Shai Reshef is the founder and president of the University of the People, the world's first tuition-free global online academic institution dedicated to the democratization of higher education. The institution was specifically created to serve poor, remote and disadvantaged populations. Shai introduced many innovations in setting up the project—including the use of Internet technology, peer-to-peer teaching methods, and a diverse network of students and volunteer faculty—to transform higher education from the privilege of “an elite” to a right of the disadvantaged in all parts of the world.
The New Idea
The Internet’s great potential lies in its connectivity, and its ability to shrink the world, and to deliver goods, services, and information globally and nearly instantaneously. With increasing scale and spread has come a decreasing cost for Internet and wireless technologies. Shai took note of the Internet’s growing reach and its relative affordability. Then, using his own academic and professional experiences as grist, he strung together a series of known but—together—revolutionary ideas to create his most daring, large-scale, and above all, practical, innovation yet: The world’s first free online university.
Shai’s University of the People (UoPeople) draws on a number of recent trends in e-learning and e-commerce and links them in a way not previously considered. The university is built around three pillars: (1) access to education as a human right (2) the freedom of information (3) the natural willingness of people to help one another. The first pillar is made clear in the university’s mission statement: “Our fundamental belief is that all people, worldwide, should have the opportunity to change their lives and contribute to their communities, as well as understanding that the path to societal and individual prosperity is through education.” The second pillar is manifested within the university through the use of open source software and other non-copyright materials such as curricula and lectures, while the third pillar is seen in the university’s extensive use of professionals as volunteer teachers, best-practice peer-learning procedures, and current social networking systems.
Although the key ideas are not original in themselves, the combination of tuition- free university, education online, and peer-to-peer engagement is original. It took both resourcefulness and courage to create this platform for providing tuition free educational services to people who could probably not access it otherwise. Shai connects those with a surplus of time and expertise to those with a dearth of educational opportunity and access to universities, and he does so via a sophisticated yet simple-to-use platform and on a global scale. The Open University is probably the most familiar long-standing model of distance mass learning which popularized higher education, which comes to mind when discussing the popularization and mass-dissemination of academia and academic knowledge. Yet despite its success in the West, and after more than fifty years of existence, its disadvantages are obvious: Not enough such universities were established in the developing countries, where such models are needed the most; these universities offer limited online possibilities; and, of course, enrolment in academic studies with them requires tuition fees.
Just like Ashoka Fellow Monica Vasconez of Ecuador, who created a virtual high school—an important and practical idea that is quite likely to spread well across the Andean region and the Spanish-speaking world—Shai’s tuition free virtual university, which is now run in English, could well become a global and multilingual solution for a growing and pressing international need.
While it is true that more people have access to higher education than ever before, the accessibility and quality of education is vastly unequal. Huge populations remain underserved. Millions of bright, motivated students in Africa, Asia, and Latin America must compete for an increasingly insufficient number of college openings. A lucky few garner scholarships to institutions abroad, primarily in Western Europe and North America. For the majority, however, opportunities remain scarce. The limiting factors include: Distance from established universities; their fixed absorptive capacities; the costs of tuition, accommodation, and books and other materials; and courses which are sometimes of an unsatisfactory quality. At the same time, in the developed world, there are many professionals who have time and expertise to share, but few reasonable platforms upon which to do so. Shai’s project addresses all of these issues.
In addition to these limiting factors, there are several logistical factors which limit opportunity. When conducted in real time, students and teachers are forced into a uniform mode of learning; they must all be physically present in the same room, digesting curricula at the same pace. In some cases, this is not only impractical but it is unfair to those students who learn at a different pace or who prefer a different mode of teaching. Shai’s idea is to replace synchronic with diachronic learning schedules.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “The field of higher education is undergoing rapid and profound transformation: Demand is surging, providers are increasingly diverse and students are more mobile than ever. But national funding falls short of needs and stark inequalities remain at a time when higher education has a crucial role to play in addressing key social and economic challenges.” With the number of college-age and college-eager students rapidly outpacing both material and human resources, there is a critical need for both more and smarter resources. Shai focuses on the latter, i.e. changing the means of delivery rather than funneling more funds into an established model.
Moreover, the idea of “addressing key social and economic challenges” can be seen more broadly as the creation of human and social capital, as well as an important contribution to democracy, civic engagement, and governability—that is, the development of a population of productive and responsible citizens who are in a position to assess and transform the societies they live in. Failure to achieve higher education is likely to mean, for a citizen, worse prospects of employment, and lower status economically with regard to health, and in quality of life in general. For a society, it can mean the waste of much human capital and much-needed opportunities for positive social and political change.
