Meet the Man Leading the Online Education Revolution

Shai Reshef's tuition-free online university was recently accredited in the U.S., giving the developing world an accessible path to higher education.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

It was a significant week for University of the People. The university — founded by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef in 2009 as a new, low-cost model of higher education — reached an important milestone, gaining U.S. accreditation as an academic institution. The university’s aspires to make higher education accessible to all, as opposed to being an option primarily for people of means.

Many have already deemed University of the People, or UoPeople for short, an educational revolution. This week’s decision makes the degrees it bestows legitimate academic credentials and recognizes graduates as having completed university studies. The graduates — many of them refugees, illegal migrants and poor people, who were generally unable to find adapt themselves to traditional university studies for reasons both financial and personal — now have degrees they never dreamed of.

“I always knew they would recognize us,” says Reshef. “For years, day after day, we had heated arguments on our Facebook page about the recognition issue. ‘Will you get recognized?’ and ‘When will they recognize you?’ We couldn’t answer for legal reasons, and it was frustrating, because we wanted to calm our students down, and tell them that recognition will come, it will happen.”

Reshef, 58, from the city of Petah Tikvah near Tel Aviv, started University of the People four years after selling the test prep company Kidum to Kaplan, a subsidiary of the Washington Post. For the next five years, Reshef traveled from country to country, trying to convince investors, donors, educators and potential students that a free, online university could receive academic recognition. University of the People — with 13 employees, thousands of volunteers and modest headquarters in Pasadena, California — currently offers two degrees, in computer science and business management. "These two degrees are the most logical for helping our alumni find work and can contribute most to economic improvement in the Third World,” says Reshef.

The university is a nonprofit educational endeavor open to all, which offers free university studies to students all over the world, with minimal acceptance requirements. It is run mostly by the volunteers. All of the lectures are text-based (there are no video or audio lectures) and draw from educational materials available online at no charge. The university has an annual budget of $1.2 million, a pittance compared with universities like Harvard and Columbia, and Reshef has invested about a million dollars of his own money in the project.

In Reshef’s opinion, there is an acute need for a university that offers free studies to those who could not otherwise afford higher education. The cost of higher education has soared in recent years and debt among students in the U.S. and other Western countries is staggering.

“The price of higher education has become insane, and we show there is another way to do things,” says Reshef. “Our model also seeks to show the third world a different way of doing higher education. Currently, third world countries take the few millions they can and try to build their own Harvard. A few years later, they realize it takes more than a few years to build Harvard, and more than a few million. In the meantime, their budgets are gone. We want to show them there is another way, which allows every citizen that finished high school to enter academia — just think what kind of great leap forward it would be for these countries. A kind of educational explosion.”

Reshef adds, “Our goal is to provide such an opportunity for every high school graduate capable of university studies. Universities aspire to be exclusive and elitist. I think higher education is a basic right of all individuals. If universities want to be exclusive, that’s their prerogative, but that wasn’t what the author intended. They were founded to provide education for all, not for a select few.”

Low-tech online learning

On paper at least, University of the People is one of the most prestigious in the world. The lecturers are all either current or former senior faculty members at leading universities, from Oxford to New York University. The director is the former assistant director at Columbia, and the business administration dean is the chairman of the marketing department at NYU. In addition, University of the People works with many leading universities, its board of directors includes the presidents of NYU and Berekely and its supporters include former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Bill and Melinda Gates. But in contrast with other universities around the world, the lecturers and academic advisors are all volunteers.

The decision to grant the university accreditation could not come at a better time, as the first class of graduates will complete their studies in April 2014. It’s a small, but global class — with four students from the U.S. and one each from Nigeria, Syria and Jordan. When they began their studies a little over four years ago, the students had no guarantee their degrees would be recognized, but they had no choice but to believe.

Currently, there are 700 active students enrolled in the University of the People. Most of them are impoverished and live and study in difficult situations, to say the least. Some of the lucky few have their own Internet connections, while others must study in cafes with public networks. Broadband isn’t even an option, so the university relies on the most basic tools: written lectures and online debates.

“Our community is the most difficult that can be found in the academic world — refugees from massacres in Rwanda, earthquake survivors in Haiti, tsunami survivors in Indonesia. Most of our students in the U.S. weren’t born there, but immigrated as refugees or migrated illegally. People who have no alternatives,” says Reshef. “One of our students in Haiti, who began before we were active there, didn’t have an Internet connection. All he had was a laptop he borrowed from someone. He would go to an Internet café, download all the course materials onto a thumb drive, take it home and study that way. He would do that day in, day out.”

