Educating the Many

min read

Key Takeaways

  • In an age of dropping technology costs, unprecedented access to the Internet, and the free exchange of information online, the divides between the haves and the have-nots, including in postsecondary education, can be bridged.
  • Access to postsecondary education through technology shows the potential for a high-quality, low-cost, global pedagogical model.
  • The University of the People takes advantage of technology to provide access to postsecondary education based on peer-to-peer learning, bringing together students from all over the world in a new pedagogical model that shows initial signs of success.

We are all witnesses to the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots, and the societies in which they live. At present, millions of people around the world do not have access to postsecondary education, largely due to financial and geographic constraints. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the percentage of university-aged young people enrolled in postsecondary education doesn’t even reach double figures1 — a blatant sign of a failed education system.

The lack of universal education splinters our global community. It impacts not only the lives of individuals — their income, health, and quality of life — but the societies in which they live — crime rates, social awareness, and economic stability. In an age of dropping technology costs, unprecedented access to the Internet, and the free exchange of information online, these divides are incomprehensible.

I founded University of the People (UoPeople) in an effort to rewrite the statistics. With 20 years of experience in international education, I have seen firsthand the incredible impact of technology on education, and I am convinced of the potential for a high-quality, low-cost, and global pedagogical model. UoPeople is the world’s first tuition-free, online academic institution dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education.

Harnessing multiple educational models, UoPeople changes the landscape in which people can access education. Open-source technology and courseware provide access to educational material from some of the most prominent institutions in the United States, which are then adapted by our educators to fit the needs of UoPeople students. E-learning allows for the dissemination of this information to all corners of the world. And peer-to-peer learning leverages the knowledge of the university’s own students and applies it to a model with which they are already comfortable — social networking.

Peer-to-peer teaching is built on the premise that we all have something to teach and something to learn. With the support and guidance of full-time and volunteer academics and professors, our students are our teachers. Students share resources, exchange ideas, discuss weekly topics, submit assignments, and take exams within online study communities, gaining access to academic knowledge in an entirely new way (see "The UoPeople Method").

Technology also makes it possible for students in different time zones, with varying schedules and access to the Internet, to be part of the same class. Students may study at any time and anyplace that suits their personal circumstances, and all materials are in online text format so that bandwidth and graphic applications are not required. Likewise, the programs offered — Business Administration and Computer Science — are uniquely global in their demand.

In theory, the pedagogical model is effective and engaging. And the support we received even before launch is a clear indication of its appeal. Within months, UoPeople had received the backing of the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development and the Yale Law School’s Information Society Project and created a world-renowned advisory committee including Dr. Abdul Waheed Khan (UNESCO) and Dr. Gabriel Hawawini (INSEAD), among other prominent individuals.

The real test came in September 2009, when our first class of students began their studies, 105 in business administration and 73 in computer science. Currently, over 300 students from 69 countries are enrolled, comprising arguably the most diverse university class ever seen. (See "Eligibility Requirements" for the prerequisites for enrollment.) When students from all walks of life are put together in a virtual classroom, their differences — from learning styles to personal values — are bound to be more apparent than their similarities. With this in mind, we implemented two mandatory, introductory courses designed to get our students on the same page. There were other obstacles at nearly every turn, but each has been met with optimism and determination from staff, students, and volunteers alike.

Since the start of classes, UoPeople has attracted leading educators from Columbia and New York University to join the organization’s scholastic leadership. Former Vice President and Dean of Columbia Dr. David Harris Cohen and New York University Professor Dr. Alexander Tuzhilin have been named provost and Computer Science Department chair, respectively. Dr. Tuzhilin’s New York University colleague, Dr. Russell Winer, currently serves as Chair of the Business Administration Department and a member of the advisory committee.

A student poll from the an end-of-term survey gave solid endorsement of UoPeople’s approach, with 90 percent of respondents stating they would definitely or likely recommend the school to their peers and family.2 As a first-term student explained:

"I chose UoPeople to study and learn from all my friends from everywhere on this planet."

We still have a long road ahead, including applying for accreditation, but UoPeople has met the call for the democratization of higher education with enthusiasm, dedication, and support from many people. It is thanks to technology — and of course our students and volunteers — that the university’s mission is not a pipedream.

  1. According to the World Bank education statistics, available on the Ed Stats website.
  2. Sixty percent of students participated in the survey.