Free online university boosting students’ computer access

University of the People aims to enroll 15,000 students in its first five years.
University of the People aims to enroll 15,000 students in its first five years.

The free online University of the People has teamed up with a global computing network, aiming to harness the network’s computer resources in six developing nations where students are often without internet access.

The university, launched in September 2009 with an inaugural class of 179 students, announced its partnership with the nonprofit World Computer Exchange (WCE) on July 21. Officials from University of the People and the WCE—which aims to bolster technology in the developing world—said their goal was to establish communication centers in six developing countries by January.

The WCE, which has 2,650 computer labs globally, will provide web access to students who want to take free online classes but can’t afford it or don’t have a computer, officials said.

The WCE has also agreed to “help promote [the university] through its marketing channels, enabling the institution to target prospective students in new regions,” University of the People said in a statement.

“We strive to make the best use of the internet and what better use is there than giving people access to education,” said WCE President Timothy Anderson, whose group works with organizations in 71 developing countries. “University of the People is a model for change, truly utilizing the power of the internet for all of our core values.”

The WCE has the most partnerships in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda, India, Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania, according to the organization’s web site.

University of the People President Shai Reshef, who founded the web-based institution with $1 million in startup money, said he wants to expand enrollment with potential students who lack the technology to take online courses.

“Our goal is simple: provide higher education to anyone with the drive to learn by creating access to computers with internet connections,” said Reshef, who said last year that the school would one day seek accreditation for its classes, but didn’t specify when.

Reshef continued: “While demand for UoPeople has been great, we have discovered that many qualified applicants are unable to join us because they don’t have access to a computer. By partnering with the [WCE], we will … [reach] both individuals who have the technological resources to study with us and those who lack them.”

The university also announced its latest enrollment numbers July 21: There are now 500 students from 100 countries taking courses on University of the People’s web site. The university aims to enroll 15,000 students in its first five years, according to the announcement.

The school’s partnership is its latest joint venture. In September, the university teamed up with Yale Law School’s Information Society Project (ISP) in a project that examines how the web-based program might boost its validity among powerful world leaders.

There are some costs associated with the university’s course offerings. Students pay between $10 and $100 to process exams taken at the end of the semester. The charge depends on the student’s country of residence.

Admissions, study materials, and online interaction with faculty members that include retired and working professors, experts from various fields, and graduate students are available at no cost.

A university poll released last November showed that 90 percent of respondents from the first class said they would “definitely or likely recommend the school to their peers and family.”

Officials were somewhat surprised by students’ overwhelming approval, Reshef said, because faculty members are searching for the best ways to manage classes that include students proficient in English and others who speak English as a second language.

“We expected some bumps in the road, and we’re still expecting them,” Reshef said. “There will always be surprises. And not everything was smooth and perfect, but our students are happy with the opportunity we provide them, so they’re patient with us.”

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