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From its founding in 2009 through its initial accreditation in 2014 to its growing visibility as a provider of higher education to refugees in the world’s most difficult places, the University of the People has been on a slow, steady march toward recognition and legitimacy that match its reach with learners.

This weekend the university’s founder, Shai Reshef, will accept a $3.8 million award for the Yidan Prize, which each year since 2017 has recognized two “changemakers,” one in education research and one in education development and practice.

Past recipients of the prize, which is awarded by an eponymous foundation in Hong Kong, include researchers such as Carol Dweck, Linda Darling-Hammond and Carl Wieman and practitioners such as Anant Agarwal, among other creators of international education initiatives.

Reshef will receive this year’s prize in education development; the awardee for education research is Michelene Chi, Regents Professor and Dorothy Bray Endowed Professor of Science and Teaching at Arizona State University. Chi is being recognized for her ICAP (interactive, constructive, active and passive) theory of cognitive engagement.

More than 135,000 people around the world currently learn from University of the People—many if not most because they don’t have the time, money or access to enroll at other institutions. “Three quarters of their students come from countries where low incomes and constrained resources make university places relatively scarce and out of reach for many qualified students,” the Yidan Prize judging panel said in recognizing Reshef. “Others face financial, geographical, cultural, or political barriers; 16,500 of [its] students are refugees.”

Reshef will donate his prize (30 million Hong Kong dollars) to UoPeople, enabling it, he said, to “expand awareness of its innovative model” and “scale UoPeople and encourage others to replicate its model.”

Among other things, the university will use the funds to develop additional artificial intelligence tools and apps for students and advisers, expand scholarship offerings for learners who can’t afford its low fees, and build a general studies program.

More than the money, Reshef said, the prize “brings a heightened sense of legitimacy and acknowledgment” for the institution.

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