Inside the Education Revolution: An Exclusive Interview with University of the People (UoPeople), the World’s First Non-profit, Tuition-free, Accredited Online University


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.

The Advent of Online Education (Part I)

The following entry has been inspired by my participation in ‘Effective Online Tutoring’ with Oxford University. Part I explores broadly the current trends in online education and its pedagogical implications. A PDF-version of this post is available at  The Advent of Online Education – Part 1

1. Flipped Classrooms and Blended Learning: The Pragmatist’ Approach to Empower Learners

2. Graduate, Postgraduate & Professional Online Courses: Tutor-based  Environments for Elites

3. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Educating the World?

Digital Natives

Image (Getty Images): As numbers of ‘digital natives’ increase, do education systems catch up?

Introduction: The Digital Revolution and the Promise of Student-centered Education

In online education the facilitator or tutor has to define not only the scope of what should be learned, but also has to set the conditions under which learning is facilitated. This explicit definition of presented teaching materials, intended learning outcomes and course delivery is arguably the biggest conceptual difference as compared to traditional face-to-face learning. Online environments put the traditional employment of lectures, books, grades and exams under scrutiny. Epistemologically the ‘sage on the stage’ is no more the center of knowledge-creation and dissemination in a globalized world – to students with diminishing appeal. Online delivery entails the option of choosing between synchronous and asynchronous student-classroom interaction, enabling them to learn at individual pace and style. But does online education necessarily entail a more student-centered learning experience? Which conditions need to be fulfilled for e-learning to improve the quality of education? We shall have a look at some most prominent emerging models.

1. Flipped Classrooms and Blended Learning: The Pragmatist’ Approach to Empower Learners

In a nutshell, in a flipped (or inverted) classroom traditional class-work is done at home and homework is done in class with the help of networked media technology (Mangan, 2013). The rationale behind the flipped classroom is that valuable face-to-face time should be maximized to support the development of higher cognitive skills such as application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and problem-solving. Students acquire conceptual knowledge or ‘How To’- skills via videos at home since one-to-one learning is more effective.

In short, the ‘sage on the stage’ moves into an online video that students can watch at their convenience at home while the lecturer turns into a ‘guide on the side’ when students apply and develop new knowledge in collaborative classroom sessions. The flipped classroom encourages self-directed learning at home and collaborative problem-solving in the classroom.

A practical example: Online videos that are reviewed at home may end with a final quiz and reflections that students write down after watching. The results are sent back as online feedback to the tutor who, when the class meets face-to-face, already has obtained a good overview how well the class has grasped the understanding of ‘prior knowledge’ (Mangan, 2012). By comparison, in a traditional classroom a lecturer has little overview about which student has understood how much. Flipped classrooms create more accessible data that tutors can use for formative assessment. Formative feedback and self-directed learning can effectively boost self-esteem and motivational beliefs  (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).


Image (above): The Flipped Classroom has become a popular trend in undergraduate education

Flipped classrooms are becoming a success-model in many schools and colleges around the world as they increase between-persons interaction. Criticism often comes from students that still prefer a ‘sage on the stage’ and the commonly voiced-out argument to ‘why should I pay for my own learning?’ Traditional lecturers may also find it hard to let go of their power-position to switch from a ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’. Good responses to typical critique on the flipped classroom (for example “How do I even know if kids are watching the videos?”) can be found in a script by November and Mull (2012). The flipped classroom was pioneered by Eric Mazur at Harvard University since the 1990s (Mazur, 2009) and had originally been called ‘peer instruction’ (PI). Today the Mazur Group at Harvard offers a wide range of papers on the topic.

The flipped classroom model is very adaptable to fit virtually any subject. An extended conceptual term is ‘blended learning’ (MacDonald, 2008) which goes beyond mere ‘flipping’, and includes online tutoring and the creation of ‘Blended Learning Communities’ (Kaplan, 2002). Early introduction to such models supports students’ self-efficacy to participate in virtual online communities (Vesely et al., 2007).

Besides online videos, prior knowledge can be disseminated via online reading materials or discussion forums where students summarize their initial understanding of a topic. Freely available Open Source software such as ‘Moodle’ allows schools and colleges to set up virtual classrooms without surrendering to more costly subscription models. Social networks such as ‘Facebook’ can be set up to facilitate initial student feedback and discussion. Lecturers can e.g., prepare podcasts which can be downloaded at home or on mobile devices. Technological options are plentiful.  In-class sessions logically start with a short review and discussion of material that has been presented online followed by rich, team-based learning activities.

