2014-10-31 - UoPeople: Virtually Too Good to Be True!

HIP (Hard-Working, Innovative, Passionate) People Place

A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance.
■  Gary Hamel

In an effort to develop future business leaders in Japan, where I am a university lecturer, I publish a blog in Japanese. Though I initially wrote about the work of other scholars and executives, I thought the blog would be more interesting if I could interview management leaders directly. My only concern was securing cooperation. Successful scholars and business professionals are extremely busy.

To my pleasant surprise, most have made time for me despite their often impossible schedules. I am delighted, indeed, moved. Not only have I enjoyed the privilege of being able to dialog with these individuals, I have found their talks inspirational. Each has exhibited exuberant passion and demonstrated the value of sheer hard work. Thinking about how much I have benefited from the interviews, I decided to establish this English blog to share them with a wider audience than Japanese readers. I am certain they will enlighten you. I hope they will inspire you.


University of the People (UoPeople) President Shai Reshef

This time, Shai Reshef, founder and president of University of the People (UoPeople), spoke with me. As the first tuition-free, non-profit, online academic institution, UoPeople enables people who would not otherwise be able to attend college to earn a degree in business or computer science. I am confident you will be inspired by this interview on the University, founded on the belief that knowledge is a key ingredient of world peace. For furthermore further information and inspiration, you might also want to view the TED Talk by President Reshef linked below.


Shai Reshef: An ultra-low-cost college degree


1.     Can you tell us a little about your personal background, education, and career experience? What motivated you to study Chinese politics as a graduate student? How, if at all, is your interest in Asian politics related to your passion for education?

I learned Asian culture in my program on Chinese politics and history at Michigan State University. I am not sure that these studies have direct correlation to what I do right now, but I think studying Chinese and especially modern Chinese history led me to a strong realization of how people’s behavior and effort can change things.

I spent twenty years of my life in the for-profit education sector. Among other accomplishments, I established the first online university in Europe. In doing so, I witnessed how powerful online learning can be. We had students from all over the world. They stayed at home. Continuing their jobs, they were able to obtain a high-quality European education. At the same time, I realized that earning an online degree was nothing more than wishful thinking for many people. Because the program was too expensive, they could not afford it.
I eventually sold this business to go into semi retirement. Soon after, I realized I wanted to continue to work, but not doing more of the same. Because I am fortunate, because I have enough wealth, I felt it was time to give back. I also knew I would have to do so through education. Not only do I know this field best, more importantly, when you educate a person, you change that individual’s life. Ultimately, you can change the world. I want to have an impact on the world, and I believe the only way to do so is through education.

As I looked around, I realized that all of the resources that had made the online program I had established expensive were now available for free: open-source technology, free online resources, and cyber culture where people share with and teach one another and are open to one another. At that point, I realized that all I really needed to do is bundle all of these resources together. The University of the People is the outcome. 


2.    How did you conceive of the idea of providing universal access to higher education? In a world of many problems ranging from global warming to hunger to pollution, why has education, in particular, attracted your attention?

As mentioned, when you educate people, you not only change their lives but also the world. This is the primary reason why I have focused on education, which also happens to be the area that I know best.


3.     You started the University of the People in January 2009. What did your organization look like then? How has it evolved since? Where do you expect to be five years from now? More specifically, by what metrics will you assess your success?

The idea for the University of the People came from considerable thinking on the problems of education in the world along with the realization that all the resources necessary for creating a free, online university are now available. When I announced the establishment of the university at a conference called Verde in Munich, Germany, three people were on my team. The New York Times published an article about the university the day after I announced it. In response, I received hundreds of emails from people, including professors expressing their desire to help. The university was started by these people getting on board working to create the courses and develop the infrastructure. We also created a web page to teach the students about the university and how to apply, as well as a separate portal for actually instructing students. People around the world were working on the project by this time. As a result, in April we began the admission process, and we started teaching students online by September 2009, a mere nine months after announcing establishment of the University of the People. All of this work was done by volunteers.

