Pure Genius

Q&A: Shai Reshef, president, University of the People

Q&A: Shai Reshef, president, University of the People

Posting in Education

College tuition is rising faster than most people can keep up, especially those in developing countries. Enter the University of the People, touted as the first tuition-free, online university.

College tuition is rising faster than most people can keep up, especially those in developing countries. Enter the University of the People, touted as the first tuition-free, online university. With only a one-time application fee and a $100 fee for final exams, students can earn Associate or Bachelor degrees in business administration and computer science for less than the cost of a single course in more traditional settings.

In a recent chat, I asked founder Shai Reshef about his commitment to nonprofit education and the institution's long-term sustainability plan. Below are excerpts from our interview.

What's the mission of the University of the People?

The University of the People is the first ever nonprofit, tuition-free, online university dedicated to bringing democracy to higher education. There are millions of people around the world who are deprived from higher education. Unesco stated that in 2025, close to 100 million students will not have seats in existing universities. Others are deprived of education for cultural reasons. Women in Africa would be an example. For all of these people unable to attend higher education, we created the University of the People to deliver knowledge and enable them to study online.

Your background is in for-profit online education. Why switch to the nonprofit model?

I was involved in for-profit education for over 20 years. I was responsible for educational programs from kindergarten through college level for hundreds of thousands of students. I started the first for-profit online university in Europe. I learned how powerful online learning could be. Students could keep their jobs and get this great education. Despite this great success, deep inside I felt uncomfortable because it was clear to me that for most people it was just wishful thinking. It was too expensive. I ended up selling my business and going into semi-retirement.

Retirement wasn't for me and I wanted to continue. But it was clear I didn't want to do more of the same. I wanted to do something that would have an impact on the world. When you educate one, you can change a life. When you educate many, you can change the world. Almost everything that's needed to open the gates of higher education to everyone is available -- and free. That includes open source technology, open educational resources, which professors write and put online, and a new culture of social networking. We could put those together and have a free university.

What have you learned since opening the University of the People in 2009?

The greatest surprise for me was the good will of the people. Even in my best dreams, I wouldn't have been able to guess how many people would jump on-board to help us and to what extent. By now, we have accepted 1,500 students. They come from 132 countries. For these students, we have almost 3,000 volunteering professors. Our president's council consists of the vice chancellor of Oxford University, the president of New York University, the president of George Washington University and others.

Who are your students? Why do they choose the University of the People over taking classes on Coursera or through other online universities?

They're coming from every corner of the globe. About 20 percent of our students come from the U.S. Other countries are Indonesia, Brazil and China. When we ask our students why they come to us, it's very interesting. Many come to us because of who is behind the university. Others say simply, ‘What choice do I have?'

We're a university. Coursera is great, but you don't get credit toward an academic degree. Our students are looking for more than knowledge. They need a degree. We're a full degree program. They need to be accepted. We educate well-rounded students.

What do classes look like?

In order to be accepted, students should supply us with a high school diploma and have proficiency in English. Every course is 10 weeks long. Whenever a student takes a course, he is put together with about 25 students. They find the week's lecture notes, reading assignment, homework assignment and discussion question. The discussion question is the core of our studies. Every week, each student is expected to have at least one original comment and at least five comments on what other people said. The role of the instructor is to read everything. The instructor intervenes only if a student asks a question that no one else can answer or if a student says something wrong or if the discussion needs to be directed. By the end of the week, the students take a quiz. They hand in their homework, which is graded randomly by their peers under the supervision of the instructor. They get a grade for the week and move onto the next week. It's peer-to-peer learning.

We only use open educational resources. We will never send our students to buy a textbook. We have a group of volunteering librarians, which helps our course writers and instructors to find open educational resources. We don't use audio or video. The reason is that a large percentage of our students are connecting to us from internet cafes. We want to make sure that even with dial-up you will be able to study with us.

Why should people take the degree seriously when it's online only and the institution is not accredited?

When a student from anywhere in the world is taking an exam, we send the exam to a reputable person from his community. This could be a clergy member or a public official. They meet and that's where the student takes the exam. It's a tedious process, but we want to verify that the person taking the exam is the same student.

We're working on our accreditation. We ask students why they study with us and they say, ‘Look who is behind it.' Many students come to us because they have no other way to get higher education.

How will you make this model sustainable in the long-term and what are the challenges to getting there?

We say to our students: ‘We were able to cut down almost the entire cost of higher education. All we ask is to help you cover the exam cost.' Every time a student takes an end-of-course exam, he is expected to pay $100. If he doesn't have it, we provided financial tools to help him pay it. We created quite a few restricted funds for students from different demographics. Nobody will be excluded because of financial reasons. This $100 fee for exams will make us sustainable in 2015 with 5,000 students. People are skeptical. You look at the cost of higher education and people cannot believe that a university can be sustainable on so little.

The leadership of the university are all volunteers. When we ask someone to write a course or be one of our instructors, we pay them an honorarium. They get on average about $400. But it creates the commitment. It's not the money as much as a symbol of our relationship. Some of them refuse to take even that. I still consider them volunteers.

Photo: Shai Reshef

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure