Wed, Oct 07, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Volunteer educators drive new online university

The nonprofit International University of the People aims to democratize education using open-source technology and free material

By Harriet Swain  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It has no campus, no lecture theaters and hardly any paid staff, but the International University of the People (UoPeople), which opened last month, does have one big plus point — no tuition.

This, and the fact that its courses are taught entirely online and are designed to make it accessible to people who, because of poverty, geography or personal restrictions, would never contemplate university study.

“Hundreds of millions of people deserve to get education and don’t,” says UoPeople’s founder, Shai Reshef, a California businessman. “We are showing a way that this mass of people can be educated in a very efficient and inexpensive way.”

The university’s ambition to democratize education, combined with its not-for-profit ethos, has brought it support from humanitarian organizations, including the UN’s Global Alliance for Information and Communication ­Technologies and Development. But its teaching model, which uses open-source technology, the increasing availability of free educational material available online, social networking and more than 800 volunteer educators, has also attracted attention because of broader implications for the way higher education will be delivered in future.

“The concept is great, and one we’ll see more and more,” says Peter Scott, director of the Knowledge Media Institute at Britain’s Open University, which itself gives free access to course materials through the OpenLearn Web site.

He says so much high-­quality material now exists on the Web that traditional university models can no longer be seen as the only arbiters of quality.

Maintaining quality will nevertheless be an important challenge for the UoPeople, which does not yet have accreditation, and which relies on academic volunteers to answer questions, monitor discussions, mentor students and develop curriculums.

Reshef says his experience as chair of the board at Cramster.com, a Web site on which students, academics and subject enthusiasts answer each other’s questions, showed him how willing people were to help one another online, and how powerful that could be. But even he was surprised that so many volunteers came forward to help his UoPeople project. They include retired professors, graduate students and specialists in computing. The university also has an advisory committee made up mainly of academics.

Daniel Greenwood, professor of law at the Hofstra University school of law, New York, has volunteered a day a week, as well as to serve on the advisory committee. He wanted to help make education more widely available and liked the idea of being in on something new and potentially huge.

This is about “the notion that you can create something that can be expanded to serve tens of thousands of students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access education,” he said.

Another committee member is Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, and founder of Yale’s Information Society Project, which has just entered into a research partnership with UoPeople to explore ways of improving access to knowledge.

The university is still in the experimental stage and relatively small. It was launched last month, with 178 students from nearly 50 countries, and provides just two undergraduate programs — business administration and computer science, each expected to take four years to complete. Applicants need to have a high school diploma, be proficient in English and to have Internet access, as well as passing orientation courses in computer skills and English composition.

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