Currently, 3000 volunteers run the university, supported by a small cadre of paid staff. Like me, the provost is a volunteer. However, the vice provost is a paid staff member. The deans are volunteers, but the Associate Provost for Academic Affairs is a salaried employee. Similarly, the Director of Finance is paid even though the CFO is a volunteer. We designed this organizational structure for two reasons. Because we rely on many volunteers, we want to use their time efficiently. Whereas many university professors squander an enormous amount of time navigating the bureaucracy, we remove this burden by using our paid staff. This way, volunteer faculty can focus on the tasks for which their skills are most important. Second, we have understudies who can immediately step up to the plate until a suitable replacement is found if a volunteer must discontinue due to other priorities or for other reasons.

We have already achieved several milestones. In addition to accepting over two thousand students from over 147 countries, we received accreditation this year. This testament to the educational quality of our program will help students land jobs when they graduate. The accreditation also makes them eligible to study for advanced degrees at other universities. The next major milestone is achieving financial sustainability. Though the University of the People is tuition-free, students are expected to pay $100 for each exam they take. To earn a bachelor’s degree, students must pass a total of 40 exams, ten per year. We offer a variety of scholarships to students who cannot afford to pay for the exams because our major mission is to ensure no one is left behind due to financial reasons. At the same time, the university receives one hundred dollars per exam, either from the student directly or through a scholarship. If we attain our goal of 5000 students by 2017, we will reach financial sustainability.

According to UNESCO, by 2025 over 98 million individuals in the world will not be able to attend college because no seats will be available. The University of the People is a model showing how to serve all of these people. If we can do it, other universities can, too. Instead of building universities, which will drain resources without meeting the demand for education, developing countries can establish online universities. The University of the People’s mission is to ensure these 98 million people are served. If other universities and countries do not join the effort, we will continue to grow until we achieve this mission.


4.       How do you see your curriculum developing over time? Do you currently plan to provide graduate and professional degrees like the MS in Computer Science, MBA, MPA, or Judicial Doctorate?

We have started creating a bachelor-level program in health science. Looking at the recent Ebola outbreak as an example, we realized that this field is an acute need in many developing countries. For this reason, health sciences will be our next program. We are also evaluating areas in which to develop a master program and plan to begin creating a masters course shortly.


5.     Before founding UoPeople, you worked for a for-profit education company. Comparing this experience to your current one, what would you say is the biggest difference between the for-profit and not-for-profit world? Would your mission of rendering higher education universally accessible be more easily achieved with a for-profit business model?

The University of the People operates like a for-profit business. We have a business plan and goals, and we evaluate ourselves on a monthly basis. We are exactly like any other business with respect to our daily activities. Because I am from the for-profit world, I believe the organization needs to have a plan and objectives. Individuals need goals and plans, too. And they all need to be measured closely and regularly.

That said, I will mention some differences. First, lots of people support the University of the People as a nonprofit that we would never be able to attract otherwise. The Chair of our Council of Presidents is the Chancellor of New York University. The Vice Chancellor of Oxford also serves on the council along with the Secretary of Education of the United States. Similarly, the Provost is from Columbia University. You would not attract these luminaries as a for-profit business. The University of the People also benefits from the assistance of 3000 volunteers.

On the other hand, fundraising would be easier if we were a for-profit enterprise. I chose a non-profit model because many are suspicious of for-profit education. Because our approach is so different, so disruptive, I knew people would be even more skeptical: They would assume that we were not serious, or perhaps that we had a hidden agenda. By organizing as a nonprofit, we have circumvented this problem and achieved legitimacy. People support us. If you look at the current state of for-profit American universities today, they are under attack. Seeing this, I am glad I am not a for-profit enterprise. As a nonprofit, I am positioned to prove my point, achieve my mission more quickly and easily.


6.      What challenges have you faced in establishing UoPeople? How have you overcome them?

The two major challenges we have faced are fundraising, as previously explained, and skepticism about whether a free university was a viable model that could ensure quality, receive accreditation, and operate sustainably. Our recent accreditation is helping us overcome these obstacles.


7.    Tell us about how instruction is provided in your specific distance-learning model. How is it different from MOOCs and other online platforms like Coursera? What feedback or critiques of your model have you received from these "competitors"?

