[INTERVIEW] It’s not a MOOC: How University of the People plans to reduce the cost of education

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Every year in January, thousands of South African high school-leavers who have passed their matric face an uncertain future, not knowing where or how they will further their studies.

And according to the Department of Basic Education, just over 28% of 2014 matrics qualified to study at a university, but an even lower number have the means to do so. It’s a terrifying statistic.

So when an online university based in the US, The University of the People (UoPeople), issued a press release saying that it’s lending a helping hand to matrics who may be left out by opening up 1 000 spaces for South African students to be admitted, we wanted to find out more. After all, there’s no shortage of people happy happy to take your money in return for an online “qualification”…

Then again, UoPeople does have backing from the likes of Microsoft’s 4Afrika fund, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and other well known philanthropists.

The University offers degrees in two subjects – business administration and computer science – on a tuition-fee-free basis. However, students do have to pay for exam processing fees if they want to receive accreditation and a final grade. And it’s pretty cost effective: the total of $4 000 (R45 000) for a bachelor’s degree is more or less the same as a single year of tuition at Wits.

htxt.africa had a chat with the president and founder of UoPeople, Shai Reshef, to find out more about the offer and the online institution.

Shai Reshef, speaking at a TED conference.

Are classes organised by geography? Do you encourage peers to meet up in real life?

Classes are not organised by geography and we don’t make a point of encouraging peers to meet up in real life.  We do try to mix students from all over the world (we have admitted students from more than 150 countries) – meeting students from other countries is the best way to make students become global citizens, and part of the global village and global economy. There are group assignments and through peer-to-peer interaction, we help to build students’ networking with peers from around the world.

How many students can you accommodate globally at any one time?  

There is no limit.

Is all teaching in English?


What is the typical class size, and how does it compare to traditional universities or other Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)?

First of all, it’s important to distinguish University of the People as different to a MOOC. UoPeople and MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) are differentiated by key factors of credentialing and the ability to grant degrees, academic offerings, the number of students per classroom, the type of learning, the kind of students, the support services offered, and their completion rates. University of People, as an academic institution, grants degrees, whereas MOOCs do not.

MOOCs are free courses offered by universities, that anyone can take simply to enable the study of a subject. MOOCs are individual courses and are not full academic degree programs. MOOCs  do not offer comprehensive academic programs leading to a degree. MOOCs can be attractive if one simply wants a limited exposure to a specific topic or wishes to listen to a particular professor on a particular subject.

At UoPeople, by contrast, students need to apply and be admitted. UoPeople is an accredited, online University offering a broad-based curriculum leading to formal academic degrees. As such, its programs include general education requirements in addition to its majors’ requirements in business and computer science.

University of the People breaks its classrooms into 20-30 students  – often representative of as many different countries, as we try to make the classes as diverse as possible. UoPeople offers personalised attention from instructors as well as clear peer and group insights to enrich learning. MOOCs, in contrast, welcome tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of students per classroom, and consequently, utilises impersonal and self-study learning.

UoPeople offers a full suite of support services including student support, academic advising and more, while MOOCs do not offer any student support.

Finally, probably due to the reasons outlined above, University of the People demonstrates 95% completion rates per course, whereas MOOCs have demonstrated 5% or less completion rates per course.

What qualifications do you insist tutors have and what’s your hiring policy?

We have approximately 3 000 volunteers who have offered to help University of the People, which means a wealth of great talent that we have at our disposal – of these, we use about 10% of the volunteers; many are instructors from the best universities around the world who choose to donate their time and their expertise to a great cause – which is opening the gates to higher education to all, regardless of geographical, financial, cultural or personal constraints. Instructors must have the right academic qualifications and have relevant teaching experience.

Can you clarify the $4,000 figure? Are there 40 exams at $100 per exam or just one final exam?

We expect students to pay only $100 per end of course exam, which equates to $1 000 per year, or $4 000 for a full 4 year Bachelor’s Degree, assuming a student pays in full. Keeping in line with the University’s mission to not leave behind any qualified student for financial reasons alone, there are a variety of scholarships available for students who cannot afford even this amount.

Can you describe the “personal attention” part of the program?

In every classroom there is an instructor, whom students can approach inside class or outside class. We also have academic advisors who are there to help students with academic issues, as well as student services, which help students with non-academic issues. Peer-to-peer learning is also an important part of the program.

The University has enrolled students from 150 different countries to date, including 44 from South Africa, with the average first-to-second year retention rate for students at approximately 80%, and 90% for South Africans.

Visit the UoPeople website  for more information and to register.