Friday, February 6, 2009

University of the People

Okay, this is a little far afield from what I want this blog to focus on, but it's an interesting concept in any case. The name of the university alone is great.


Coming April 2009, the University of the People, an online institution that will run on a tuition free model. The idea is to bring the possibility of higher education to those who have been economically or geographically prevented from seeking higher education. Their plan is to use collaborative and open-source e-learning while embracing peer-to-peer teaching under a peer-to-peer pedagogical model. (If that wasn't enough jargon for you, you have a serious problem.) The idea here is to increase the democratization of education by giving better opportunities for upward mobility to those who have limited life chances. Nothing like poverty and geographic isolation to hem a person in. The university will be staffed by volunteers, university faculty, librarians, educators and others. Yes, they will be looking to become accredited as soon as the waiting process has been met.


Shai Reshef is the founder of the University of the People. He has previously worked in online higher education and is the current chairman of the board for cramster.com, an online study community. He was interviewed on APM's Future Tense this week and the University of the People was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times.


And now, my two cents worth on the topic:


It seems that the University of the People might find more success dealing with geographical impairments to higher education than economic ones. It is conceivable that a person who is in a rural area might have the technological resources at their disposal to be successful at an online university. It is more difficult to see how somebody from an impoverished background would be able to overcome the digital divide to utilize this resource. This is not to say I don't think this is a worthwhile effort. I hope the project is a success and they are able to reach out to the thousands of students they hope to serve. What may turn out to the this project's strength may also be where the challenges arise. By relying on volunteers and peer-to-peer cooperation, the university is placing a lot of faith in people's good will. If the volunteer faculty and staff are diligent and the student body both supportive and collaborative, then the school may very well be successful. If the volunteers get busy with other obligations and the students are self absorbed, the whole thing could grind to a halt. I hope the former turns out to be the case and educators in other venues can see how the peer-to-peer pedagogical model has worked and, perhaps, think of ways to use it elsewhere.


There is something to be said about the lingering effects of the colonial era in the fact that this university will carry out all it's classes in English. But that's a rant for another day.

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