Entrepreneur Shai Reshef has traveled to both poles of the education innovation realm – to non-profit from for-profit. At present he’s founder and president of University of the People (UoPeople), an unaccredited, free-tuition online college that offers two majors – business and computer science. It has grown steadily and its model is geared to show nation states in emerging markets how to operate a low-cost, open source, peer-to-peer university. It uses hundreds of volunteer professors and makes students learn from each other. Cost of a degree at UoPeople ranges from $350 to $3,000, depending on what part of the world you are from (it charges for admission and, soon, for exams). He spent $1 million of his money to launch the $6 million, non-profit, start-up in 2009. What gave Reshef the audacity to try such a zany and bold idea? First, he chaired the Kidum Group from 1989 to 2005, a for-profit college based in the Netherlands, which sold to Kaplan Inc. in 2005. He helped set up some of the first online colleges outside the United States. He’s become an Ashoka Fellow and a speaker to groups such as the Clinton Global Initiative, the World Economic Forum and Google’s Higher Education Summit. He holds an MA from the University of Michigan in Chinese Politics. Reshef spoke with WiredAcademic managing editor Paul Glader about the growth of UoPeople, what it is accomplishing and where he sees trends going in digital-based learning.
WA – So you are three years into your program, right? Tell us about the growth so far?
SR – First off, we are converting our name to UoPeople. Quite frequently people refer to us as UoP, which is [confused with] U of Phoenix, which we are definitely not. …We were open for admission in April 2009. We started teaching in September in 2009. We teach in terms of 10 weeks. Every 10 weeks we accept about 100 students. By now, we have accepted 1,300 students from 126 countries. Every 10 weeks, we continue to take 100 [new] students. That will be true until probably for the next year. Then we will start growing faster. We accepted 1,300 students out of 30,000 applicants altogether. We keep ourselves from growing more than 100 students a term until we feel we are ready for them – both in terms of academics and finances.
WA – Is your first graduation coming up?
SR – Our first cohorts do start graduating soon. Students should complete their program within 4 to 6 years. So in late 2013, we should have our first graduates.
WA - How is retention going?
SR – It’s an interesting question. We are there to open the gates. Our mission is open access to higher education. All students have to show us is they have a recognized high school diploma and a sufficient knowledge of English. We verify carefully their high school diploma to make sure it is a legitimate document. And we check their English. When they get accepted, they go into orientation courses. One is in English composition. One is computer skills – skills for online learning. They must pass these orientation courses to become regular students. While the open access means anyone can get a chance, you need to be qualified to go forward. We want to let anyone have a chance to go into higher education. But those who remain with us must have high enough academic capabilities to stick with us. About 60% of students pass the orientation course. We have 40% who can’t make it. We are very happy with it. Our mission is open access. We gave them the opportunity.
WA – Are some of them upset to pay the admission fee and not be able to take classes?
SR – So far, no one had any issue with it. It is for two reasons. 1) They know it in advance. There are no secrets. .. there are no surprises. 2) Our admission processing fee ranges from $10 to $50 depending on country of residence. If someone comes and says I cannot pay, we waive it. There is no situation where someone couldn’t pay and we forced them to do it. We are transparent. When you look at our students, one thing that is common is they are extremely appreciative of what they get. On our web page or Facebook page, we have many positive stories. Every 10 weeks, we ask our students a lot of questions. We are very savvy on feedback… The last question is, “would you recommend the university as a good place for studying with your peers.” If you overall recommend the university to your peers, that means you are satisfied with what you get. 90% to 95% in every term recommend us as a good place to study. The students are very happy with what they get… we are there to serve them.
WA – What is the student profile like, geographically? What trends are you seeing?
SR – They are [students] from 126 countries, all over the world. The largest countries are US, Indonesia, Haiti, China, Brazil, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria. The two largest regions in our program are Africa and the Middle East. We are very strong in the Middle East. We have more than 550,000 fans on Facebook. We are the second largest (most-liked) university on Facebook after Harvard. Along with more than half a million fans, the largest group of fans are coming from Muslim countries.
WA – Interesting. Why?
