World’s First Global Virtual University Opens

Published October 28, 2009

The first tuition-free, online university admitted its inaugural class this September, setting precedent for change in access to higher education worldwide. University of the People, a nonprofit academic institution, takes the concept of a virtual university to new levels by making it globally accessible and tuition-free. All a student needs to qualify is a computer, a high school diploma, and English literacy.

Founded by educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef, University of the People (UoPeople) takes the cultural phenomenon of social networking and applies it to academia. Reshef is also the founder of Cramster, a six-year-old online study community for high school and college students, which sparked the idea for UoPeople.

The online university is headquartered in Pasadena, California, where Reshef commutes monthly from his native Tel Aviv, Israel.

“I learned the power of online study communities,” Reshef said. “People are willing to teach each other without getting paid. It’s very effective.”

Reshef, who holds degrees from both Tel Aviv University and the University of Michigan, has 20 years of experience in international education. In 1989, he served as chairman of Kidum Group, the Israeli for-profit educational services company later sold to Kaplan. He then began work in the Netherlands as chairman of KIT e-learning, the online partner of the University of Liverpool. Earlier this year, he was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.

How It Works

UoPeople provides tuition-free education by coupling e-learning and peer networking with support from educators, humanitarians, and organizations that provide instruction, curriculum, and open-source study materials for students who don’t have other opportunities to attend college.

Currently, 178 students from 49 countries are enrolled in one of the school’s two degree programs, Business Administration and Computer Science. Instead of going to class, students attend a weekly online lecture and are given course materials to discuss in online forums. Groups of 20 students are placed in virtual classrooms to partake in academic peer-to-peer discussions. This allows students to develop an understanding of the course material while gaining valuable perspectives from other cultures.

Students are not limited to peer instruction. The Socratic structure is bolstered with academic advice from volunteer professors and graduate students who donate time and study materials.

Students receive weekly homework assignments checked by volunteer instructors, who also make themselves available to answer questions and provide feedback. Paid professors are available to help students who require additional instruction, In fact, UoPeople currently has more instructors than students, which is not true of most traditional universities.

Accreditation Concerns

One of the few things UoPeople does not offer, however, is accreditation.

“Our intention is to apply for accreditation when we can,” Reshef said. But without it, many people remain critical of the program and the degrees it will offer.

Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education Training Council, an 83-year-old nonprofit accrediting agency based in Washington, DC, asked the Los Angeles Times earlier this year how a free secondary education can be worth anything. Other experts express concern over the limited capacity of peer-to-peer learning. They doubt the institution’s ability to obtain accreditation.

Reshef, however, is focused on a more pervasive goal.

“Some of the students don’t care about accreditation,” he said. “They just want to study.”

Filling a Niche

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, fewer than 2 percent of people around the world are able to pursue higher education. UoPeople’s mission is to provide an alternative to the traditional university.

“If a student came to me and said, ‘I really can’t decide between UoPeople and Harvard,’ then we failed,” said Reshef. “One thing to remember is we should be grateful for the traditional university, but that not everyone can afford it.”

While obstacles remain—language barriers and accreditation to name a few—Reshef said UoPeople fills a crying need.

“We built a model that can be imitated both by universities and governments to spend a fraction of what they spend on higher education and educate the masses,” he explained. Success for the first tuition-free, online education institution could open doors to a host of similar opportunities for policymakers and educators worldwide.

Kelly Gorton ([email protected]) writes from California.