University of the People Origins
With more than 20 years of experience in the international education market, Shai Reshef is no stranger to the impact technology has on academia and the challenges students face in every corner of the world. Just over one year ago, he decided to combine his knowledge of e-learning and social networking with his desire to make education accessible to people in the most remote places in the world.
Reshef founded University of the People, a tuition-free online university that provides college-quality academic programs at a low cost. University of the People (UoPeople) exists entirely online, which means that anyone can attend providing they have access to a computer and an Internet connection.
Reshef's venture received immediate support from the United Nations and high profile institutions like Yale Law School. Nevertheless, there were quite a few skeptics that couldn't help but wonder how the university would be able to provide effective education programs without charging tuition.
University of the People Learning Model
To keep costs low over the last year, the University of the People has relied on OpenCourseWare materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other existing colleges and universities. UoPeople also employs a peer-to-peer teaching methodology that encourages students to participate in forum discussions about the OpenCourseWare materials. This is meant to stimulate and inspire students to learn from one another.
OpenCourseWare materials are assembled into courses by UoPeople instructors. Instructors also monitor forum discussions and interject their own comments to enhance the learning experience. And when students get stuck or don't understand something, instructors are always available to answer questions via email and instant messaging.
UoPeople's peer-to-peer learning method has received both praise and criticism. While some people believe that students learn more the UofPeople way, others consider the autonomous method to be inferior to the more disciplined programs found at many other colleges and universities.
The proof of who is right and who is wrong may lie in students' test scores. UoPeople administers an exam written by university instructors at the end of each course. Thus far, UoPeople's 300+ students have done relatively well, with pass rates between 74 and 86 percent on the university's two orientation-level courses.
University of the People Programs
UoPeople currently offers four programs in two areas of study: business administration and computer science. Students can choose from a two- or four-year sequence in business administration or a two- or four-year sequence in computer science. The two-year sequence is comparable to an associate degree program and the four-year sequence is comparable to a bachelor degree program.
Courses take place over a 10-week term. Each course contains between 15 and 20 students and commences with an online examination administered by the course instructor.
University of the People Fees and Admissions
UofPeople initially intended to charge an application fee of $10 to $50 and a final examination fee of $10 to $100 per exam, but made the decision to waive all fees for current students. This policy may change in the future, according to the university's website. If it does, UoPeople will remain tuition-free but charge fees for application and exams based on the student's place of residence.
To be considered for admission, students must complete an online application and answer several essay questions that ask about personal experiences, education goals, etc. Applications are reviewed by the university's staff and admissions committee. Admission decisions are based on the availability of space in the desired program and the applicant's ability to successfully complete courses.
In the last year, UoPeople has received more than 3,000 applications and admitted nearly 400 students. Applications are currently being accepted for the university's fifth term, which will begin on June 24, 2010. The application deadline for this term is April 22, 2010.
The Problem with University of the People
If the criticisms of the UoPeople learning model are pushed aside, there are still two main problems that remain. First, UoPeople is not authorized to award degrees. Second, the university is not accredited.
UoPeople is actively working to resolve both issues, but there is no guarantee that their efforts will be fruitful. Gaining authorization to award degrees can be a tricky process. Online schools are often required to get approval from every state in which they wish to educate students, and because UoPeople is a global university, there are also additional obstacles that must be navigated to award degrees in foreign countries.
Accreditation is another matter entirely. Although UoPeople does not technically need accreditation to award degrees, they hope to get it so that their degrees will be respected among employers. Earning a degree from an accredited institution also makes it easier for students to obtain financial aid and transfer credits to other institutions of higher education.
On their website, the UoPeople warns that while they are working toward accreditation, students should recognize the possibility that an accredited degree may not be available upon graduation. For students who are hoping to learn simply for the sake of learning and for those who have no other higher education options available to them, a free and accessible education program may be the ultimate prize. But for those who need a degree or transferable credits, UoPeople may not be the best fit for their goals.