution to a huge (and ever-growing) problem of constant budget cuts and classroom overcrowding — not to mention its possibilities for "flattening" the educational world, allowing far-flung or under-served people to have access to once-unavailable courses and professors. But the fact of the matter is that despite the growing acceptance of many e-learning programs, online degrees have tended to be viewed with skepticism.

We'll refrain from judging the merits of a degree from, say, the University of Phoenix (just to name the biggest of the for-profit online schools). But even the most die-hard backer of online schooling would admit that it lacks the name-cache of a Harvard, Stanford, or even most state schools.

That's what makes the news about a new start-up school of sorts, The Minerva Project, which is backed by Silicon Valley VC money and former Harvard president Larry Summers, so interesting. Minerva, to hear founder Ben Nelson tell it, promises to be the country's first "elite" online institution. (Get it? e-lite?).

The project's idea is compelling: Overcrowding, both from U.S.-born students, but increasingly from competition from overseas (China, Brazil, India) has made getting into a premier college more difficult than ever. Moving classes online — while recruiting top-tier professors to lead these courses — could be an attractive option for many.

Per the Atlantic Monthly's story on Minerva:

"The idea is to scoop up those students who are being shut out, whether it's a smart American kid who has to opt for a solid state school when they had their heart set on Brown, or the child of a well-to-do family in Beijing, by offering them a great education and a worldwide network of contacts. Minerva will admit applicants based on their academic chops alone -- jocks need not apply -- and students would live in urban dorms scattered across the globe's great cities. They'll take online courses designed by highly esteemed professors from other established institutions. Meanwhile, tuition would cost "less than half" the price of the standard Ivy league sticker price (so somewhere around $20,000 or below)."

The school is supposed to start offering courses in 2014, so at this point, there are still a lot more questions than answers about exactly how such a program would operate. But the notion that someone's taking a stab at breaking down e-learning's biggest obstacle — credibility — is surely a big development with keeping an eye on.

More: How E-Learning Might Be Improving Nationwide Graduation Rates.

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