The staggering cost of higher education is often considered one of the greatest obstacles to escaping poverty. College, professional, and graduate schools currently cost more than ever – as of 2013, the cost of higher education had surged more than 538 percent since 1985.

It is a general trend across major countries in the world with higher education taking the shape of a business. As a result, middle/working-class families are unable to afford higher education, so they stay in the working class.

The whole scenario often leaves students (and potential students) with a lot of pressure, stress, and anxiety. And most who make it to the finish line graduate while drowning in debts from student loans.

Although there are several Open Education Resources, Online learning platforms with lectures from top universities and prominent experts, as well as other resources that allow people to get quality education at relatively cheaper rates, society places more value on a “real” degree from a “real” university.

Unlike programs highlighted above, online accredited universities – with actual classrooms, classmates, professors, and instructors, administrative staff, degree courses, etc – seem to be the solution, a system, which the University of the People pioneered, in 2009.

UoPeople is the first non-profit, tuition-free, American accredited online university, designed to help qualified high school graduates overcome financial, geographic, political, and personal constraints keeping them from collegiate studies.

Today, it has roughly 25,000 students enrolled from more than 200 countries and territories and in an interview with Ventures Africa, Shai Reshef, Founder of UoPeople shares the motivation behind starting the school, highlights of the journey so far as well as the long-term view for the online university.

Ventures Africa (VA)- What motivated you to start UoPeople?

Shai Reshef (SR)- Before launching UoPeople, I spent 20 years in the for-profit education sector. I founded KIT eLearning, the first online university outside the US and the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool. I witnessed first-hand the power of online education but knew that for so many deserving people around the world, it was still far too costly. I firmly believe that education is a fundamental human right, not simply a privilege for those who can afford it. As such, I founded the University of the People so that every high school graduate, regardless of financial, geographic, political, or personal situation, can access higher education. UoPeople has helped students such as Sita, Doloreste, and Doug, amongst others, overcome a number of these barriers. 

VA- How did you get partners, most of who are international leading organizations and corporations, in sharing your vision?

SR- The idea and mission of University of the People have attracted a lot of attention. I first announced the University at the Digital – Life – Design (DLD) conference in Munich. The day after, the New York Times wrote an article about UoPeople. Following the article, I was contacted by hundreds of professors, all saying that the time had come for a revolution in higher education. They volunteered their skills to build an accessible, affordable, and high-quality university. We now have over 11,000 volunteers, including our President’s Council Members who come from leading universities around the world, our Provost and Vice Provost who come from Columbia, and our Deans who are from NYU and Princeton. Our articulation agreements with NYU, UC Berkeley, and the University of Edinburgh come from the same belief in the University’s mission. 

We are very grateful for the support of our partners, who range from large corporations such as Facebook, Microsoft, and HP, to foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Fondation Hoffmann, as well as generous private donors. Simply put, we would not be where we are without the support of our volunteers and partners worldwide and we are exceptionally grateful for their continued support of our mission.

VA- I noticed the university only offers courses in business administration, computer science, health science and education. Why is that so and are there plans to expand your course offerings?

SR- Our ultimate hope is to provide our students with the skills needed to participate and succeed in today’s global market and offer a better future for themselves, their families, their communities, and, ultimately, the world. To do so, we conducted a great deal of research to understand the most in-demand programs and built our curriculum around our findings. As a result, we offer degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science, Health Science and a Master’s in Education. Individuals with backgrounds in these fields are in demand by employers around the world, and following graduation, our students are highly suitable candidates once they enter the job market. 

VA- What are the classes like, and how is the curriculum shaped?

SR- The University’s pedagogy is grounded in collaborative and peer-to-peer learning. The curriculum is determined by the Dean of the respective program, together with the guidance of the program’s advisory board, comprised of academics from leading universities around the world and practitioners at the highest level.

Students are given weekly assignments to discuss and reflect on their readings under the supervision of their course instructor. Students are given a combination of learning journal assignments, class-wide discussion forums, self-administered quizzes, and graded quizzes. Engaging in peer-to-peer learning allows students to interact with our diverse student body, have their ideas challenged, and learn how to give and receive constructive criticism respectfully. 

