After reaching its long-term goal of gaining accreditation in 2014, the University of the People (UoPeople), the world’s first tuition-free, non-profit, accredited online university, is setting its sights on Africa.
By Annika Burgess
Six years ago, entrepreneur Shai Reshef came out of semi-retirement with the aim to reinvent the model for higher education. He had been in education for over 20 years, and witnessed how “powerful online learning can be” when he helped launch the first online university outside the United States in the early 2000s. But, he admits, “I felt uncomfortable because what I realised for most people is that it was still just too expensive.”
Realising that “everything that is needed to make university accessible for all is available and for free,” he began offering university degrees in Business Administration and Computer Science on a tuition-free basis through UoPeople. To date he has enabled 2,000 students from over 150 countries to receive university level education.
“UNESCO has stated that by 2025, 100 million students will be deprived of higher education simply because there will not be enough seats to accommodate them. Online learning has classes and seats for everyone,” says Reshef, who will be a keynote speaker at the eLearning Africa Conference in May.
“I managed to get open source technology, educational sources and materials already to the instructors. All I had to do was put it all together so that’s what I did, I created University of the People.”
Finding partners and volunteers (such as New York University and Yale) Reshef says was the easy part. “When I announced the university, the next day there was an article about it. Following this article, over a couple of days, I had thousands of professors writing saying ‘we love the idea.’ So with that tremendous positive reception to the idea, there were a remarkable number of people who wanted to volunteer and help.”
It was gaining accreditation that proved to be the most “long, challenging and expensive process,” but now that he has the Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s (DEAC) stamp of approval, Reshef, who acts as the university’s president, says in 2015 they will be developing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Health Science Degree – sticking to its focus on offering degrees that are likely to help students get a job – and will also be working on raising awareness.
“After our accreditation we are now planning to not only continue our growth but to accelerate it. The second thing that we plan on doing in 2015 is to put Africa at the top of our goals. We believe that this continent needs us more than any continent.”
What sets the university apart from other online education, such as MOOCs (massive open online courses), is its retention rates. The UoPeople has a 95% retention rate, without using video or complicated technology; its focus is on small classes, peer interaction and personal attention. Students are required to take part in weekly discussions, complete assignments and provide peer assessments. This has been a successful method not only for engagement but to give students a global experience – as classes are made up of students from all over the world, UoPeople aims to teach students about how other cultures think and work and thus prepare them for the job market.
“Peer-to-peer learning is very important but I also think that it’s very important to realise that with MOOCs you may sit in one class with potentially thousands of students, in our classes there are only 20 to 30 students. This is a big difference because it enables us to give personal education to those who need it,” Reshef says.
“Also, for many of the students, there is no other alternative. The fact that we offer tuition-free education enables a lot of students to study with us who may not have been able to otherwise. Those students realise it’s their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they grab and they want to succeed. They go to the extra effort to succeed.”
Although the university is tuition-free students are required to pay exam processing fees of $100, but for those who cannot afford it there is financial aid available.
Reshef hopes his methods will catch on and others will be able to help him change the status of education from being a privilege for a few into a basic right, affordable and accessible to all.
His advice to others: “You need the knowledge and to find the right pedagogy and people. More than anything else we built the model, the model that others can replicate and we can help others to do so. As long as you make sure that you don’t ever sacrifice the quality, and as long as you are willing to go a long way to ensure you do the right thing, you can do it.”
You can hear more from Founder and President of the University of the People Shai Reshef at the eLearning Africa Conference on May 20 – 22, 2015, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.