A university for everyone? Interview with Mr. Shai Reshef

A dialogue with the founder of the University of The People about peer-to-peer learning and the future of education

The University of The People virtually opened its doors in 2009. From that very year it has been a long journey for this new institution.

When classes commenced in September 2009, the inaugural UoPeople class had 177 students from 49 countries. After receiving accreditation in February 2014, we had 500 students enrolled. Since receiving accreditation, our student enrollment has doubled each year. We currently actually have over 36,000 students enrolled and predict that we will start the next academic year, this coming September, with 40,000 students.

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. In order to do so, we conducted a great deal of research to understand the most in-demand programs and built our curriculum around our findings.

What have the main changes been during all these years?

We initially offered degree programs in Business Administration and Computer Science. In 2016 we launched the world’s first tuition-free, accredited, online MBA, as well as a degree program in Health Science. In 2018 we debuted our Master of Education program, in collaboration with the international Baccalaureate (IB) to address the shortage of qualified educators around the world, especially in underrepresented areas.

 We also created a new admissions pathway, whereby all students must first take and pass two courses before being considered a degree-seeking student. This allows students to assess whether online learning suits them and ensures they are prepared for UoPeople’s academic rigor.

UoPeople is presented as a school without walls, even in a financial perspective. Can you tell us something about how it works?

 Just before our tenth year, we reached financial sustainability. University of the People provides students the opportunity to receive an online degree completely tuition-free. This means that UoPeople does not charges students for courses, course materials, or annual enrollment. Students are asked only to pay an assessment fee per course completed, which totals $100 for undergraduate programs and $200 for graduate programs. This small student contribution alone enables UoPeople’s operations to be financially sustainable. For those who cannot afford these minimal fees, we are privileged to be able to offer scholarships, generously funded by our supporters.

From 2009 to 2020 the UoPeople has seen two major crisis, a financial one and the last sanitary. Meanwhile in Europe a huge migratory crisis has shown our continent’s big fragilities. How has the participation to your project changed during these shocks? For example, have you noticed an increasing trend in applications during the Covid19 pandemic?

University of the People is founded on the belief that higher education should be accessible and affordable, without compromising quality. Our degree programs are taught asynchronously, meaning that students are able to log-on each week and continue their studies when it is convenient for them. For refugee students, University of the People operates like a “University in a box”, as the University travels with them wherever they go. As such, UoPeople has enrolled roughly 3,000 refugees, 2,000 of whom are Syrian, which is more than any other university in the world.

In our term which began in April 2020, we saw a record number of new students join the University, many as a result of COVID-19. Some were stuck in quarantine or lockdown situations and decided to use their time to pursue higher education. Others are students whose schools have been closed and have found us as the solution to their challenges. Many more had been laid off and decided to pursue degrees to aid in future job searches.  For so many, life after COVID-19 will not be the same. We are ready to accept the hundreds of thousands more students who will need a degree in order to aid their future job search or change career paths as a result of COVID-19.

How would you define the didactic philosophy of the UoPeople?

 University of the people’s pedagogy is grounded in collaborative and peer-to-leer learning pedagogy. Students engage with one another every week 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 with students from over 200 countries, have their ideas challenged, and learn how to respectfully give and receive constructive criticism. Students also learn invaluable skills like self-discipline; sitting down to study after a full day of work is not easy, and students must be motivated and disciplined with their time in order to succeed. Our pedagogy ensures that students not only learn course material, but also learn skills critical to success in the 21st century workforce. 

Some people argue that online learning is not a sustainable path because of a fundamental lack of interaction, especially between students and teachers. Is peer-to-peer didactics going to replace the Aristotelic concept of education?

The University’s learning materials are text-based, with optional videos, to accommodate students without access to broadband. Students without regular or reliable internet access can download all the readings and resources they need and can work “offline” until submitting their work. Classes at UoPeople are asynchronous, meaning that students can study anytime, anywhere. Students learn when it suits them, or when they have internet access.

While we certainly do not underestimate the importance of face-to-face communication, online interaction is the major form for human interaction these days. This is especially true during the era of COVID-19, and will only continue in its aftermath. As such, I think it is important to have a mix of both instructor and peer-based learning. Course instructors still engage with students each week and guide their learning. However, peer assessment is actually the grading method that our advanced students appreciate the most. Being responsible not only for one’s own learning but also for that of one’s classmates increases student commitment to their studies and enhances their learning experience. There is a lot to be gained from peer review, both from receiving and giving feedback. It encourages students to be more critical of their own work and perfect their skills, while at the same time it offers the opportunity to assist others.

You have currently been cooperating with New York University, UC Berkeley and the University of Edinburgh. How are traditional Universities dealing with the online learning issues, according to your perception? 

The coronavirus pandemic forced universities to scramble to move their courses online. While many were drastically unprepared for such a shift, one bright side is that universities and students alike are coming to understand the power and quality of online learning. As unemployment rises, and the global economy looks poised to enter a recession, it is clear to me that more universities will need to adopt our model of high-quality education that is accessible and affordable. Most universities, in order to stay afloat, will need to move students at least partially online (say for one to two years) and must pass those savings on to the students. This will then translate into tens, or even hundreds of thousands, of savings for students in the economic recession following the coronavirus. It is our sincere hope that others replicate our model.

To our knowledge, nobody has so far solved in an efficient way the problem of remote exams. The ability to teach a class online is more or less solved, but the ability to set the properties of a face-to-face exam where you have many students being evaluated at the same time, on the same subject, in different time zones, with different connection capabilities, such as the ability to invigilate exams electronically is still a hot topic. How is your institution dealing with this issue, and could you perhaps anticipate some clues?

Academic honesty is incredibly important at UoPeople. We understand, however, that with students from over 200 countries and territories around the world, many will join our University with different understandings of plagiarism. We have a full unit in our introductory courses dedicated to academic integrity to ensure that all students fully comprehend our policies. All work that students submit is automatically checked for plagiarism by Unicheck – a leading plagiarism detection software. They provide this service to us completely pro-bono, donating their cutting-edge technology for our use.

In terms of remote exams, students are required to complete a certain number of exams every year under the supervision of a proctor. Before COVID-19, many students used a physical proctor, but increasingly students are using online proctoring services, such as ProctorU. In order to complete a proctored exam, students must verify their identity before the exam begins. Then, they complete the exam under the supervision of either a physical or virtual proctor.

From attending a traditional University to creating the first online free University in the United States. On a very personal level, what was your perception of didactics during your University years and how was the relation with your teachers?

I received my master’s degree in Chinese Politics from the University of Michigan. While I attended university at a brick-and-mortar institution, and not online, I was the recipient of a high-quality, American education. Everyone, regardless of their circumstance, should be able to access this level and quality of education. Education has the tremendous power to open people’s minds. I think this is true for whatever you study, so long as you open your mind to new ideas and new cultures, you will grow. My time at the University of Michigan taught me invaluable skills, such as critical thinking and the importance of being a lifelong learner, and opened my eyes to a world of perspectives. 

 Before founding University of the People, I spent 20 years in the for-profit education sector. I began 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.  So, I founded University of the People, so that every high school graduate, regardless of financial, geographic, political, or personal situation, can access higher education. Instead of charging exorbitant amounts for tuition, textbooks, room and board, etc., University of the People provides students with all the resources they need and only charges students a minimal assessment fee at the end of each course.

Giorgio Michalopoulos è laureato in Economia alla Bocconi. È nato, legge libri, morirà

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