Classes are asynchronous, meaning that students can study when it suits them. The vast majority of UoPeople students work full-time while studying with us and many are raising families, so it is important that students are able to study on their own schedule. Initially, the University’s learning materials were entirely text-based, to accommodate our many students without access to broadband; however, as the availability of broadband has increased, we have started to integrate multimedia into our courses. A brief video about how UoPeople works can be found here.

VA- With the existence of several online and distance learning platforms, how have you been able to create a differentiation between UoPeople and other massive open online courses?

SR- I should first clarify that UoPeople does not offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). We keep our class sizes small (around 20-30 students per class) to maximize student involvement with each other and the instructor. Our student population is also very different. MOOCs also do not currently offer the opportunity to earn a full associate’s or bachelor’s degree, whereas, at UoPeople, students can earn an American-accredited associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree online and tuition-free. The majority of MOOC users already have a previous degree; for the majority of our students, UoPeople is their only opportunity to obtain higher education. While UoPeople students from developing countries typically come from the lowest income quartiles, MOOC users from the same countries are typically much wealthier. Finally, UoPeople offers full student support services and academic advising, similar to a traditional university. Roughly 5 percent of MOOC users complete their first course, compared to 85 percent at UoPeople.

VA- Stats from the UoPeople website show that there are currently over 20,000 students enrolled across 200 countries. Reaching this level in just ten years, how were you able to get people to embrace the idea of virtual classrooms?

SR- We have actually just reached about 25,000 students enrolled this term! At first, because our model was so innovative, we definitely had sceptics. Our students, supporters, and volunteers have been the ones to spread the word about the University to others. We became accredited in 2014, which also helped spread the mission of the University. However, prospective students still contact us, asking if the University is too good to be true! When we designed our courses, we wanted to make sure that students interacted with one another as much as possible. We have students from all over the globe, and the diversity of our student body and instructor pool is one of the University’s greatest assets. As such, students participate in a system of peer assessments, reviewing classmates’ work and engaging in lively discussions each week. 

VA- Are the certificates obtained from your institution able to compete with other institutions in the labour market, especially with the scepticism of employers towards online institutions?

SR- Our agreements with NYU, UC Berkeley, and the University of Edinburgh, are certainly a great indicator of the reception of UoPeople degrees. We are proud to report that 92 percent of UoPeople graduates are employed including at such companies as Amazon, Apple, Dell, Deloitte, IBM, Microsoft, and JP Morgan, and institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. Many of our students and graduates have continued their studies, including their PhD’s, at universities around the world such as UC Berkeley (USA), University of Delaware (USA), University of Auckland (New Zealand), Carnegie Mellon University (Australia), and many more. 

To further support our students and graduates, we recently launched an enhanced alumni network and Career Service Center. We offer our students guidance and advice for professional success in areas such as resume building, cover letter writing, job searching, interview preparedness, and career planning.

VA- Are there instances of how your partnerships have helped in broadening student opportunities after obtaining their degrees?

SR- Absolutely. UoPeople students have gone on to study at NYU and UC Berkeley as a result of our partnerships with these institutions. One of our students, Mieko, who moved to the United States from Japan to expand her graphic design business to the American market, transferred to Berkeley, and she graduated with a 4.0 GPA. We have also had graduates go on to work for organizations with whom we have partnerships. UoPeople graduates have been employed at some of the leading companies and institutions in the world, such as Amazon, Apple, Dell, IBM, JP Morgan, Microsoft, VMLY&R, the UN, and the World Bank.

VA- What are some of the challenges faced in running the school?

SR- The biggest challenge facing the University is spreading the word about UoPeople to those who need us the most. Similarly, as we rapidly grow our student population, we’ve doubled our enrollment every year over the past four years, we regretfully are limited in scholarship funds. While UoPeople is tuition-free, the University is not completely free. We do charge modest fees to support the continued operations of the University. Some students, however, are unable to pay even these nominal fees. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we are privileged to be able to offer scholarships to many of our students. However, there are thousands of students on our waitlist who are unable to commence their studies without a scholarship. As we do our utmost to ensure that the cost to students is as low as possible while maintaining our quality, we, unfortunately, are unable to offer scholarships to all of our students in need. However, we are, and will, continue to do our best to open the gates to higher education to all qualified prospective students. 

VA- How does UoPeople employ sharing and collaboration with open source technology in its learning model?

