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The Education Revolution: How Online Learning Will Solve the Future of Higher Education

05 Jul 2018 | Advance HE Day 3 of Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference at Aston University opened with a keynote speech by Shai Reshef, President of the University of the People (UoP), the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, American accredited online university. Shai’s talk, “The Education Revolution: How Online Learning Will Solve the Future of Higher Education” began with him introducing some of UoP’s students from around the world.

Day 3 of Advance HE’s Teaching and Learning Conference at Aston University opened with a keynote speech by Shai Reshef, President of the University of the People (UoP), the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, American accredited online university. Shai’s talk, “The Education Revolution: How Online Learning Will Solve the Future of Higher Education” began with him introducing some of UoP’s students from around the world.

Marian, from Aleppo in Syria, was evacuated from her home several times due to bombing and had no options for moving forward with higher education in Syria as there are no HE providers in Aleppo. She found UoP online and started studying for her degree. She uses the school next to her house to charge her laptop, and moves around the city to find Wi-Fi hotspots so that she can access her course materials. 

Malik was studying at a traditional college in the US but had to drop out after getting into debt. After losing his job he ended up homeless. Eventually Malik got a job selling tickets in Madison Square Gardens, and managed to find a place to live, but realised he had no future. The only way to move forward was through higher education but he couldn’t afford to go to university as he already had a huge loan to pay back. Malik found UoP online and now has his own business and is running for US congress.

Magda was an 'undocumented' from Mexico. Having been through high school in the US she couldn’t find a legal job so ended up working illegally as a receptionist. She completed her degree through UoP and became a legal US citizen through President Obama’s policy on students. She has now been promoted within the company and holds a senior position.

Adeyami had passed the entrance exam to go to university in Nigeria but couldn’t afford the fees. He’s now studying and doing well at UoP. 

Shai highlighted data from UNESCO estimating that 98 million students will be deprived from seats in existing universities in 2025. He said what a 'huge waste' it will be for the world if these people cannot access higher education, and explained it is for these people that he started UoP in 2009.

Shai’s background is in leading educational programmes for students and he started the first online programme with University of Liverpool to deliver fully-online accredited degrees. He realised how powerful online learning can be, enabling students in any country to obtain a degree from their university of choice. However, for many students it was still 'wishful' thinking as people just could not pay for higher education. Shai had a 'wow' moment in realising that he had created this great product that could help a lot of people and wanted to give something back and have an impact on the world.

After selling his businesses and semi-retiring to New York, Shai worked out that everything that made European universities so expensive could be made available free through open educational resources. The culture of the internet is one where people can share ideas, teach each other and learn free so Shai thought he could add this together with the right content and instructors to create a tuition-free university.

From the outset there have been academics who wanted to offer their time and expertise to help with UoP. When it was launched and the New York Times ran a story about it, Shai said he had emails the very next day from American professors wanting to help!

Several very senior US academics from prestigious universities including the Ivy League are on the President’s Council. UoP also works with NYU, Berkeley, Edinburgh University and Yale Law School in academic partnerships for students to transfer to complete a higher level of studies. Shai also gets a lot of exposure in more than 3,000 media outlets who help spread the word to the students who need to know about UoP. Social media is also an important outlet and UoP currently has 1.2 million supporters on Facebook and Shai’s TED Talk has been viewed 5.4 million times. This is all the more impressive since UoP has no marketing budget!

The degrees offered at UoP are in business administration, computer science and health science. Shai explained he chose these subjects because they are the highest in demand worldwide and provide best chance for students to create have a better life for themselves and their families. Shai highlighted his pride in enabling these students to be able to achieve a better life as they are not typical students – they are survivors. Currently they have 1,000 refugees studying with UoP included survivors of the Haiti earthquake and 600 from Syria. UoP is able to give them personalised attention by putting them in small classes of 20-30 students.

The process is that each course takes eight weeks to complete and there is an exam at the end of each module. All courses consist of virtual classes and discussion forums where students can study alongside peers from all around the world. Students access lecture notes, reading lists and homework assignments on line and take part in a discussion. Homework is assessed anonymously and randomly by three of their peers, they do a test, get marked and move onto the next week. The instructor can override grades if they feel the peer-assessed grades are unfair. There is also a programme adviser who is the single point of contact for the student at the University from the day they sign up to the day they graduate. This person motivates them and answers any questions they may have. They get their grades after each course and move to the next course. Each course requires 15 to 20 hours independent study course per week and they are only allowed to study up to two courses at one time. In order to graduate within four years, students need to take two courses each term, and complete five terms a year. However most students are working alongside studying and are slightly older than the typical student, so UoP allowed them up to 10 years to complete their BA. Shai explained that although the degree courses are very demanding, they are also very interactive and they are not alone despite not having a physical classroom. Student satisfaction is extremely important and UoP surveys students every term to find out how they are getting on and if they are happy with their course. The last question is always “Would you recommend UoP to friends? Shai was very proud to say that 95% of students every single term would recommend UoP to their peers, so “we must be doing something right!”

To be admitted students must have a high school diploma and pass two entrance courses to meet UoP’s standards. Over 50% of applicants drop out at this point, which Shai puts this down to many potential students not realising the demands of studying and the commitment required to complete the degree. However, 85% of students who pass the admissions courses pass into the second year of study, which is a very high first year retention figure.

A BA degree costs $4,000. For those who cannot afford this there are scholarships available and UoP partners with corporate sponsors to fund this. Sponsors include Microsoft, HP and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who support ongoing work and pay for specific projects and mentoring for particular groups of students.

UoP is also supported by corporate employers who work with their graduates. Four years ago when UoP gained accreditation they had 500 students. The number of students is doubling every year and there are now more than 400 graduates who have gone onto work with IBM, World Bank, Wells Fargo, UN and Microsoft. 92% of UoP graduates say they are employed and Shai is very proud of their achievements all over the world.

Shai concluded: “Our students come to us to gain a better future, but there is an even better benefit for us. In every class there are 20-30 students. They meet students from other countries each time they take a class. By the time they graduate they have met hundreds of students from every corner of the world. Imagine what happens when students from Pakistan and India, Turkey and Greece, Israel and Palestine study together? We open their minds; they shift mind-sets and become friends instead of enemies outside of the classroom. We offer a better change for the world. Imagine what could happen once we have one million students walking through our doors.”

UoP is entering its 10th year in September and now has more than 15,000 students coming from 200 countries around the world and is run by 7,000 volunteers.

The three-day conference includes more than 300 sessions, including keynotes from John Gill, Editor, Times Higher Education, on Global Higher Education Trends- And why these matter at home and Professor Christine Jarvis, Pro Vice- Chancellor (Teaching and Learning), University of Huddersfield, “Growing Global Graduates: Teaching for a better world”.

All the presentations from this year's Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference will be available on the HEA website shortly.

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