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A Great Experiment

February 22, 2010

It is a grand vision: a global college with no tuition, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

When the higher education entrepreneur Shai Reshef laid out his ambitious plan to build a free university that would use modern technology to spread the promise of a college degree to all corners of the earth, he got an enthusiastic reaction from some high-profile institutions. The United Nations has backed the venture. So has Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. Reshef and his lieutenants also like to mention the many letters of support and offers to pitch in from professors worldwide.

But the project drew skepticism as well. Higher education has seen more than one ambitious distance education effort fail in recent years, including the internationally focused U21 Global, and those projects had the benefit of tuition revenue.

Questions about the so-called University of the People abounded: How do you build quality programs without charging tuition? How effective would the project’s peer-to-peer pedagogical model be in classrooms of students from vastly different cultural and educational traditions? Who would accredit such an operation at a time when the perceived value -- even necessity -- of a postsecondary education is ascendant in virtually every country? Reshef’s heart seems to be in the right place. But is his head?

A year has now passed since the University of the People opened its virtual doors to the world. And while it appears to be a functioning institution where education is indeed taking place, questions about the project’s long-term viability -- and its ability to replicate the essential functions of an actual university -- are yet to be answered.

The Money Question

The biggest question is the most obvious, and that’s money. Higher education might trade in ideas, but it runs on dollars. So how do you deliver education without tuition revenue?

Thriftily. The University of the People relies on free syllabuses and learning materials from open courseware projects from institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It currently offers only two programs, business administration and computer science, and employs only five paid instructors.

Those instructors administer courses designed by a corps of faculty volunteers numbering about 800, by Reshef’s count. Those professors put together courses using open courseware. They also write the final exams, which is one of the two ways the university makes its money; students pay to take the exams -- between $10 and $100 each, depending on country of residence (students from poorer countries pay lower fees).

The other revenue comes from admission fees, which also run from $10 to $100 according to country. Admissions criteria are rigorous and designed to weed out students who do not have high school certificates and a firm enough grasp of the English language to participate successfully in college-level courses.

Now in its third term, the University of the People has received 3,000 applications and admitted 380 students.

Reshef last year predicted it would take an enrollment of 10,000 within five years to make the university financially sustainable, though he has upped that estimate to 15,000 in more recent interviews. Since the fees are tied to geography, that number could still change depending on where applicants wind up coming from, Reshef says. The project has not charged any fees yet, and is still leaning on its $5 million in seed money -- $1 million of which came from Reshef’s own pocket.

Parsimony and Pedagogy

Soliciting help from faculty who are busy with obligations to their home institutions can be unwieldy, Reshef says, and some have failed to deliver on promises. The trick, he says, is to use pro bono labor smartly. “You never rely on a volunteer to a point where if one of them decides to stop, you’re being stopped,” he says.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, is not as confident as Reshef in the long-term sustainability of the University of the People’s model. “I don’t think you can, in the long run, rely on volunteer faculty,” Altbach says. “You’re going to most likely get folks who are retired from Western institutions who have the time, but not necessarily the expertise, that is needed.”

But Heidi Gartenberg, the project’s academic resources director, notes that “the day-to-day operations of the university are not reliant on volunteers.” And if delinquency ever required the university to start contracting academics for course development, Gartenberg says, “this would not dramatically affect our business model.”

There are currently nine courses ready to be taught, and 20 more in development, according to Reshef.

The manner in which those courses will be taught has also raised eyebrows. The University of the People uses a “peer-to-peer” learning model: Students are directed to the appropriate open course material, then encouraged to discuss it in online forums. The instructors log in several times daily to monitor discussions among students and interject when necessary. Students can send messages -- either through the e-learning environment’s chat feature or via e-mail -- to their instructors if they are stuck.

But for the most part the students are expected to learn autonomously, by studying the open courseware materials and talking through concepts among themselves.

While many U.S. colleges offer seminars that operate in a similar way, having the professor in a marginal role might negatively affect learning outcomes, says Altbach -- particularly when dealing with more difficult concepts. “I don’t think that’s a model that provides disciplined knowledge over a field of study,” he says.

The best test of whether students are actually learning, of course, is how they do on the exams, which are developed by professors outside the university as part of the course-development process.