Assisting staff can be professors who are content experts or invited experts. Student tutors can facilitate the group learning process, giving more freedom to faculty on how to provide optimal resources. Teachers are needed as experts in their field to assist students in practical activities rather than attempting to ‘teach’ a class in a low (or no)-feedback situation.


Image above: In a ‘Flipped Classroom’ online preparation is done at home (left) and collaborative, assisted teamwork is moved into the classroom (right). This ‘flip’ supports self-directed learning at home while maximizing face-to-face time in class; engaging higher cognitive and social skills.

2. Graduate and Postgraduate Online Courses: Tutor-based Environments for Elites

Most online environments realized for Higher Education (and adult professional training) offer a wide range of State-of-the-Art technologies, both synchronous and asynchronous. They include, often within a single polished interface, options such as tutor-guided discussion forums, published weekly reading materials (both mandatory and optional), various specialized online rooms to post questions, access to essential electronic libraries to conduct peer-reviewed research, institutional email, online live chat and faculty contact including student supervisors, course managers, tutors, teaching assistants, e-librarians and the IT-Helpdesk. Students are introduced to new concepts via weekly publications and they are assessed personally with qualitative and quantitative feedback from their tutor. Learning outcomes and grading criteria for each study week are published beforehand to students.

state of the art BB

Image (above): Tutor-based virtual classroom. Credit: Liverpool University/ Laureate Education. (1) Discussion Forum: Posts can be collapsed for easier viewing, (2) Weekly Learning Resources  (available as PDF and in HTML), (3) Live Chat, Circles and Communities, RSS feeds, (4) Online Library with Advanced Search-Function and Automated Referencing Management. Blackboard is a polished commercial platform for teaching, collaborative learning and training.

Online participation is mandatory as social interaction plays a central part of the educational process. Further ‘luxuries’ include automated services to order study books in a timely manner, pay tuition and library fees online and review past grades. Many institutions use the commercial platform ‘Blackboard’ as their backbone which, in its latest version, also supports synchronous group collaboration. Teaching materials include literature as well as videos and multimedia presentations, e.g., for the presentation of case-studies or simulated clients. Students are educated to become successful problem-solvers, critical researchers and sociable team-players, the pedagogical assessment dimensions in Problem-based Learning (PBL).

Needless to say that such luxury comes at a price. The heavy price-tags for graduate and post-graduate studies disadvantage students from low-income backgrounds. Students from socio-centered cultures may face adaptation issues when dealing with ‘Western style’ critical discussions and argumentation, open critique, the facilitating nature of a tutor (instead of expecting instructional teachers) and responding to individual styles of colleagues from different countries.

Tutored online classes are not indefinitely scaleable which is why typical online class-size varies typically between 10-16 students.  Large tutorial groups create distinct disadvantages (Barrows, 1992) such as

1.)    The pleasure of working on a close, personal basis is lost to both students and tutor.

2.)    Students do not get equal opportunity to voice out their ideas and adding their contributions and individual ideas into the group’s ongoing deliberations.

3.)    The tutor is unable to monitor each student’s educational growth and may not detect emerging problems early, exactly when interventions are most effective.

One way of accommodating larger classes is to split them up into smaller groups, which demands some large- group management of its own. From an investment point of view, Open Source platforms such as ‘Moodle’ have leveled the playing field for institutions intending to host more complex and interactive courses as the software does not require the payment of licensing fees. In addition, social networks often complement (as a more informal forum for study-groups) the official learning platform.

Adobe Connect example

Image above: ‘Adobe Connect’ Synchronous Real-Time Learning Platform with video conferencing, live-chat (one-to-one, one-to-many), virtual meeting & discussion rooms, document sharing and online polls

Examples for Online Tutorial Education: Laureate Education, University of Californa-Berkeley, MIT, Oxford University, Stanford University, Harvard University, University of Liverpool, Walden University, Princeton University

3. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Educating the World?

MOOCs are realized as large-scale, tutor-less virtual classrooms. The largest learning environment ever set up and counting 160,000 subscribers was the course ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ conducted by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. Learning in MOOCs is facilitated by the presentation of videos, interactive quizzes, multiple-choice questionnaires and access to teaching materials, e.g. as PDFs. Many MOOCs offer peer-to-peer (p2p) forums where students can meet fellow learners to discuss their study issues.

