Education is key to success in today’s wired world, and thanks to Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef, getting access to higher education will soon be a whole lot easier — and cheaper.
Typically, college education is available to those who have the resources to enroll, leaving millions of people around the world locked out of many educational opportunities.
“I’m not the only one who feels that it doesn’t make sense,” Reshef said. “Quite a few people in the world feel that it’s a shame that people cannot afford education and do not get education because they cannot afford it.”
That inequity led Reshef to launch University of the People in January; it is the world’s first tuition-free online university. The university began accepting applicants in April and, as of May, had more than 650 applicants from 90 countries. Reshef said the university plans to enroll 300 students in September, add another 400 in January, another 550 in May 2010 and grow enrollment by approximately 30 percent every semester.
“The idea is to never stop,” Reshef said. “As long as there is demand, we will be there.”
If all goes according to plan, enrollment will nearly double every year and the university will have 15,000 students in four years.
Reshef, a 20-year veteran of for-profit education, was formerly owner and chairman of Kidum Group, an Israeli for-profit educational service company that was sold to Kaplan in 2005. While at Kidum, he was involved in building KIT, the first online university outside the United States, created in partnership with the University of Liverpool.
Unlike those initiatives, University of the People will operate as a nonprofit institution,utilizing open source technology to provide access to open courseware. The only charges will be a $15-50 entrance fee and $10-100 examination fees. People from poorer countries will get the lower price point, and those from wealthier countries will pay more.
“When we have 15,000 students, this amount will make the university sustainable,” Reshef said. “We need $6 million in order to get there, but when we have 15,000 students, that should make the university sustainable.”
While Reshef has been working on the idea for several years, he drew inspiration to see it to fruition in 2008, when he invested in and became chairman of the company that runs the online peer-to-peer study community, Cramster.com. Reshef decided to take the social networking model used by Cramster and others and apply it to academia — and do it for free.
“Peer-to-peer teaching is a phenomenon that can really help people study and, in a way, replace the traditional role of the teacher,” Reshef said.
It’s part of a growing trend in education to provide open access to educational resources online and encourage greater collaboration among students and teachers. Groups such as the OpenCourseWare Consortium and OER Commons have sprung up in recent years, providing free access to educational resources on the Web. (For more on the open courseware trend, read this Chief Learning Officer story.)
In addition to open courseware and open source technology, the university will depend on volunteers to develop courses, instruct and help out in classrooms. While the university still is developing the instructional delivery tools, Reshef said the basic idea is that, after enrolling in a course, students will be placed in a virtual classroom with their fellow students.
There they’ll find the lecture of the week, along with discussion questions and access to additional resources, including collaborative technology to allow them to interact with other students and the instructor.
“We’re trying to make the technology as simple as we can,” Reshef said. “Our assumption is that we are going to have a lot of students from the Third World, and many of them are not going to have broadband.”
As a result, studies will be asynchronous. There also will be options for synchronous learning, but it won’t be required for course completion.
“The university is going to be a great option for those who don’t have any other option,” Reshef said. “Someone who wants to and can apply to the best university in the world probably will go to the best university in the world. We are not going to be an alternative for them. But for many who don’t have any other alternative, we’re going to be a great alternative.”
Reshef and University of the People have already been featured by The New York Times and ABC News, and Fast Company magazine recently named Reshef one of the 100 most creative people in business.
“The great opportunity is to make education more universal than it is,” he said. “Technology has gone a long way, but it has not been used properly, or enough, in education. Applying the new social behavior — and I look at social networking as social behavior more than technology — and applying that to education makes it an extremely powerful tool for the future of education. Instead of telling people that’s how you should learn, we should look at how they behave and how we can fit education into their behavior.”Filed under: Technology