By Tamar Lewin
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
January 26, 2009
An Israeli entrepreneur with decades of experience in international education plans to start the first global, tuition-free Internet university, a nonprofit venture he has named the University of the People.
“The idea is to take social networking and apply it to academia,” said Shai Reshef, founder of several Internet-based educational businesses.
“The open-source courseware is there, from universities that have put their courses online, available to the public, free,” Reshef said. “We know that online peer-to-peer teaching works. Putting it all together, we can make a free university for students all over the world, anyone who speaks English and has an Internet connection.”
About 4 million students in the United States took at least one online course in 2007, according to a survey by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group devoted to integrating online learning into mainstream higher education.
Online learning is growing in many contexts. Through the Open Courseware Consortium, started in 2001 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, universities around the world have posted materials for thousands of courses – as varied as Lambing and Sheep Management at Utah State and Relativistic Quantum Field Theory at MIT – all free to the public. Many universities now post their lectures on iTunes.
For-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University have extensive online offerings. And increasingly, both public and private universities offer at least some classes online.
Outside the United States, online learning is booming. Open University in Britain enrolls about 160,000 undergraduates in distance-learning courses.
The University of the People, like other Internet-based universities, would have online study communities, weekly discussion topics, homework assignments and exams. But in lieu of tuition, students would pay only nominal fees for enrollment ($15 to $50) and exams ($10 to $100), with students from poorer countries paying the lower fees and those from richer countries paying the higher ones.
Experts in online education say the idea raises many questions.
“We've chatted about doing something like this over the last decade but decided the time wasn't yet right,” said John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium. “It's true that the open courseware movement is pretty robust, so there are a lot of high-quality course materials out there, but there's no human backup behind them. I'd be interested to know how you'd find and train faculty and ensure quality without tuition money.”
Other educators question the logistics of such a plan.
“The more you get people around the world talking to each other, great, and the more they talk about what they're learning, just wonderful,” said Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “But I'm not at all sure, when you start attaching that to credits and degrees and courses, that it translates so well.
“How will they test students? How much will the professors do? How well does the American or British curriculum serve the needs of people in Mali? How do they handle students whose English is not at college level?”
Reshef said his new university would use active and retired professors – some paid, some volunteers – along with librarians, master-level students and professionals to develop and evaluate curriculums and oversee assessments.
He plans to start small, limiting enrollment to 300 students when the university goes online in the fall and offering only bachelor's degrees in business administration and computer science. Reshef said the university would apply for accreditation as soon as possible.
Reshef hopes to build enrollment to 10,000 over five years, the level at which he said the enterprise should be self-sustaining. Startup costs would be about $5 million, Reshef said, of which he plans to provide $1 million.
For all the uncertainties, Reshef is probably as well-positioned as anyone for such an enterprise.
Starting in 1989, he served as chairman of the Kidum Group, an Israeli test-preparation company, which he sold in 2005 to Kaplan, one of the world's largest education companies. While chairman of Kidum, he built an online university affiliated with the University of Liverpool, enrolling students from more than 100 countries; that business was sold to Laureate, another large for-profit education company, in 2004.
Reshef is now chairman of Cramster.com, an online study community offering homework help to college students.
“Cramster has thousands of students helping other students,” said Reshef, who lives in Pasadena, where both Cramster and the new university are based. “These become strong social communities. With these new social networks, where young people now like to spend their lives, we can bring college degrees to students all over the world, Third World students who would be unable to study otherwise. I haven't found even one person who says it's a bad idea.”
This is very interesting. Thanks for posting it. I've been thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately, given my involvment with I2U2. I can see how anybody who sees the growth of on-line communities of interested learners would get excited about this kind of thing, but I also see a lot of problems with it.
I'm not sure it will work. Or in the least, there may be some ways that it will work, but many more ways that it can end up failing. I don't think on-line interactions are the best way to teach or to learn. They can be great supplements, or they can be better than nothing at all. But more personal interactions are better for learning. In person.
Which of course applies equally well to large lecture classes where the student is one of 600 people who listen to the same lecture, read the same book, work the same homework problems, but don't get any interaction with someone who can guide them, answer _their_ questions, clear up misconceptions and just keep them on track.
It's great that some of the best universities in the world are putting course materials and even lectures on the web for anybody to download, but that does not mean that the course is really available on-line. The course materials are on-line, but not the experience. There are a few people who can take those materials and work through them, but most people need more structure or guidance. Especially younger students.
On the other hand, the way social networking has exploded, getting people together for that personal interaction certainly has some possibilities. Lots of different possibilities. I just don't see it as a complete replacement for an entire course. And I find it hard to believe that one can get a course accredited where everything is done on-line.
Peer instruction is great. I use it in my classes, and I encourage my students to join study groups and work together on learning (homework has to be your own work, but learning how to do it can be collaborative). So providing on-line tools to _supplement_ the in-class experience is a good idea. That's what we are developing for I2U2.
Also, take a look at this other recent NY Times article: At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard . They found that traditional physics lecture classes were not working, and so they are changing over to a system of more interactive instruction. I taught a physics class at the University of Michigan using the [[w:Keller Plan]], and it sounds like MIT's new course structure is a mixture of this and the peer instruction methods used by Eric Mazur at Harvard. (I use some of those in my lecture courses, to make the class more interactive, but not to exclusion the way Mazur does). Putting lectures and homework on-line is not much different from the traditional lecture format that MIT is abandoning. To really make a difference the on-line experience will have to make the personal interaction a key component. And not just peer instruction (though that is useful) but interaction with an instructor or tutor who can guide and critique the student, not just push buttons to "run" the course like a computer program.
-- Eric Myers
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." -- William Butler Yeats