Democratizing Higher Education

Imagine if higher education was instantly attainable to anyone, anywhere in the world, and economics and societal constraints were no longer a barrier.

That future is already here, thanks to the University of the People, which is being billed as the world’s first tuition-fee, non-profit online academic institution. “The idea is to open the gates of higher education to everyone,” says UoPeople founder and president Shai Reshef, a speaker at DLDwomen, a July 11-12 conference in Munich.

UoPeople uses open-source technology and open education resources based on the Creative Commons license to provide peer-to-peer learning, helping pioneer the intersection of education and technology. Approximately 2,900 college professors – including some from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oxford and Yale – are already signed up as volunteers to teach the 1,500 qualified high school graduates who have enrolled to date from 132 countries, says Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur.

The potential is much bigger and could be game-changing. There is literally no room at traditional universities for the estimated 98 million students expected to seek a higher education by 2025, says Reshef. “If the growth of the world’s population continues as it is now there will not be enough seats for students so no university should feel we are a threat,” he says. “We are here to serve exactly that population.”

UoPeople can use the Internet culture of Facebook and social networking to reach an unlimited number of students across the globe. In June UoPeople announced that it has garnered more than one million supporters on Facebook. Facebook, is in fact, an integral part of the daily activity of UoPeople – as it is on campuses everywhere. Students network with each other on student-created University of People groups. No surprise there. The difference is that at U of People everything is done online, including admissions, course taking, exams, and graduation, and tuition is free.

To accomodate students in developing countries and disaster zones, UoPeople strives to use the simplest technology available. Some 20% of students access the site through dial-up connections so coursework is set up to accommodate those that can not access audio or video. Students taking a class are placed together in a virtual classroom with 20 or 30 others. That’s where they see what they are supposed to do every week: what to read and what homework they have. They meet in an online forum, where the peer-to-peer learning takes place. Each student has to pose an original question each week and respond to other student comments. The instructor intervenes when someone asks a question no one can answer or if someone says something that is wrong. At the end of each week, the students hand in assignments and take a quiz. After 10 weeks, they are given a final exam, get a grade for the course and move to the next.

There is no charge for the online courses, which are in English only. There is a small enrollment fee, which ranges from $10 to $50 depending on the GDP of a student’s country of residence, and a $100 exam fee. Anyone who can not afford those rates is encouraged to apply online for a micro-scholarship, to ensure that no one is excluded for financial reasons, says Reshef. A button on the site allows anyone to donate money to help fund financially-strapped students. A scholarship pool of $250,000 has been raised to date; the goal is $500,000.

UoPeople offers Associates and Bachelors degree programs in business administration and computer science. Students who complete one year of studies at UoPeople and do well are offered free admission to New York University’s bricks and mortar Abu Dhabi campus, under a deal struck between the universities, Reshef says.

In addition to its deal with New York University, UoPeople has partnered with Yale University for research. It recently established a UoPeople Presidents Council comprising university presidents from top-tier universities such as Oxford Vice Chancellor Emeritus Sir Colin Lucas; New York University President John Sexton; Academy of Paris Rector Emeritus Michele Gendreau-Massaloux; Professor Devang Khakhar, Director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay; and George Washington University President Emeritus Steve Trachtenberg.

UoPeople’s affiliation with the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID) and the Clinton Global Initiative also give it credibility. That said, although University of the People is in the process of applying for accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, it warns students that it can not give assurances as to when, or if, accreditation might be granted.

Thus far UoPeople has been funded by its founder and through grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation, the Passport Foundation and Intel Foundation. It is currently seeking $6 million in order to become self-sustainable.

UoPeople launched a Women’s Scholarship Fund at DLDwomen and Hewlett-Packard announced that it will donate $200,000 to sponsor 100 women to attain their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees through the online university. Educating women is crucial since women with more education will invest 90% of their future income in the family, compared to 35% for an educated male, says Reshef. “Imagine the impact that educating the majority of women across the globe will have on their families, communicates, countries and ultimately, the world,”  he says, adding that UofPeople is seeking other corporate sponsors for the initiative.

Before launching UoPeople, Reshef, who has spent his entire career in education, ran the first on-line for-profit university outside the U.S. “I realized that it was wishful thinking for most people because it was too expensive,” he says. So, he sold his business and went into semi-retirement. A desire to give back and do something that matters led him to launch UoPeople in 2009. “If you educate one person you change a life,” says Reshef. “If you educate many you can change the world.”

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