An Israeli entrepreneur with decades of experience in international education plans to start the first global, tuition-free Internet university, a nonprofit venture he has named the University of the People.
“The idea is to take social networking and apply it to academia,” said entrepreneur Shai Reshef, founder of several Internet-based educational businesses.
“The open-source courseware is there, from universities that have put their courses online, available to the public, free,” Reshef said. “We know that online peer-to-peer teaching works. Putting it all together, we can make a free university for students all over the world, anyone who speaks English and has an Internet connection.”
About 4 million students in the US took at least one online course in 2007, according to a survey by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group devoted to integrating online learning into mainstream higher education.
Online learning is growing in many different contexts. Through the Open Courseware Consortium, started in 2001 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), universities around the world have posted materials for thousands of courses — as varied as Lambing and Sheep Management at Utah State and Relativistic Quantum Field Theory at MIT — all free to the public. Many universities now post their lectures on iTunes.
For-profit universities like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University have extensive online offerings. And increasingly, both public and private universities offer at least some classes online.
Outside the US, too, online learning is booming. Open University in Britain, for example, enrolls about 160,000 undergraduates in distance-learning courses.
The University of the People, like other Internet-based universities, would have online study communities, weekly discussion topics, homework assignments and exams. But in lieu of tuition, students would pay only nominal fees for enrollment (US$15 to US$50) and exams (US$10 to US$100), with students from poorer countries paying the lower fees and those from richer countries paying the higher ones.
Experts in online education say the idea raises many questions.
“We’ve chatted about doing something like this over the last decade but decided the time wasn’t yet right,” said John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium. “It’s true that the open courseware movement is pretty robust, so there are a lot of high-quality course materials out there, but there’s no human backup behind them. I’d be interested to know how you’d find and train faculty and ensure quality without tuition money.”
Other educators question the logistics of such a plan.
“The more you get people around the world talking to each other, great, and the more they talk about what they’re learning, just wonderful,” said Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “But I’m not at all sure, when you start attaching that to credits and degrees and courses, that it translates so well.”
“How will they test students? How much will the professors do? How well does the American or British curriculum serve the needs of people in Mali? How do they handle students whose English is not at college level?” Altbach said.
Reshef said his new university would use active and retired professors —- some paid, some volunteers — along with librarians, master-level students and professionals to develop and evaluate curriculums and oversee assessments.