SR – I have no idea. People say it is because we are on Facebook and Indonesians are on Facebook. But I’m not sure it is the right explanation. We are very strong. We have a lot of people from Muslim countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh etc. The only country different from the rest is Haiti. All 120 countries out of 126 are people who came to us either through a media coverage or Facebook or word of mouth. The only place that is different is Haiti. In Haiti, following the earthquake, I committed ourselves to take 250 Haitians to teach them free. Since in Haiti, the issue is people don’t have electricity, Internet, computers etc. We teamed up with local NGOs. We built centers for them. We have right now 3 centers where the NGOs go into the tent cities and spread the word for UoPeople, screen people and bring them to the centers… Partners equip them with furniture, computers, electricity, back-up generators, satellite Internet connections. Students come every day, study for four hours. In one center they are fed… Haiti is relatively big with more than 80 students at the university.
WA – If someone loses Internet connection or has to move, what happens to their academic career?
SR – The only place in the world we are able to offer our students computer centers is in Haiti. It is a great thing. It is especially great for those who don’t have computers or lose their connectivity. It is a very expensive operation… You need to build a place, equip it and run it. You need infrastructure to do that. It is also costly for us. It is much more activity that requires more administrative work than students who apply online. As much as I think it is a great thing to do, we are unable to do it [easily]. The next country I want to do it is south Sudan. It’s a great country with great potential, but extremely poor…. perhaps the poorest country in the world. For those few who do graduate, if we can teach them online and give them an American education, it will be a great thing… We do have a lot of students studying with us via Internet cafes. We know at least a few students who go to an Internet cafe with a USB, download material from the classroom, upload what they did and go home. It can be done. For that reason, we make sure our students don’t use broadband. We don’t use audio or video. A studio can study synchronously. The broadband is no issue. If you have broadband and can watch video, we tell them to go here or there and look at this course or video.
WA – What if a student must take a leave of absence?
SR – We teach 5 terms a year. It is an ongoing process. We expect them to start two courses each term. Some are working two shifts and they cannot take more than one course. Many of them take breaks. You can ask to pause your studies for a term or two and come back to us later on. …. we have a lot of students who come from not the best financial circumstances. Even if you give it free to them, they still have the investment in time.
WA – What technologies do you use?
SR – We use Moodle. It is our learning platform. Every time a student takes a class, he is being placed together in a virtual classroom with 20 or 30 students from around the world. He or she can go in and see other students’ profiles. It’s like a social network. Each student can build their profile. They go into a place we call a class forum. All students taking the same class can meet each other and talk informally about the class. They can ask questions, exchange ideas and talk informally with instructors. In addition to that, every week when they go into the classroom, they find the lecture notes of the week. That’s the place they see what they are supposed to do every week, what they are supposed to read, what homework to have, the things they are expected to do, that is the learning guide of the week. After reading the assignment of the week, they go to the place where they find a discussion forum. That’s where an instructor puts a discussion question of the week. That’s where a formal discussion is evolving. … each student has to have an original question each week and respond 3-4 times from other student comments…. That’s the core of the peer to peer learning. The instructor is intervening only one someone asks a question no other student can answer or if someone said something that is wrong that needs to be corrected… A learning journal is where a professor might ask a student about his learning experience, his discussion participation. That is between teacher and student. At the end of the week, the student hands in the assignment. They take a quiz. They give the grades over the classroom participation, the learning journal, homework assignment and quiz. They do it 9 weeks in a row. By the 10th week, they take an exam. Then they get a grade for the course and move to the next week. Everything I described so far is happening on Moodle. The one place we are missing is a social platform for the entire university students to interact with each other. For volunteers to interact with each other. and workplace offers of internships or jobs for students. This platform is something we have in mind – to create our own social network. The university as an extracurricular activity, we don’t have the finances to do it.
WA – Has the model that you started with continued to work re: volunteer teachers and peer-to-peer learning? Tell us what has changed?
