With the cost of higher education rising, and with many students unable to participate in the “traditional” model of a college education, it is little surprise that many are turning to online learning. Many traditional schools offer online courses — and even entire online degree and certification programs. Online universities are becoming increasingly accepted by the higher education establishment, and some are even accredited, as well as able to award legitimate degrees, receiving reasonably high rankings.
But these online programs still cost money. What if you could get a college education without having to pay for it? That is what is proposed by the University of the People.
What is University of the People?
In 2009, Shai Reshef started University of the People as a venture meant to help students who might not be able to afford a college education to get one — for free. He has worked with for-profit education systems for years, and $1 million of the $5 million seed money for the University of the People actually came from Reshef’s own pocket. There are only a few paid instructors at the University of the People, and all of them — save Reshef — have doctorates in their fields of study.
However, it is important to note that the University of the People does not have the full range of offerings that many people expect from a university. There are only two programs right now: computer science and business administration. The school has chosen to start out small, and with programs that are more likely to be taught successfully through distance education.
The school is not completely free, either. While tuition is not charged, there is an admissions fee, and a fee for each exam taken. Each fee is between $10 and $100, and is charged on a sliding scale according to the wealth of the country the student is from. If the student is from a poor country, and does not have the means to pay a higher fee, then he or she is charged $10 for admission, and then $10 for each exam. USA Today reports that in order to be profitable and sustainable, Reshef estimates that there would need to be 10,000 to 15,000 enrollees in the next five years.
Admissions and Learning
University of the People does not just accept anybody into its programs. Indeed, there are rigorous criteria. The university is now in its third term, and it has so far received 3,000 applications. However, only 380 of those students have been accepted. University of the People requires students to have secondary school certification of some sort and a reasonably good grasp of the English language.
Once admitted, students are largely expected to teach themselves and each other. University of the People has a peer to peer learning system that educates students by having them peruse course materials and then discuss the concepts with each other. The paid instructors (and some volunteer faculty) audit the discussions, and interject where needed in order to clarify matters. Additionally, students can message and email instructors if they are having real problems with the information. This is part of the reason that costs are so low and tuition is free: Students are teaching themselves and each other.
Exams, then, play a large role in “proving” whether or not the students are actually learning anything. So far, only one round of exams has been given in two courses. While the pass rates were impressive, the courses were English Composition and Skills for Online Learning. Until the exams for more advanced subjects are administered, and pass rates are seen, it is impossible to gauge how effective this learning model actually is.
Accreditation and Degrees
The biggest issue with University of the People is going to be its ability to gain accreditation. And, of course, the countries the students are in will need to grant the university the privilege of awarding degrees. While accreditation isn’t needed in order for a university to award degrees, it is important — especially in most developed countries — if students want their degrees taken seriously.
An increasing number of online universities have been accredited, and many traditional universities now offer online degree programs in some fields of study. So, being an online school does not bar University of the People from receiving accreditation. However, there are some things about the university that are likely to make accreditation difficult. Its business model, its long term sustainability and viability, its peer to peer model that relegates instructors to marginal positions in the learning process, and its institutional management are all challenges to U.S. accreditation. And in order to be taken seriously by employers, and for the purpose of credit transfer, accreditation is necessary in many cases.
The other issue is the awarding of degrees. Accreditation is not necessary for University of the People to award degrees; it just has to meet the criteria set forth by certain countries and states. So far, though, the University of the People cannot award degrees at all. Many students are hoping that in another three years, after they have completed a four year course of study, degrees will be available and awarded. Many hope that the fact that University of the People has partnerships with Yale and other prestigious institutions will help in the quest to receive authorization to issue degrees. However, the road to degrees and accreditation at the University of the People is a long one.
If you are interested in getting an accredited degree from the University of the People, you might have some time to wait. However, if you are interested in learning with others, and expanding your knowledge base, the University of the People might not be a bad option.
There are other options for learning online, though. Many universities offer free open courseware. These are courses from a number of schools, on a number of subjects, offered for free. MIT has the largest open courseware collection, with thousands of courses offered. Additionally, many schools, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, Notre Dame and dozens of state and private universities, provide access to lecture notes, video presentations and free open courseware.
You should understand, though, that when you complete an open courseware class at one of these schools, you will not receive credit for your efforts. It is merely done for your own edification and learning. You can get a degree online, and there are some great higher education values, but if you want an accredited degree that others take seriously, you will have to be choosy about the program in which you enroll.