Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Internet, a university without a campus

By Tamar Lewin

NEW YORK: 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, an entrepreneur and founder of several previous Internet-based educational businesses. "The open source courseware is there, from universities that have put their courses online, available to the public, free. 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."

Online learning is growing in many different contexts. Through the Open Courseware Consortium, started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, universities around the world have posted materials for thousands of courses - as widely varied as Utah State University's "Lambing and Sheep Management" and MIT's "Relativistic Quantum Field Theory" - all free to the public. Many universities now post their lectures on the iTunes music store.

For-profit universities like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University have extensive online offerings. And increasingly, both public universities, like the University of Illinois, and private ones, like Stanford, offer at least some classes online.

Outside the United States, too, online learning is booming: Open University in Britain, for example, 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 for exams ($10 to $100), with students from poorer countries paying the lower fees.

Experts in online education say it is an interesting idea, but one that 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, a nonprofit group devoted to integrating online learning into the mainstream of higher education. "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."

Reshef said his new university would use active and retired professors - some paid, some volunteers - along with librarians, master-level students and other professionals to develop and evaluate curriculum, and oversee assessments.

He plans to start small, capping enrollment at 300 students when the university begins in the autumn, and at first offering only bachelor's degrees in business administration and computer science. Reshef said the university would apply for accreditation as soon as possible.

"It is very visionary idea, and if they get the enrollment and the accreditation and they're around for a while, it could work," said Frank Mayadas, a distance-learning expert at the Sloan Foundation.

Reshef said he hoped to build enrollment to 10,000 over five years, the level at which he said the enterprise should be self-sustaining. Start-up costs would be about $5 million, Reshef said, of which he planned to provide $1 million. He said he was currently trying to raise the other $4 million. For all the uncertainties, Reshef is probably as well positioned as anyone for such an enterprise.

Starting in 1989, he was chairman of 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 has a master's degree in Chinese politics from the University of Michigan. "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."

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