Online university -- free for all

It has no campus, no lecture theatres and hardly any paid staff, but the International University of the People, which opened last month, does have one big plus point—no tuition fees.

This, and the fact that its courses are taught entirely online, is designed to make it accessible to people who, because of poverty, geography or personal restrictions, would not otherwise contemplate university study.

‘Hundreds of millions of people deserve to get an education and don’t,” says the university’s founder, Shai Reshef, a California businessman. ‘We are showing a way that this mass of people can be educated in a very efficient and inexpensive way.”

The university’s ambition to democratise education, combined with its not-for-profit ethos, has brought it support from humanitarian organisations, including the UN’s Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technology and Development.

But its teaching model—which uses open-source technology, increasing availability of free educational material available online, social networking and more than 800 volunteer educators—has also attracted attention because of broader implications for future higher education delivery.

‘The concept is great and one we’ll see more and more of,” says Peter Scott, director of the Knowledge Media Institute at the United Kingdom’s Open University, which itself gives free access to course materials through the OpenLearn website.

He says so much high-quality material now exists on the web that traditional university models can no longer be seen as the only arbiters of quality.

Maintaining quality will nevertheless be an important challenge for the UoPeople, which does not yet have accreditation and which relies on academic volunteers to answer questions, monitor discussions, mentor students and develop curricula.

Reshef says his experience as chair of the board at Cramster.com, a website on which students, scholars and subject enthusiasts answer one another’s questions, showed him how willing people were to help one another online and how powerful that could be. But even he was surprised that so many volunteers came forward to help his UoPeople project. The university also has an advisory committee.

Daniel Greenwood, professor of law at the Hofstra University school of law, New York, has volunteered a day a week, as well as to serve on the advisory committee. He wanted to help make education more widely available and liked the idea of being in on something new and potentially huge.

Another committee member is Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School and founder of Yale’s Information Society Project, which recently entered into a research partnership with UoPeople to explore ways of improving access to knowledge.

The university is still at the experimental stage and is relatively small. It was launched last month with 178 students from nearly 50 countries and provides just two undergraduate programmes: business administration and computer science.

Applicants need to have a high school diploma, be proficient in English and must have internet access. They need to pass orientation courses in computer skills and English composition.

Each week groups of students enter an online ‘classroom”, similar to a discussion forum, in which they find the transcript of a lecture with associated references and reading material. They also find an assignment and a discussion question, which forms the core of their study.

Each student is expected to contribute original ideas to the week’s discussion and to comment at least four times in the week on the ideas of fellow students.

Peter Bradwell, whose report for the think-tank Demos, The Edgeless University, was published earlier this year, says students would be charged registration fees of between $15 and $50 and between $10 and $100 an exam.

But the important thing, he says, is that his university offers many students their only hope of higher education. ‘The majority have no other alternative”.—

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