Minerva Active Learning Forum

Education reinvented for the 21st century

The Minerva Active Learning Forum is a real-time learning environment that gives Minerva students freedom to travel the world while taking classes. (You can learn more from our book Building the Intentional University.) As a tiny team in 2012, we designed and built a seminar environment that was seamless and closely tied to Minerva’s Active Learning philosophy.

When I joined Minerva, the product team was 3 people, and there was no production software. I had the privilege of architecting and co-creating the Active Learning Forum from the beginning—including the live seminar classroom and the courses system.

The primary goals were to create a robust learning platform, backedy by cognitive science and modern pedagogy, that could easily adapt to student and faculty needs as Minerva evolved.

By 2013, we supported features like:

  • In-app chat, hand raises, and quick yes/no reactions
  • Deep Google Docs integration
  • Breakout rooms for small group discussion and collaboration
  • Live polling and ability to shape the remainder of a session based on poll results

Active Learning Forum: How we got there

To establish a vision for the product—which didn’t yet exist—we used Design Sprints (from Google Ventures) to develop our vision and roadmap for the product. After just a few of these, we had a plan that could be measured in years, not months. And we needed to make the vision a reality.

The architecture’s primary goals were:

  • Use a modular architecture with flexible interfaces to let the system’s components evolve
  • Balance flexibility with development speed to hit short-term milestones while driving toward Minerva’s expansive vision
  • Create a seamless interface and scalable real-time interactions using the best of browser technology

Some technologies we used included:

  • Modern Javascript (starting with Backbone Marionette in 2012, and then React later on)
  • Websockets for real-time communication
  • Redis for pub/sub functionality and caching
  • Clojure for real-time parallel data processing, later replaced by Django and Django REST Framework due to ecosystem & popularity
  • Postgres
  • A hosted video provider
  • Lots of complex networking for making video work in heterogenous environments

After launching the initial product, the team grew into a mature product team and has developed Minerva technology into the robust and delightful learning system that it is today.

Company milestones

Being Founding Engineer was satisfying because I got to wear lots of hats. Outside of product team work, I got to play a part in milestones led by other departments:

  • Brand & voice creation
  • Recruiting brilliant students from all over the world to Minerva through Ascent Weekend
  • Accreditation

These broad experiences were formative and exciting. They eventually pushed me to officiall make the switch to Product Management.