The University of the People is quite different from a MOOC. Actually, I am a great supporter of MOOCs. First, they spread knowledge throughout the world, a contribution which I, of course, applaud. Second, the fact that famous universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, among others, offer MOOCs, which are online education, endorse the validity of online learning. I really appreciate and admire MOOCs and I believe that they show a great importance in online learning. However, if you take a MOOC, you might attend in a virtual classroom containing 10,000, or 100,000 or even 200,000 other learners. At the University of the People, students are in classes of twenty or thirty. We use peer-to-peer learning, but the course is supervised by an instructor who responds to questions and monitors discussion. Students also receive personalized instructor attention. This was a very important part of our pedagogy.   

The students in our programs are also different from typical MOOC students. Eighty percent of Coursera or MOOC students already have a previous degree. Forty percent have a bachelor’s degree, and the same proportion has a Master’s or higher degree. A majority of the remaining 20% are university students. Though they may all have strong academic backgrounds, less than 5% of MOOC participants actually complete the courses in which they enroll.

MOOCs have received some criticism for not succeeding to reach the have-nots, but rather those who have had the opportunity of attaining higher education before, and therefore just widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In addition, although most MOOCs users have strong academic backgrounds, less than 5% of MOOC participants actually complete the courses in which they enroll. Many of our students, in contrast, have been through extreme hardships such as natural disasters and conflict in many cases. In spite of these obstacles, 95% of our students complete the courses they take, so I know we are doing something right.

I might also add that the University of the People is a university, and not an online course. As with other universities, students apply for admissions, follow a curriculum, and must pass courses. We grant degrees. MOOCs, in contrast, are stand-alone courses. You cannot receive a degree from a MOOC. Our model has not received critique, only praise.

8.    Your partners include the United Nations, New York University, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard, among others. Can you tell us about some of the collaborative projects you are currently undertaking with these partners and others globally?

HP has donated money and computers. They have also developed an internship program and scholarship program for women. Throughout their studies, these women are mentored by a HP employee. In Africa, Microsoft has provided complete scholarships to 1000 students, who have free access to Microsoft Certifications opportunities while at the university. The students are also mentored by Microsoft employees and will complete internships. Students may also be offered Microsoft jobs after completing their programs. As mentioned, the chair of our Council of Presidents is from NYU, as are all of our deans. Furthermore, many NYU professors are also volunteering for the University of the People. Our best students have the opportunity to transfer to NYU, where they enjoy full scholarships.


9.    How many students have graduated from the university in business administration? In computer science? What are their demographics (average age, age range, gender breakdown, geographic region)? In what organizations do they work?

Our students range in age from 18-66, with the average age being 29. With 30% female and 70% male (a number I’d like to see even out in the near future), our students hail from all over the world (US ~ 28%, Central and South America ~ 14%, Africa ~33%, Asia ~10%, and the rest from Europe, Oceania and South America), and work in a very broad spectrum of occupations.


10.   For Japanese students who would like to study at the University of the People, the English language is a major obstacle. Do you plan to provide online, ESOL courses for non-English speaking students? Do you anticipate offering instruction in other languages?

To study at the University of the People, students must first past the TOEFL or an equivalent exam. For those who have not, we offer a nine-week English course that they must pass to enter a degree program. However, we are not an English school. Students who do not know English will have to learn it elsewhere before they can apply to the university. If we someday have the resources, we would consider offering instruction in other languages.


11.   What advice would you give to others aspiring to found a not-for-profit organization or for-profit start up? Are the required skills different for each?

In both cases, you need to be passionate about what you do. You need a clear vision. You also need to know what your core business is and avoid becoming side-tracked by any activity that is not part of that core. Most important, never give up! Whether your organization is a for-profit or non-profit, the journey is a long marathon. No matter what happens, never give up. If you keep on keeping on, the results will eventually come.


12.   What pastimes do you enjoy when you are not working?

Over the past five years, I have been extremely involved with the University of the People. I enjoy my work a lot. In fact, if you ask me what I enjoy doing most, I would respond, “the work I am doing now.” In the sparse time that I have outside of work, in addition to meeting new people and reading, which I very much enjoy, I like to run. Running is my way of meditating. It clears my mind and helps me focus.



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