Is UoPeople Ready for Prime Time?

Today’s issue of the Guardian offered the latest look at the University of the People (UoPeople), which bills itself as “the world’s first tuition-free, online academic institution dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education.” Since this innovative organization was created in almost exactly the same spirit as the Monthly‘s own college guide, I figured I should summarize some highlights and concerns.

UoPeople, which launched in September with 178 students studying business administration and computer science, is still barely off the ground, but it has generated a sizable amount of buzz. Founded by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef, the institution offers a unique fusion of not-for-profit ethos—it has received support from the United Nation’s Global Alliance for ICT and Development, among other organizations—and next-generation savvy. Its business model, which couldn’t have existed ten or even five years ago, relies on a combination of open-source technology, free educational materials available online, and social networking software that has brought together close to a thousand volunteer educators.

There’s some fine print, however. UoPeople might not be free for long, although it would certainly still be cheap: Reshef has invested $1 million in his start-up but is waiting on many times that amount from outside sources, and students may end up having to pay between $400 and $4,000 in the long run. Even thornier is the issue of the university’s accreditation (or, more specifically, its current lack thereof). The school has applied for official seals of approval, but nobody is sure what the outcome will be, which is pretty unsurprising considering that the school resembles Facebook U.

Finally, a handful of critics are worried that UoPeople’s underlying educational model is flawed. As John R. Bourne, director of the Sloan Consortium online education advocacy group, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “There’s a pretty significant fraction of the population that learns better with instructor-led kinds of activities than purely self-paced activities.” UoPeople provides a wealth of educational resources, but its students are largely responsible for teaching themselves, and it’s possible that only a handful will possess the drive and self-motivation to follow through with their studies.

Overall, UoPeople is a pretty great idea, and hopefully it will succeed in its goal of democratizing higher ed. Nonetheless, like any entrepreneur, Shai Reshef has to work out some kinks, and with luck his growing flock of students will stick around.

Daniel Fromson

Daniel Fromson is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly. He previously interned at Harper's Magazine, and he has written for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.