MOOCs represent the extreme approach of a ‘single learner only’ environment where the student is entirely on his/ her own. Due to their large scale and high number of subscribers MOOCs cannot offer individualized guidance, support or qualitative feedback on assignments. MOOCs have been criticized for supporting predominantly passive learning, conceptually replacing the ‘sage on the stage’ simply by an anonymous automated system. Attrition rates are subsequently very high (Tyler-Smith, 2006) with a vast majority not completing courses, e.g., in one of Udacity’s latest course ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ only 1 out of 10 participants completed their studies. The record-breaking ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ mentioned earlier had only a 7% completion rate (Guzidal, 2012).

Advocates argue that such courses are not a zero-sum game and are not suitable for all learners, but the low completion rates still beg the question of the system’s efficacy and extended public benefit.

The advantage of MOOCs is the efficient dissemination of content knowledge and practical skills at undergraduate level, especially for highly motivated students that aim to acquire specialized skill-sets. Operational costs on a staff-student ratio are relatively small. In order to reduce the high drop-out rates MOOC-providers have started implementing selection processes to boost completion rates. Student profiles are adjusted towards the educational program, not vice versa, rendering MOOCs unsuitable for weaker students or students from different socio-cultural background (Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010). Justin Reich (2011) asks if MOOCs decrease digital equity and disadvantage less affluent students.

‘Single learner only’ environments come at the price of focusing on content while bypassing creative problem-solving, social skills, innovative thinking, higher cognitive and meta-cognitive skills, relevance for real-world application, taking over roles and responsibilities, active research and its critical review (Kim, 2012). MOOCs require the autonomy of strong, self-directed learners as a prerequisite for studies, but intrinsically do not foster autonomy and social relations themselves.


Image (above): Typical online quiz format and status of completed challenges at Udacity (left), Syllabus presentation with video lectures, quizzes and assignment listing at Coursera (right)

Dough Holton writes conclusively that ‘ ”Connecting” learners to one another or exposing them to content may often not be sufficient to magically cause learning to happen or to cause significant changes in beliefs and practice.’ (Holton, 2012). He criticizesthe presumption of merely descriptive connectivist’ theories which do not take into account human properties such as social processes, intentionality, meaning (semantics), mental agency or phenomenological-subjective and inter-subjective experience. This is most likely the reason why MOOCs are more geared towards convergent rather than divergent problems. Typical courses offer studies in computer science, programming and software, web-development, data-analysis, algebra, statistics or accounting which are based on solitary, internal monologue and analytical intelligence. MOOC courses render less appealing for students looking for a sociable learning experience, posing questions of implicit gender- and cultural bias.

Examples for MOOCs: Khanacademy, Udacity, Coursera, FutureLearn, edX, Open2Study, XuetangX


In terms of improving education qualitatively on a massive scale flipped classrooms and blended courses hold the biggest promise for most schools and colleges around the world. Implementation can be achieved with moderate additional effort and investment but requires support and commitment from the institution’s management. The approach is highly enjoyable while students’ enthusiasm translates fast into positive outcomes. Blended courses pave the way for a widely employed data-driven service design.

Besides Higher Education, tutor-based online learning is making its inroads into the commercial sector and professional training. This includes for example workforce one-the-job learning (Batalla-Busquets & Pacheco-Bernal, 2013), corporate training (Vignare et al., 2010), training of SMEs (Roy, 2009) as well as government staff (McKay & Izard, 2012).  Online tutorial courses require continuing development of new course materials, the maintenance and development of a complex online platform and employment of qualified and reliable staff. Costs for set-up and maintenance are substantial.

Finally, MOOCs have justification in their own right for smaller numbers of specializing students. They are limited to courses employing more solitary learning styles. The argument that online learning systems need to be scalable seems to rest on the wrong assumption that the human mind works as a form of computing. David Gelernter notes that ‘We don’t think with our brains only. We think with our brains and bodies together. (…) You cannot “run” another mind on yours, and a third mind on that, and a fourth atop the third.” (Gelernter, 2014). Information technology is recursive, the human brain isn’t. Online learning systems need to facilitate and enhance our mind’s potential, not sacrificing it for the sake of computational efficacy. Online education, after all, is about developing and celebrating human minds and lives. The exciting debate on how to create the best online learning experience for the greatest number of students has just begun.


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