The Minerva Project, a San Francisco venture with lofty but untested plans to redefine higher education, said on Monday that starting next year it would award an annual $500,000 prize to a faculty member at any institution in the world who has demonstrated extraordinary, innovative teaching.
"We hope the Minerva Prize will be the Nobel Prize of teaching," said Ben Nelson, Minerva's founder. "Universities want to reward teaching, but the industry gives no incentive, or negative incentives, for focusing on teaching. Every honor is all about the creation of knowledge."
The award will be administered by the Minerva Academy, a new nonprofit organization to be led by Roger D. Kornberg of the Stanford University School of Medicine, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He said he had taken on the task to counter what he saw as declining public respect for professors.
The Minerva Project's plans go far beyond the prize: Mr. Nelson also hopes to create a top-tier for-profit research university, where classes would be online seminars but students would live together. Although the effort is a long way from taking shape, his ideas provide interesting glimpses of how technology may drive changes in higher education.
"It's interesting because they're putting a stake out there for us all to evaluate -- if they're able to pull it off," said Kevin Guthrie, the president of Ithaka, a nonprofit group that conducts research on the use of digital technologies in higher education. "It's a valuable test, trying to reimagine or rebundle educational services in a post-digital world."
The Minerva Project began to attract attention last year when it received $25 million in seed money from Benchmark Capital and announced that Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of Harvard and Treasury secretary, would be the chairman of the advisory board. Last month, Minerva scored another coup, recruiting Stephen M. Kosslyn, the director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, as the founding dean of its university. Dr. Kosslyn has also served as the dean of social sciences at Harvard.
Mr. Nelson, formerly the president of Snapfish, a Web-based photo-sharing service, hopes to begin offering classes in 2015 with students and faculty members on a par with those at Ivy League institutions, at half the tuition. The university would have no lecture classes, only online discussion-intensive seminars, using live streaming to connect up to 25 students with a professor who could be anywhere in the world. The students would live together, starting in San Francisco the first year and then moving in cohorts to other cities around the world.
"We hope to start with 200 to 300 students," Mr. Nelson said. "They will have the same qualifications, grades, extracurricular activities that Ivy League universities look for, and an intellectual hunger and thirst. And they will come and sit for an interview."
Mr. Nelson said the university would not take any federal student aid. American applicants would have no edge in admissions and would most likely make up a minority of students.
The university would use extensive learning analytics. "Every student will be evaluated each day in each of the cornerstone courses," Mr. Nelson said. "Professors will have a heat map of how the student is progressing. They could see whether the student has not participated on this type of question recently, and get suggestions of which students should be called on for a particular question, or what would be the natural breakout groups in this class. And then, of course, the professor can do whatever he wants."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.