SR- UoPeople students use the learning management system (LMS) Moodle to submit their work, connect with Course Instructors, and interact with their fellow students. Moodle was built and has been maintained by volunteers using open source technology. Additionally, we use Open Educational Resources (OER) and educational content that has been made free for students. We believe that this trend, of equal access to educational materials, will continue to grow in the coming years. It is one of the reasons why UoPeople can provide high-quality education, tuition-free. 

VA- What is the long-term view of UoPeople?

SR- UNESCO estimates that by 2025 there will be nearly 100 million young people seeking seats in universities that do not exist. Our goal is to provide access to high-quality, tuition-free higher education for all those in need. 

The University reached financial sustainability in our 10th anniversary year; we have therefore demonstrated that tuition-free education can be of the highest quality and still be financially sustainable. It is our sincere hope that others will replicate our model. Until then, we will continue growing such that every single qualified student can pursue higher education. 

UoPeople Nigerian student, Paul Akinwumi. Photo credit: Twitter.

Meanwhile, Ventures Africa also spoke with one of the beneficiaries from the UoPeople, Paul Akinwumi, whose father died 19 years ago, leaving his mother with four sons who she struggled financially to raise without help from family or friends.

Paul is the only one in his family without an undergraduate degree as he was denied admission to a federal university in Nigeria for three years despite passing all the admission qualification exams. Moreover, he could not afford to attend a private university in Nigeria.

According to Paul, UoPeople fosters self-reliance in each student, unlike traditional tertiary institutions in Nigeria and being a student there has been “fantastic.” The school, where he hopes to get a degree in Community and Public Health, has “impacted my life positively beyond my imagination,” he says.

VA- Do you think UoPeople is affordable, considering the application fee and assessment fees?

Paul Akinwumi (PA)- University of the People’s application fee of $60 is very affordable, and the application process is stress-free because all the documents are submitted online. UoPeople’s assessment fee of $100 per course in a term is very affordable, compared to traditional universities in Nigeria with about $500+ as tuition fees.

VA- Being an online platform, do you consider the institution more effective than the usual on-campus and class-based degrees offered by most universities today?

PA- I attended a pre-semester lecture at a university here in Nigeria 2 years ago. My experience during the lecture was that the lecture room was crowded, some students had to stand up throughout the lecture due to limited seats, the sound system in the lecture room was very poor, such that some students couldn’t hear the lecturer, and the students were noisy; overall I didn’t understand a thing from the lecture. Compared to UoPeople, where lectures are online and a noisy or crowded class is not a consideration. University of the People is very effective compared to most Nigerian universities.

VA- What is the studying experience like, particularly the challenges you have faced so far?

PA- My experience at University of the People has been fantastic. I did encounter some challenges in my first term; it was difficult for me to blend into the UoPeople system because I had no prior online university experience. The grading system is also different from the grading system here in on-campus universities in Nigeria. Also, the UoPeople calendar was hard to understand when I first started, and the time difference between time zones caused me to submit an assignment late. However, my Program Advisor is the direct bridge that connected me to the UoPeople system. He guided me through the challenges I faced in my first term, such as the course registration process, understanding prerequisite courses, proctor registration, and time management. 

VA- How do you handle situations of poor internet access or signal?

PA- Poor internet access was the biggest issue I faced when I started at UoPeople. I developed a system of downloading all the needed course materials such as course textbooks, articles, research papers, stories or software, whenever the internet signal was strong. I then turn off my data and read the downloaded materials and answer the assignments. I then turn on my data to submit the assignments and contribute to class discussions. This system helps me to conserve my data usage. It helps me to handle situations of poor internet access by downloading the materials first and making submissions only when I have a strong internet signal and access.

VA- Do you think that students at UoPeople can compete with their peers in traditional tertiary institutions in Nigeria or worldwide?

PA- University of the People fosters self-reliance in each student, unlike traditional tertiary institutions in Nigeria, where students study together or help each other to answer and understand class assignments, tests, or exams. Each UoPeople student develops self-confidence through class discussions in the discussion forum, Learning Journal, and graded quizzes, unlike many tertiary institutions where students depend on their friends to succeed. I believe UoPeople students can compete with students from any tertiary institution in Nigeria.

VA- How would you rate the impact UoPeople has had on you so far?

PA- UoPeople has impacted my life positively beyond my imagination. University of the People’s academic rigour has encouraged me to develop my work ethic, self-confidence, self-esteem, and time management skills.

Editor’s Note: This is a sponsored post.

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