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.
Dan Narita, 30, who is among the first intake of computer science students, says he was attracted both by the flexibility of the course, which allows him to continue his work in London as an architect while studying, and by its newness.
“I like the fact that it’s an innovative model,” he said.
Social networking is a crucial part of the way the university works. Each week, groups of 20 students enter an online “classroom,” similar to a discussion forum, in which they find the transcript of a lecture, with associated references and reading material.
They also find an assignment, and a discussion question, which forms the core of their study. Each student is expected to contribute original ideas to the week’s discussion and to comment at least four times in the week on the ideas of fellow students.
If students have a question that cannot be answered within the classroom, they can enter a social networking forum made up of all the university’s students as well as volunteer educators. There they can post a question, broach a topic not covered in the classroom discussion or even access one-to-one time with a professor.
Scott says the amount of support students get from the online community is likely to prove crucial, as is the quality of the assessment.
“You cannot assess everything with multiple choice questions, and at the end of a quality experience is a reasonably skilled academic,” he said.
Peter Bradwell, whose report for the think tank Demos, The Edgeless University, published earlier this year, argued that universities could be transformed by new technology, agrees that while the UoPeople is exciting, its success will depend largely on the quality of the academics behind it.
Reshef concedes there are still aspects of the university to be finessed — not least how to raise the relatively small sums needed to run it. While he has put up US$1 million in his own cash, he is still looking for a further US$5 million.
Nor will the university be entirely free, with students charged registration fees of between US$15 and US$50 depending on their country of residence and between US$10 and US$100 per exam.
But the important thing, he says, is that his university offers many students their only hope of higher education.
“The majority have no other alternative,” he said.
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