The kinds of students University of the People tries to recruit are very different than those sought by regular universities, which expect most prospective students to pay tuition. University of the People's students have special needs and challenges. “We have students who study exclusively on cellphones. Twenty percent of our students use dial-up connections. Some of our students are African women who would not be accepted to universities for cultural reasons or people who live in villages and cannot travel to universities in the cities, effectively leaving their families behind. We believe that the Internet was created for this exact reason — to make higher education accessible to all.”

But even with very low admissions requirements, some are still left out. “It’s a sore, painful subject,” says Reshef. “We only ask two things of our students, a high school diploma and a score of at least 500 on the TOEFL (an American test of English-language proficiency) to prove they have good enough English. But these are things that we have to demand of our prospective students, the minimal requirements of all American universities — otherwise, we wouldn’t have been accredited.

In light of these difficult conditions, Reshef has hard time keeping his composure when he encounters efforts to paint his university as a competitor for larger schools. “In one interview I gave to a student newspaper at Brown a few months ago, the interviewer told me, ‘You’re creating competition for my university.’ I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Has anyone ever asked themselves where they should study and had to choose between Brown and the University of the People? I’m not trying to create competition. The University of the People was founded to give an alternative to those who had no such thing. We have a partnership agreement with NYU, through which after a year, our most promising students can transfer to an NYU branch in Abu Dhabi. It’s a scholarship of around a quarter of a million dollars. The first one to get it was that same student from Haiti.”

1,000 Volunteers in two days

The University of the People is not the first online school founded by Reshef. First there was K.I.T., a virtual university for high-tech employees, founded in the early 1990s as a subsidiary of Kidum, partnered with the University of Liverpool. K.I.T., unlike University of the People, was a for-profit venture and required its students to pay tuition. In 2004, Reshef sold K.I.T., and a year later, Kidum as well. Using the lessons he learned from K.I.T., which was based on "open educational resources," Reshef founded University of the People.

University of the People joins a long list of initiatives founded in recent years to make higher education more accessible to the general public. Leading American universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, offer online courses for free through a website called Coursera. The Khan Academy, founded by Salman Khan in 2006 (which also won support from the Gates Foundation and thousands of volunteers around the world) allows anyone with an Internet connection to watch recorded lectures on endless subjects. What sets the University of the People apart from these ventures is that it offers a full degree.

From the moment Reshef made his idea public, it quickly picked up steam. The New York Times was quick to write about the new initiative, and “two days after the article was published,” Reshef says, “we had over a thousand volunteers.” The media buzz brought Reshef personal attention as well. In 2010, he was named to a Huffington Post list of 100 leading individuals in 2010. In 2009, he was named one of Fast Company magazine’s “100 Most Creative People in Business.” And in 2012, he was included on Wired magazine's "The Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world." Despite its elitism, the academic world has also embraced Reshef’s initiative. The university’s “presidents council” of academic advisors incudes past and current presidents from some of America’s best universities. In addition, there are over 3,000 volunteer lecturers who write materials and teach courses.

Before you rush to enroll in University of the People, happy to know that you’ll never have to get out of bed and go to school and that your free, online studies will be a breeze, just wait. Studies at the university, warns Reshef, are very difficult. “Much harder than studies at a traditional university. At regular schools you go to class, the professor gives their lecture, you can listen, or fall asleep. At our school, students must be constantly involved. It’s the only way to know that they’re in class.”

The discussion questions lecturers post once a week are the heart of the curriculum. One student, for example, reads the material and the questions posted, and decides to participate in the discussion. A second student decides to answer. A third also responds. Every week, all students are required to make at least one original contribution to the discussion and to respond at least five times to the comments they get.

The professor, who is in class all day, reads the discussion and gets involved if someone says something incorrect or is unable to respond, or if the discussion needs to be steered back in the right direction. On the weekend, students take a test to check whether they understood the material. They turn in homework, which is checked and graded by three students under the lecturer’s supervision. On the ninth week, the students take end-of-course exams online. The whole process takes a great deal of work. “Our studies are very difficult,” says Reshef. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to finish a degree in four years.”

The testing phase is the only part of the operation that is not free, and students are required to pay 100 dollars per test. Those who cannot afford it are given scholarships. “The goal is that there won’t be a single student who cannot learn due to financial concerns. Those who can, we expect them to pay, and those who can’t, we get them scholarships,” says Reshef.

Accreditation was Reshef’s first goal. His next goals are much more ambitious. He wants there to be 5,000 students enrolled by 2016. That figure, he says, will make the university sustainable, financially speaking. Aside from what the students pay currently, the money he invested and the donations he collected, the university needs another $5 million to sustain itself. According to Reshef, accreditation is just the first step. “As of right now, I’m getting thousands of emails, congratulating us,” he says. “Next, all of our energy will be focused on bringing in more students.”

University of the People degree.Credit: Courtesy
University of the People founder Shai Reshef.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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