However, the data available as of the project’s one-year anniversary have little to say about the long-term effectiveness of the model. The University of the People has data only from its first-term exams, when it taught just two orientation-level courses: English Composition and Skills for Online Learning. The pass rates were 86 percent and 74 percent, respectively; not bad, though there is no guarantee that students will perform as well on more advanced courses advertised on the university’s Web site, such as Comparative Programming Languages and Business Policy and Strategy.

Matter of Degrees

One undeniable accomplishment is that University of the People has generated a lot of buzz from students. It has attracted 3,000 applications this year without a marketing budget. According to Internal surveys conducted during each of the first two terms, about 90 percent of the students there said they would recommend University of the People to a friend. And several students contacted through a University of the People Facebook group seemed enthusiastic about the free online college.

“[I] can feel that i have learn a lot from my colleagues and also from my devoted instructors and i know i will fit into any organization after i graduate because everything we learn here at the University of the People is practical and i really enjoy it a lot,” Enoch Ampong, a 23-year-old Ghanaian who plans to study business administration, wrote in an e-mail. “[I] cant wait to tell the world about this wonderful experience,” he added.

There is, however, an elephant in the room: University of the People is not currently authorized to award degrees.

The process of gaining license to give out degrees is a complex one -- made even more complex since California, where University of the People is based, recently restructured its bureaucracy for approving postsecondary programs. Reshef says the university is currently studying what it needs to do to get approval to grant degrees in California, but that might not be the end of it; online programs have for years struggled with state laws requiring them to gain approval from every state where they are educating students -- a potentially lengthy, expensive process.

And that’s just in the United States; foreign countries vary widely in their processes for approving institutions that wish to award degrees inside their borders.

In other words, there is no guarantee that the students currently enrolled in courses at University of the People will qualify for a degree upon completing the four-year course of study; and if they do, that degree might not be seen as legitimate by their home country.

Reshef told Inside Higher Ed a year ago that he expects University of the People to attract students who are looking for degrees more than simply taking courses for learning's sake, and a number of current students say it is important that they walk away from their studies at University of the People with a respected credential. Purusoth Sundhar, a 19-year-old from Sri Lanka, says he is relying on a degree in order to get a job.

Oka Sudiana, a 26-year-old from Indonesia, says that while he is already employed as an aeronautical engineer, he needs a management credential to advance his career. “I really hope [the university gives me a degree],” he says, “Because honestly, we all need degrees.”

Ivonna Della, 21, also from Indonesia, says she is encouraged that University of the People’s partnerships with well-reputed institutions such as Yale Law School will increase the likelihood that it will be authorized to give out degrees.

“I’m pretty optimistic that they can give me degree by the time I graduate, and hopefully I can use that degree to find a job,” Della wrote in an e-mail.

However, she adds that even without a degree, her time at the universities will not have been for naught. “[If] by the time I graduate they still not offering any degree, then it will be disappointing I must admit,” she says, “but I think I will be pretty happy with all the material that they have tought[sic] me. That’s kinda the big point why I'm joining UoPeople, not bcause[sic] of their degree but their educational program.”

To Be a University

The University of the People is also not accredited. It doesn’t need to be to award degrees, but it does if it hopes to award degrees that hold much weight among many employers or persuade other higher-education institutions to count its students’ credits.

Reshef says that University of the People is currently seeking accreditation in the United States, and that he couldn’t comment on its progress for legal reasons. But Madeleine F. Green, vice president for international initiatives at the American Council on Education, said she is skeptical about its prospects. “An accreditation agency looks at institutional management, it looks at governance, it looks at finances,” Green says. “U.S. accreditation wasn’t really made for this kind of creature. I think they would have to do a lot of bending and rethinking to have regional accreditation fit this model.”

Then again, a lot of institutions that don’t fit the traditional university mold find a way of getting accredited somewhere, says Altbach. However, he says it does higher education no good to stretch the definition of a “university” unduly. Perhaps, Altbach says, the University of the People should not be considered a “university” per se, but merely a service that facilitates students’ use of a growing reservoir of open courseware movement materials.

Gartenberg says concentrating on labels misses the point. “We are not trying to replace traditional universities,” she says. “In fact, we look to them for counsel and guidance. What we are trying to do is provide an educational opportunity to those who otherwise don’t have it.”

For the sort of students University of the People attracts, Reshef says, the approval of an accrediting body might be nice, but the important thing is being able to have access to college-level educational resources. “Whether it's accredited or not accredited,” he says, “it’s a question of getting this or nothing.”

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