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Would You Trust a Free Online College?

posted by Mark on March 19th, 2009

Shai ReshefIsraeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef has a vision of a world in which a college education is readily available to anyone in the world, regardless of their location, background or level of income. That vision takes its first steps towards fruition in April when the University of the People opens its (virtual) doors.

U of P is the world’s first tuition-free online university, which grew out of his work with other online universities and with the homework help site Cramster. Cramster’s peer-based method of learning helped inspire the structure of U of P, which doesn’t use professors to teach classes. Instead, free class materialslectures and “open” textbooks culled from the Internet are used to spur weekly discussions between students and to generate homework assignments, quizzes and exams. A small, part-time faculty of active and retired professors, plus masters-level students and professionals within the respective fields, will evaluate the curriculums and oversee assignments and tests. The only portion of classes that will be held offline is the final exam; to deter cheating, it is administered in a physical location by a representative of the school. If you pass the exam, you pass the class.

Granted, the University of the People isn’t completely “free.” There’s an enrollment fee and a fee to take the final exam, payable only when the student feels ready to take the test. Both fees vary depending on the wealth of the student’s country, with students from poorer countries paying as little as $15 to enroll and $10 to take the exam, while those from wealthier countries could pay up to $50 to enroll and $100 to take the final test. Other than money, the only requirements for admission are a high school diploma, the ability to speak (and read/type/understand) English and access to the Internet.

The University of the People is scheduled to open in April with 300 students and plans to become self-sufficient by the time enrollment reaches 10,000. Initially, only two degree programs will be offered: a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s in Computer Science. According to Reshef, an initial investment of $5 million is needed to get the site up and running, and he feels so confident in his model that he’s putting up $1 million himself.

But the question remains: would you trust a free online college? Outside of wondering where all the money is going ($5 million to start a school with no buildings, no teachers and no books?), there remains the larger issue of the quality of the education. In the US, the method of ensuring that colleges maintain a high standard of quality — accreditation — will prove elusive for U of P as it tries to prove that its educational standards are up to par, despite its unorthodox format. The biggest hurdle in the accreditation process will likely be the lack of a regular faculty. It will be difficult to prove to a reputable accreditor that a professorial presence isn’t needed to shape discussion, provide definitive answers and otherwise serve as a stable voice of reason. Furthermore, upon graduation, what will a U of P diploma be worth? Will employers be willing to trust that students from an unaccredited free university are prepared to enter the workforce?

That said, the goal of the University of the People is an admirable one, and any school attempting to achieve it for the first time will no doubt encounter its share of skepticism. If the idea of a free, universal college education is ever to become feasible, the workplace — and society as a whole — may have to become less rigid about the need for a certain status of school in judging a job applicant. After all, for many people in the world, a school like U of P may be the only real college option.

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