Shai’s strategy for the UoPeople can be broken down into three parts: Business (growth, accreditation, and legitimacy); administration (applications, staffing, and enrollment); and pedagogy (teaching methods, instructors, and curricula).
His business plan has been forming throughout his academic and professional life, but in early 2009 he began seeking public exposure. After an article was published in January in the New York Times about Shai and the UoPeople, thousands of people contacted him to report their excitement and potential involvement. Shai himself has taken his idea and operationalized it, using his own personal resources in delving into the details of marketing, registration, technology, coursework, teaching, administration, and accreditation.
In terms of growth strategies and middle- and long-term plans, the university accepted and enrolled 180 students for the September 2009 semester—the first semester of the university. The University has started to accept 100 new students per semester. In the future, the University plans to grow to reach a projection rate of 30% per term for approximately four years. At 10,000 students, UoPeople will be financially sustainable. After that, the University will continue to grow and the surplus that results will be allocated towards reducing the processing fees incurred by applicants and students (minimal application and exam processing fees, which vary on a scale depending on the student’s place of residence and the University grant provided).Ranging from recent high school graduates to retirees, the first class at UoPeople is comprised of students from 49 countries spread across Asia, North America, South America, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Europe. Within the first week, there were 5,200 total online postings (i.e. the method in which students correspond with each other and with their professors), with each student posting approximately 30 times. After the first few weeks of classes, students were surveyed for overall satisfaction. Their marks for UoPeople were 4.2 out of 5. Since this first survey, UoPeople has consistently received a 4,5 out of 5 satisfaction rating when surveying students at the start of each term.
In terms of how to’s, UoPeople is currently based in California, with numerous staff and volunteers working around the world. Mr. Reshef envisions global offices in developing countries. UoPeople has some paid staff and a large volunteer base including dedicated professors, working as the heads of the computer science, business and general studies departments
An example of the opportunities that the model holds is evident in UoPeople's ground-breaking work in Haiti. Cognizant of Haiti's critical need, following 2010's devastating earthquake, UoPeople, with the support of the Clinton Global Initiative, committed to providing 250 local Haitian students with the opportunity to pursue higher education, tuition-free, in Haiti.
In order to enable Haitian students, many of whom do not have internet access, to be able to undertake their studies, UoPeople seeks to establish Student Computer Centers, open to students, who may study there for the duration of their degree. The Student Computer Centers are equipped with computers and high speed Internet connection, electricity, generators, furniture and security. Support staff manages the operation of the Centers.
The first Student Computer Center opened on November 18, 2010 in Thomassin, Port-au-Prince. The inaugural class consisted of 16 students, men and women ranging in age from 20 to 29. The students have access to the online courses at UoPeople at the Center which is operated by local organization, the Haitian Connection Network. Since 2010, a further two centers have opened and over 50 students from Haiti are currently studying with UoPeople
With a convenient virtual address at www.UoPeople.org, UoPeople is available anywhere that a computer and Internet connection can be found. The students and professors who comprise UoPeople represent a diverse group, coming from both developing and developed countries around the world. Students apply online with a simple form (including 6 essays), but must submit hard copies of their high school diploma or equivalent GED certificate to the admissions office. Acceptance to the university is not automatic, but depends on several factors, including completion of two orientation classes and passing marks on an attendant exam. However, anyone who meets UoPeople’s minimal standards is generally accepted. UoPeople strives to maintain its mission to democratize higher education, with the only reason students are not accepted currently (if meeting minimal standards) is because of capacity.
The pedagogical idea behind the university is that studying within peer-to-peer communities is more motivating than just reading alone or listening to online lectures. Preliminary results indicate that students become more interested in their topics of study. They also develop confidence in their communication skills, general abilities and knowledge of their courses. Shai was inspired by the “learning by teaching” or “peer-to-peer teaching” methodology, which was developed over the last two decades by the online universities. This approach helps students to analyze, discuss and learn on a level they can relate to and understand. One advantage of using peer-to-peer teaching is that it puts the subjects into a context that is realistic and accessible.
