August 26, 2009, 03:40 PM ET
New Tuition-Free 'University of the People' Tries to Democratize Higher Ed
The latest experiment in peer-to-peer education kicks off next month – a new institution in which students will learn in virtual communities using free online materials and social-networking tools.
But now the venture, called University of the People, faces big questions. Among them: Can it get accreditation? And can a college that charges so little and relies so much on self-teaching retain students?
Since it was announced in January, University of the People has accumulated a pile of publicity, spurred by its populist marketing pitch as the “first nonprofit, tuition-free online university.”
“The idea is to reach the hundreds of millions of people who graduate high school, have all the ability and the right to study in an academic institution, but cannot do it either because they don’t have the money or because there aren’t enough institutions,” said Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur who founded the project. “In quite a few countries in the world, the demand is much more than the supply.”
So far the institution's reach is small: 178 students. That’s the number of first-term “freshmen” who will study business administration and computer science in the online institution, which also offers support from professors. The inaugural pupils range in age from 16 to 61. They come from 49 countries, led by the United States, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Brazil. Over all, nearly 2,000 people have applied for admission.
The California-registered institution “cannot legally promise a degree nor any accreditation,” Mr. Reshef said. It does plan to apply for accreditation.
Its idea of “free” is also slippery. The university waives fees now, Mr. Reshef said. But an education could cost between $400 and $4,000 overall in the future, he said, depending on the countries from which students come. The charges would cover exam fees.
When asked about students dropping out, Mr. Reshef expressed concern, pointing to the retention struggles of more traditional online universities.
“If people pay 30,000 U.S. dollars and still drop out, what can we expect from students that pay nothing?" said Mr. Reshef, who invested $1-million in his online start-up. “We really hope that we will be able to make the social networking the thing that will make them stay together and stick with us, but yeah, you’re right, that’s the No. 1 challenge that we have." He said he did expect that the university would have a high dropout rate.
University of the People students will be clustered into groups of 15 to 20 people all taking the same online course. They’ll be expected to digest course materials and discuss them based on prepared questions. If they have problems their classmates can’t answer, they can click into a forum where they can seek help from volunteer professors and others – and even request an “office hour.”
John R. Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a group that supports online learning, expressed some “disquiet” about the concept behind University of the People and similar projects, which include Peer 2 Peer University. Some fraction of people can probably learn by themselves, he said. Many cannot.
“There’s a pretty significant fraction of the population that learns better with instructor-led kinds of activities than purely self-paced activities,” he said.
He added: “Can you have a group of students who know nothing about quantum mechanics and have them work in a group and discuss it and learn a lot? I think it’s going to be difficult. It would have been darn hard to get a group of neophytes together and discuss it and understand what the heck is going on in quantum mechanics.”