SR - I would say a few things. When I announced the program, the intention from the very beginning was to rely on volunteers. I think I was extremely surprised with the reaction our program got and the amount of volunteers who jumped on board to help our students. They were way above any expectations. We have more than 2,000 volunteers to help our students. It was very clear to us from the very beginning that we would be unable to use all the volunteers. The second thing we realized along the way is that you cannot let the volunteers interact with the students before you screen them. If you let our volunteers interact with our students, you let someone take responsible of who they are before you know who they are or if they are reliable. Before you have a screening process, you don’t want to have them. Out of 2,000 volunteers, only a few of them we were able to use their help. Until we build this network where we have automatic screening of volunteers, we won’t be able to use them. The third thing we learned is that when someone volunteers to help your student, if you want them to have a commitment, which the student performance depends on, you must build structure where your relationship with volunteers is clear. Along the way, we realized that those we want to become our instructors, we want to create some kind of legal commitment and bonding between us. What we introduced is an honorarium system. Out of the volunteer pool we ask to become our instructors, we offer them an honorarium of $300 to $400 per 10 week course to be involved with our students. It is an honorarium and nothing more than that. They spend over 100 hours with our students…. it creates some kind of commitment.
WA - What’s the profile of most instructors or volunteers? Many retired professors from the US and EU?
SR – David Cohen is a volunteer, our provost, [retired] from Columbia University. Our dean for business is Russell Winer from NYU. The dean of computer science is Alexander Tuzhilin, also from NYU. They are all volunteers. We took our advisory boards for different programs. They are also coming from top universities – Harvard, Yale, etc. All our volunteers either work full time in other universities or are retired professors.
WA – Do you still have just two full time employees? How has your staff expanded?
SR – We have about 20 now. Some of them are spread all over the world. We are very proud we just opened an office. Our IT development has just been moved to the West Bank in Palestine. We ask our students to pay the application fee. We are going to introduce this year an examination processing fee. Students can take the course. But if they want to take the test, they have to pay an examination fee. We are looking now for donations. We approached several foundations and have some to support our operation. We produced a scholarship fund to help students pay for examination fees. Since our mission is open access… we introduced a scholarship fund to support it. We announced it Nov., a big new scholarship foundation. Our aim was to raise $250,000. We were able to raise $350,000 instead of $250,000 we expected. We are very happy with that. We still have a long way to go. We need $6 million to become sustainable.
WA – What does financing and your path to sustainability look like? Still using the initial $5 million? Do you still need 10,000 or 15,000 enrollment to be self sustaining?
SR – It’s still the same. We need 15,000 to be sustainable. We need $6 million to get there. We are looking. When we have 15,000 students and $6 million, we will be sustainable and will not need any more money. This is an inexpensive amount because we lean on open source technology and volunteers. We are approaching, now, foundations, corporates and individuals to help our institution or students…. We are changing the face of higher education and opening the gates for so many people who deserve this opportunity. People are willing to help us financially.
WA – Are you content offering a business and computer science program? Any plans for expansion? Why or why not?
SR – We chose these two programs because they are most in demand to help our students find a job… we are approaching students from developing countries to improve their standards of living. If you studied computer science or business administration, whether you studied in the US, Tanzania, or Indonesia…. we can put students around the world in every class they take. Exposing our students to other countries, we believe it is as important as what they study. We believe by doing so, we broaden their mind. We open them to other cultures. We put Indians and Pakistanis in one classroom. We show them that people most likely to be their enemies are studying in one classroom… it forces us to teach only these two programs. We believe other programs are in great demand in developing markets. We are going to consider other programs and other languages. But we feel the demand to our program right now is so big, it will take time before we start considering it. We are very short in our finances. In order to offer other programs in other languages, we will need more funding.
WA – What’s the update on accreditation? Still a chance you could be accredited in California?
SR – We are licensed in California, which means we are allowed to grant degrees. However, we are still not accredited. We are working on that. It is our intention to be accredited. I cannot guarantee it. I cannot say when we are going to do that. It is our intention, when you look at what we are doing, who we are and what’s behind us, it is up to our students to determine our likelihood. We are partners in research with Yale Law School and with NYU. After one year, our students will be accepted to NYU Abu Dhabi. At least NYU thinks we are doing well… They will accept our credit.
WA – Have you seen other low-tuition or tuition free college degrees springing up?
