Is Apple the new Oxbridge?

4th April 2012

Sarah Mitroff of Venture Beat reported yesterday that The Minerva Project, the self-described "first elite American university to be launched in a century," has raised $25 million in seed funding from Benchmark Capital to fund the Project's goal of making "high quality knowledge available to all," regardless of students' social status, athletic ability or geographic location. This seed round is the largest investment the venture capital firm has ever made, confirming their confidence in the San Francisco-based company's ability to promote a new form of e-education that they insist will rival the Ivies in quality while ensuring that the typical ulterior motives for student acceptance-endowment through familial wealth or athletic ability-are eschewed in favour of a genuine belief that each student can succeed.

The investment raises questions regarding the nature of knowledge as a right to which all are entitled, particularly as student debt around the world has soared to unprecedented levels. With classes scheduled to begin in the fall of 2014 and based entirely via the Internet, the Project aims to allow students from around the world to participate, while also, according to their website, committing "substantial resources not only to career services for current students, but to supporting its alumni throughout their careers with academic programs, personal publicity, and active participation in career management" (  As they use Benchmark's investment to get off the ground, the Project has a UK success story to strive to emulate.

The same day as Benchmark's investment in Minerva was announced, Jim Dalrymple reported that Open University, the Royal Charter-funded distance learning and research university, reached 50 million downloads of its content via iTunes U as a university partner with Apple . The app, launched in January, has benefitted from OU's reputation for excellence throughout the UK and beyond-OU is the first school in Europe to reach one million active subscriptions through iTunes U, receiving more than 40,000 new downloads each day.

Both achievements raise questions regarding the future of free knowledge as established through Internet connectivity. As many of the globe's financial markets struggle to come back from the recession, students have suffered at an intense rate. The U.S. student loan debt stands above $1 trillion, surpassing credit card and auto-loan debt. With the maximum tuition fee loan in England scheduled to rise to £9,000 this September, U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum's remarks that President Obama's desire for "everybody to go to college" renders him a "snob" paves the way for a new debate on whether Internet-based learning can bridge the affordability gap in higher education.

"The demand for higher education has outstripped the supply," Minerva Project chief executive Ben Nelson told VentureBeat during an interview in which he also stated the Project will offer only "the most rigorous, analytical courses that synthesize such knowledge to prepare students to thrive in the real world." "If you can identify the smartest kids in the whole world and reward them with great education," Nelson explained, "you can meet market demand and do good in the world." He also stressed that students will never have to pay for intro courses at Minverva that they could utilize elsewhere online for free. At $20,000 a year, tuition at Minerva is substantially lower than Ivy rivals such as Harvard and Yale, both of which charge about $38,000 per year.

The ability to "study on the move" is one that Apple took advantage of years ago. Since its launch in 2007, the iTunes U online service sees 300 million downloads per year, making 350,000 lectures offered by more than 1,000 international universities available for free to anyone with an iPod. Like its sister iTunes store, iTunes U has a top 10 chart-and OU is regularly at the top.

Last October, the BBC reported that 90% of OU's downloads come from outside the UK , largely driven by the increase in international use of smartphones and tablet devices which make it easier to access lectures on the go. But its success doesn't end with international competitors. As of the article's publication, Oxford had reached 10 million downloads, running at about 130,000 per week. With a reported 40 million downloads at the same time period, OU was the clear leader-and its inclusive nature as an institution, coupled with its utilization of the recognizable Apple brand, has made it a gold standard of accessible education.

Established in 1969, OU boasts the goals of achieving the status of being the biggest university in the UK, educating approximately 9,000 students elsewhere in Europe, around 7,5000 outside the EU, and around 46,000 total in OU-validated programmes. They are also the largest provider of higher education for people with disabilities, and students are not limited by age, income, or even academic record-OU famously touts its open admissions policy, allowing up to 44% of their UK student population to begin undergraduate study "without the entry qualifications they would need at a conventional university". Given the 1 million active subscribers to the iTunes U app for iPad in less than three months, 52 courses that have generated more than 50 million global downloads, and the OU course, Moons: an Introduction , the most popular course on iTunes U in the UK as of 3 April, their success-much like their student body-is continuously growing.

As plans for the Minerva Project move forward, the concept of investing in online education has potential to expand, raising critical questions about the future of education and its accessibility to the masses. The potential to educate a broader range of students than ever before is technically available, but hard questions-such as the implications of privilege inherent in owning smart phones and iPads-still need to be asked. If the goal of e-education is to educate the masses, then defining who constitutes the masses, as well as their accessibility to iTunes and the Internet, is a must. But if the success of iTunes U, OU, and Benchmark Capital's recent investment are anything to go by, its future looks bright.


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