Picture: Shai Reshef, President of The University of the People (Image courtesy of UoPeople).
Is low-cost, high-quality education no more than a distant dream? Does quality education have to stay out of reach for the majority of globalized learners? A courageous and innovative online university doesn’t think so.
The University of the People (UoPeople) is the brainchild of Shai Reshef, an eLearning entrepreneur who founded UoPeople in 2009. The online university is based in Pasadena, California and is fully accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) in Washington DC. University of the People is the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online university. Associate’s degree programs as well as Bachelor and Master’s programs at UoP eople currently cover the fields of Business Administration, Computer Science and Health Science. A brief summary of the university’s milestones can be found here.
In order for students to enroll, applicants must be over 18 years of age, have a high school diploma, be proficient in English and have appropriate academic qualifications, along with access to an Internet connection.
Academically, UoPeople is collaborating with prestigious partners such as the Yale Law School Information Society Project (Yale ISP), New York University and University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) who started to accept qualified graduates from UoPeople into their undergraduate programs.
Online classrooms at UoPeople are limited to 20-30 students to allow for individualized tutoring which distinguishes UoPeople from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). Although there are no tuition fees, UoPeople is not entirely free. A basic fee of 100 US$ per exam is required, which amounts to approximately US$ 4000 for a four-years Bachelor degree. For many students from developing countries and students from disadvantaged socio-economic background UoPeople is, more than often, the alternative to no alternative, as Shai Reshef recently put it, while retention rates are at 95% (as compared to 5% for MOOCs). For the academic year of 2017, more than 6000 students from 180 countries have enrolled. For its online delivery, UoPeople is using the Open Source eLearning platform Moodle and the social network Microsoft Yammer.
In order to obtain a clearer picture of this remarkable institution, I conducted an email interview with Sarah Vanunu, Director of Public Relations at UoPeople who was kind to share insights into the operations, challenges and future ambitions of the university.
Which are currently the biggest operational challenges for UoPeople and how do you address them?
One definite challenge is getting the word out to our target audience of students. Although the university has had publicity in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times and BBC and through TED Talks, many potential students are not consumers of this kind of media. People who stand to benefit from tuition-free education need to know about UoPeople, and yet the people who may need UoPeople the most may have a hard time finding out about it. As an independent nonprofit institution that intends to remain tuition-free, UoPeople must operate on a very lean budget. Thus, without a wealth of funds for marketing, the university is largely dependent on word-of-mouth and media coverage. Though its mission is to ensure that no one is left behind for financial reasons, it needs help both making sure that students can find the institution in the first place and being able to assist them with financial aid, if necessary, once they do. An ongoing challenge, then, is making sure UoPeople is visible and accessible, when people who need it are researching their options and, when they find it, ensuring that there are scholarships to support them if they attend.
Since you seem to depend largely on volunteers, how do you train your online tutors?
So another challenge, as just noted, is managing and using efficiently an army of volunteers. The university’s volunteers come from all ranks of universities and offer their services and expertise to help our students, functioning as instructors and carrying out the day-to-day teaching activity. Those who teach do receive a token honorarium, which is a way for the institution to show respect for their work and to assure their commitment. Many of these volunteers interact with and help students directly, and we are still learning how to most efficiently make use of the incredible resources they provide. While the university relies heavily on volunteers, and numerous volunteers are involved in every aspect of its activities, at the same time it is important to note that the university is not wholly dependent on them. In the short time the university has been in existence, a main lesson learned has been that volunteers are useful, and very helpful in the day-to-day activities of the university, and yet a system has to be in place so that for the various categories of volunteers there are paid backups to ensure its structural stability and continuity.
Almost all of our instructors come to us with previous online experience in the very field that they teach for us. Saying that, when they are selected, we have a training program to prepare them for our unique online teaching pedagogy and platform. We also ensure commitments from our instructors so that they cannot back out in the middle of a course. The expected work for instructors is 10-15 hours/week per course.
Our online course instructors are selected to teach the courses in sections kept purposely small to create intimate learning communities and to support the peer learning and assessment approach that is an important component of the institution’s instructional model. Course Instructors are selected for their knowledge of the specific content area. Course Instructors also contribute to ongoing enhancement of courses by expanding content and flagging errors for correction.
With New York University, Yale Law School ISP and UC Berkeley, the UoPeople has an impressive list of academic partners. How does the input of partners translate into curricula and delivery models?
The partnership with each university is separate: With Yale Law School ISP it is a research partnership; NYU allows high performing students who have completed at least one year of studies at UoPeople, and who meet the standards of admission, to be eligible to apply for admission to NYU, with a generous scholarship; UC Berkeley accepts highly qualified, top-performing UoPeople Associate’s degree graduates for transfer admission to complete a Bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley.
If you take UC Berkeley for example, the partnership agreement followed a very thorough research of assessment of the quality of UoPeople’s programs and only after Berkeley was convinced that our academic quality is high enough to partner with it. UoPeople’s mission is closely aligned with the mission of Berkeley, to open the gates to a quality higher education to every deserving student. We are thrilled to have these academic collaborations as this kind of recognition is the ultimate endorsement of the value of UoPeople degrees and opens new doors of opportunity for our students.
In addition, all the people that are involved with the academic leadership of University of the People, be it setting up the curriculum, writing the courses and teaching, are coming from other universities, many of them such as those described above. They bring the knowledge of these institutions to UoPeople.
Our Presidents Council, for example, chaired by New York University President Emeritus John Sexton, includes Oxford Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Sir Colin Lucas, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, and Nobel Laureate and President Emeritus of The Rockefeller University, Dr. Torsten N. Wiesel, among others.
How does UoPeople maintain high academic standards?
UoPeople is recognized by the DEAC as an accredited online University, and adheres to all DEAC Standards and Code of Ethics. Accreditation status confirms that an institution has voluntarily undergone a comprehensive self-study and peer examination that demonstrates the institution meets standards of accreditation. To receive accreditation, the institution must clearly demonstrate that it has established educational goals; offers formal, organized learning experiences and services that enable students to meet these stated goals; and that students and graduates have benefited from the learning experiences provided. Furthermore, accreditation assures that an institution operates on a sound financial basis, has approved programs of study, qualified instructors, ethical recruitment and admission policies, engages in continual improvement through self-evaluation and planning, and promotes its programs truthfully.
Our Deans are coming from some of the best universities (NYU and Princeton), and our Advisory Boards as well. These are the people who decide on our curriculum and supervise the overall quality of our university.
Picture: Syrian refugees in Turkey studying with UoPeople
Would UoPeople be interested to cooperate globally with government agencies in education? If yes, how and on which levels?
UoPeople is creating a model for other universities, countries and governments to emulate. Right now, governments of developing countries are spending the few millions they have to build brick-and-mortar universities – their own Harvard – however, after a few years, they still cannot meet the demand and they haven’t built Harvard because you cannot build Harvard in a few years. We are showing the way for how online learning can really revolutionize university education, particularly the economics of higher education. Governments can educate every qualified student online, tuition-free. What a great leap this would be for not only the individuals, but for their families, their communities, their countries, and for the world at large. UoPeople would love to collaborate with any government that is interested in adopting this model of higher education to close the gap between availability and access… and we are willing to show them how.