SR - Not yet. I think there will be. If you ask me what is your mission, we believe we built a model to show that a quality education can be extremely inexpensive. We are building a model for developing countries’ governments. They take the few million they have and try to build their own Harvard, Oxford, Sorbonne, Yale. They spend the few millions they have but it is not becoming Harvard. You can’t build Harvard in a few years. We are saying look at our model. What we are doing can be applicable. What we are doing can ensure every single person in your country can get a quality education. It is not going to be Harvard but neither are your institutions… think what it will do to your country. It’s unavoidable when they look at us, … That’s our mission, to force them and make them replicate what we are doing. It’s up to us to be there as long as they don’t do it and as long as they like what we are offering. One day, perhaps there wont be a need for us.
WA – What were your models when you were thinking of this? Did you consider the Open University system in the UK?
SR – I think it’s [the Open University] great. … But it’s not free. For developing countries, it is not a cheap offer. They are moving dramatically to open education resources. What they [Open University] are doing is a great thing. They were the first ones to open the gates and be flexible. It is not free though. And, still, a lot of people cannot afford it. The concept of peer-to-peer learning is still unique. Again, they are moving there as well. They have elements of peer collaboration. I think we are living in a world where online learning is picking up. Different models are being developed. From my perspective, there are a lot of different options that are there and will be there. I think it’s for good. Mike Feerick of Alison.com is for profit. He is trying to build another model, which is very interesting. He’s not a university and isn’t’ trying to be one. It’s free.
WA - How does MIT’s new change toward MITx affect you guys? What’s happening in OpenCourseWare and its relation to your program?
SR – No. not at all. We admire what they do. We support it. They were the first to start with OpenCourseware. What they are doing is great. What differentiates us with the entire open education resources movement… [is that] we are the first and only university that bases itself on open education resources. All of our course content and reading assignments are open education resources. There are a lot of universities walking toward this direction. They stopped shy of giving academic credit to students who take these courses. That’s a big difference. If you take a Stanford course open source, you are not going to get credit for it. With MIT, you will get a certificate now but not academic credit. Were using their material but we are a very structured university. You need to be accepted to take our courses. You get credit if take it [and pass the exams].
WA – Where do you think the disruptions in higher education will lead in 5 or 10 years?
SR – I think that, first of all, people ask me if we are a threat…There are great research universities like NYU and Harvard. They should be there. I am serving those who have no other opportunity. Those who have other opportunities should take them, not with us. Those who come to us have no other opportunity or alternative and do great. We hope to offer them the next step. For them, that is NYU. People from the developing world who meet our standards and do great, they should go on to NYU. There will be some alternatives. We are showing that there can and should be alternative institutions.
WA – What are your immediate goals for expanding and improving the school?
SR – 1) We want to become sustainable. This is an extremely important goal. 2) We want to make sure that we build the quality and preserve the quality as we want our university to be… 3) To be able to serve as many students as needed. If that means to serve 100,000 or 1 million, as many as needed. If that means we need to go into other languages or programs, we will. We want to change the world of higher education by making it accessible to all. So we are bringing democracy there as long as they need.
WA – What do you think of the for-profit college industry in the United States?
SR – I myself came from the for-profit college world. I used to own a or-profit university in the Netherlands… I think the for-profit universities are doing something that is very important. It is a policy of the American government to have as many people attend higher education as possible. If Obama wants to move from 70% to 100% of people attending college, that means 50% growth in the number of places that universities should offer. Traditional universities cannot do that because they don’t have the physical facilities or interest in growing. For-profit universities can do that. Recently it was revealed some of the things they were doing was not right. That should be corrected… but doing that and condemning online universities … there is a long way.
WA – What do you think of the educational startup industry developing? What are some of your favorites?
SR – I think that it’s an evolving moment. For the last 20 years, I was part of the education industry. For many years, there were talks about changes happening in the higher education world through technology. I think that only in the last couple of years, things are being changed. I think that changes are happening these days. I think that one of the mistakes still happening right now that happened before is people trying to use the best technology to affect the changes. The problem with technology is that 1) It is expensive when it is new and 2) Most people can’t afford it. I believe the world is ready for changes through technology. It should be proven tech and available. We don’t use video or audio or broadband. We use tech as a way to reach our students. We don’t use the most sophisticated technology. That’s one of the lessons that should be out there. Technology should change the face of education. If you want to have an effect, use a technology that is proven and available to everyone.