The curriculum itself is developed by respected scholars and is overseen by instructors, who manage day-to-day coursework and questions, and act as a final reviewers on all coursework and grading. A community of educators, comprised of active and retired professors, master’s students and other professionals, participate in and supervise the assessment process. They will also develop ongoing procedures for curriculum evaluation and development. Currently, for the needs of the students, two programs are offered: Business Administration, and Computer Science. Finally, understanding the crucial need for ascertaining the quality of the University, some of Mr. Reshef’s heaviest costs so far have been on the licensure and accreditation processes. Since 2009 Mr. Reshef’s efforts gained recognition from established academic and international institutions: he was approached by the Information Society Project at Yale University and is now the Project’s partner in its’ digital education research program; Mr. Reshef was also elected among the 100 most creative people in business in 2009 by the Fast Company magazine. Additionally, the United Nations Secretaria has endorsed Mr. Reshef’s plan, inviting him to become a High Profile member of its’ Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development (GAID). In 2010, he was granted membership of the Clinton Global Initiative and was named the Ultimate Game Changer in Education by the Huffington Post. Over 3 million people voted in the Game Changer competition which honored leaders and visionaries in 12 different fields of action.
Three strands have been present throughout Shai’s life, gradually but tightly entwining over the course of time. First, there is his entrepreneurial nature, his pursuit of new ideas and hidden opportunities, his business sense, market acumen and excellent marketing skills. Second, there is his political activism, his urge to change society, to challenge conventional wisdom, and maybe to run a campaign or two. Finally, there is his passion for education. Shai is someone who not only seeks out learning for himself, but attempts to expand the educational sphere to encompass as many eager students as possible. These three strands—entrepreneurial, political, and educational—have woven together over the years to bring Shai to where he is today: The founder and president of the first ever free online university, the University of the People.
Shai studied political science at Tel Aviv University in the late 1970s while working as a carpenter with his father and as a research assistant at the university. He began his Ph.D. studies in political sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with this question: How do you change cultural and social values via education? Shai’s findings led him in a new and surprising direction: He concluded that a prerequisite of social change is political change, especially legislation concerning economic incentives, safety nets, and legal protections.
Realizing that policy and social change go hand in hand, Shai returned to Israel in 1985, feeling the need to contribute to his own country’s development. He joined the Israeli Movement for Citizens’ Rights, and became the coordinator of the various branches of the movement. In addition, Shai became its director for special actions, organizing demonstrations, rallies, etc. He was also instrumental in developing and running an election campaign that resulted in four seats on the Jerusalem city council—the first time it had achieved municipal representation.
In 1989, Mr. Reshef became the CEO of Kidum, a for-profit test prep company. His innovative and provocative marketing and operational approach positioned the company as the leader in its field
In 1989, Mr. Reshef accepted the post as Kidum’s chief officer, He recruited a talented marketing team, launching a campaign so provocative it effectively changed the marketing landscape. Its success paved the way for Kidum’s reinvention and its recapture of the test prep market.
In 1996, the large American learning company, Silvan, became Shai’s partner in Kidum, the first time an American company had invested in an Israeli education business. At the same time, Shai was busy orchestrating an alliance with the British universities of Liverpool and Leeds. to create the first online university outside the United States, . Initially called KIT Learning, this online venture represented the first collaboration between a private company and a university in order to deliver their core educational business. So far, over 2,000 students from 100 countries are registered.
In 2005, Kaplan, owned by Washington Post, offered to buy Shai’s share of Kidum. The buyout afforded him time and funds to regroup, and to scan the horizon for the next “big thing”—which didn’t take long to materialize. Cramster, an online study community, combined many of the elements that had initially drawn Shai to online education. Its model, developed by two young innovators, weds a for-profit company to a peer-to-peer learning model, social networking and open source technology. It was while involved with Cramster that the various strands of Shai’s professional life began to converge. If online education broke down geographical barriers to educational access, Cramster’s peer learning approach and open source innovations could break down financial ones. In 2009 Shai announced his latest initiative— and the one he hopes will have the greatest impact.
When asked about potential competition in this emerging field of free online education, Shai is generous: He believes that the more, the better. His main motivation is to give people solutions, and so transform society, rather to make money or to dominate the market. Being first, of course, does have its advantages, and Shai seems perfectly placed to offer his wisdom and experience to new contenders. He knows that a university’s quality is a function of three related factors: The number of people enrolled, its methods, and its experience, and he is committed to optimizing all three. He has been equally committed to optimizing another three elements in his own life, combining entrepreneurship, education, and political activism into the yeast that is catalyzing a major shift in global learning.