Free online school coming to some in Haiti

Most of Haiti's campuses were destroyed in January's earthquake.
Most of Haiti's campuses were destroyed in January's earthquake.

The founder of the tuition-free online University of the People said providing an education for Haitians after a massive earthquake destroyed most of their country’s colleges could demonstrate the value of a web-based university infrastructure targeting those in developing nations.

The university, launched last year by founder and president Shai Reshef, announced Sept. 20 that it would join the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in the organization’s efforts to help Haiti recover from a Jan. 12 earthquake that killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people, according to government estimates.

University of the People committed to enrolling 250 college students from Haiti into its free online programs, including computer science or business administration, over the next three years. The 600-student university is not yet accredited, but officials have pledged to achieve accreditation in the coming years.

Twenty-eight of Haiti’s 32 universities were leveled during the earthquake, which registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale. The four universities that weren’t completely destroyed were severely damaged.

The earthquake claimed almost 400 students, 40 professors, and 20 staff members at Haitian member colleges of an association for French-speaking institutions worldwide called AUF, which estimated this spring that it would take $600 million over the next decade to rebuild Haiti’s higher-education system.

Applicants for the University of the People’s program must have a verifiable high school education and speak English. Reshef said even without a marketing push, the university received hundreds of applications and recently accepted 16 students.

“We have yet to really get out there and promote this” program in Haiti, he said. “The people in Haiti right now are the people we built the university for. … Haiti is a model for us for other places where students don’t have computers. This is a way to show that what we’re doing is important, although that’s obviously not the only reason to do it.”

University of the People will have to provide computing centers for students who want to continue their education through the school’s online platform, making the university’s project very different from efforts in developing countries where students have access to a computer and an internet connection.

“It’s different because they don’t have a laptop, they don’t have electricity, and they don’t have internet,” Reshef said, adding that locals would run the Haitian educational centers. “You don’t want foreigners coming in and running things.”

The World Computer Exchange (WCE), an organization that provides technology in the developing world, will provide the equipment for a University of the People computer center in Haiti, according to University of the People’s announcement.

The WCE, which has more than 2,600 computer labs globally, and the university partnered in July to establish communication centers in six developing countries by January 2011.

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

The CGI was created in 2005 and its members have secured more than $57 billion for projects across the globe affecting 220 million people in 170 countries, according to the organization’s web site. CGI members helped nongovernmental organizations ship 1,500 pounds of computer and networking equipment to Haiti in the months following January’s earthquake.

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.

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