Shai Reshef is an Israeli-born entrepreneur who now lives in Pasadena, California. Although his master’s degree is in Chinese politics, he has made his name professionally in private education. He served as chairman and CEO of the Kidum Group, an Israeli test preparation which he sold to Kaplan, Inc. in 2005. He also led KIT eLearning, a subsidiary of Kidum and the eLearning partner of the University of Liverpool. KIT provided MBAs and Master in IT degrees, and was eventually acquired by Laureate Online Education.
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In 2009, Reshef founded the University of the People, which in February 2014 received accreditation from the Distance and Education Training Council, a U.S. Department of Education authorized accrediting agency. This made it the world’s first non-proﬁt, tuition-Free, accredited, online university.
In speaking with Reshef, I was curious about his mission, the hurdles the company had to go over in order to achieve its unique distinction, and his plans for the future. As one would expect with a serial entrepreneur, he believes that now that the foundation is in place, the University of the People is well positioned to rapidly grow its business, creating new opportunities for many of the world’s least fortunate people in the process.
Peter High: Shai, what is the University of the People’s mission?
Shai Reshef: The mission of UoPeople is to offer affordable, quality, online, higher education to any qualified student. We believe that access to higher education is a key ingredient in the promotion of world peace and global economic development. We view higher education as a basic right, and believe that it can both transform the lives of individuals and can be a powerful force for societal change. We believe that education plays a fundamental role in strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in promoting understanding and tolerance. We also hope that in the future, other institutions will replicate our model in order to open the gates of higher education to as many students as possible around the world.
High: You have an elite group of partners, including the Clinton Global Initiative, Yale Law School, HP, and the UN among others. How did you go about establishing partners in this mission and what role do they play?
Reshef: Many corporations believe, as we do, that education should be a right and not a privilege, and would like to take part in revolutionizing higher education. Since so many people identify with UoPeople’s mission, more often than not our partners seek us out without any solicitation from our part. By joining us, they also create their future potential employees. Our agreement with Microsoft is the very example of this. Launched in September 2013, the UoPeople Microsoft4Afrika scholarship program will support a total of 1,000 African students to graduate with a world-class academic degree from UoPeople in either Computer Science or Business Administration. The scholarship not only includes financial support to cover all costs associated with studies, but also extra-curricular opportunities including professional training from Microsoft, being mentored by Microsoft employees and internship and job opportunities with Microsoft and their affiliates in Africa upon their graduation. This comprehensive program is providing students with a degree, experience in their industry, a professional network and important life skills and competencies. The program is fostering a new generation of leaders equipped to succeed in the global business and technology world, to enhance their country and region’s social and economic development and help improve the lives of people across Africa.
High: What were the hurdles that you needed to clear in order to ensure that the university was both accredited and tuition-free?
Reshef: It is important to note that while UoPeople is tuition-free, it is not free. UoPeople operates on a very lean budget ($1.2 Million in 2013, with expected growth to $1.8 in the coming years). It is able to offer tuition-free education because of its use of Open Education Resources, open source technology and by utilizing professional volunteers. More than 3,000 volunteers have come forward to help the University since its establishment, and they are spread throughout nearly every rank of the University, from the University President and Provost to Academic Deans, Course Developers, Academic Advisers and Course Instructors. Students are asked to pay a $100 processing fee per exam taken. Therefore, students are required to pay approximately $2,000 throughout their studies for an associate’s degree and approximately $4,000 for a bachelor’s degree. For some students these modest fees are still prohibitive, so the University offers a variety of scholarships. The fees UoPeople charges, paid either directly by the student or through a scholarship, ensure that the University has a stream of revenue which will make it sustainable upon reaching 5,000 students, a milestone expected in 2016. Grant funding has enabled the founding and growth of UoPeople to date and will continue to be a pillar of support to the University’s ongoing activity. While we have enjoyed a constant flow of volunteers who identified with our cause and wanted to help, raising funds for our operations and scholarships has been more of a challenge, both because we were a new institution with a revolutionary model, and since we were still not accredited. We believe that now, due to our recent accreditation, we will improve fundraising as well.
High: What is the admission process? What are you looking for in candidates?
Reshef: UoPeople aims to open the gates of higher education to any qualified student, worldwide. UoPeople has several admission requirements: students must be over 18 years of age, have a high school diploma, be proficient in English and have appropriate academic qualifications, along with access to an Internet connection. The application process takes place online and involves several steps, including six writing assignments. After submitting the online application, the student is asked to send their notarized documents to the University. This is the only exchange of paper between the student and the university for the entire duration of their studies, until graduation.
High: You have chosen four degrees:
- Bachelor (B.S.) in Business Administration
- Associate (A.S.) in Business Administration
- Bachelor (B.S.) in Computer Science
- Associate (A.S.) in Computer Science
Why were these chosen?
Reshef: We at UoPeople aim to prepare our students for their future in a way that will enable them to provide for their families and take an active part in developing their communities and countries. Graduates of Computer Science and Business Administration programs are in highest demand in the international job market, which is why we decided these would be the best programs to offer our students, who often have limited to no possibilities for career advancement.
High: Are there plans to add any others?
Reshef: We are currently looking into adding a few additional programs our students could benefit from. When considering programs, we look for ones that are in high demand in the respective countries of our students, as well as needed in their economies.
High: How was the curriculum designed?
Reshef: First, the Dean and his board of advisors (compiled of distinguished academics as well as professionals) determine the courses that need to be offered in order to meet the desired learning outcome of the program. Then for each course they identify the relevant subject matter expert who is willing to volunteer to develop the course. This person in turn develops the course in accordance with the learning outcome of the program, and with the desired learning outcome of the course, by using Open Educational Resources (OER). If he or she cannot identify OER, our library services advisory board is there to help them find the necessary OER material. After a course is developed, it is delivered for peer review and instructional design, and is then handed to the instructor who teaches the given course.
High: What is the background of the professors?
Reshef: All of our academic staff come to us as volunteers and fill various roles in the University. For example, our business administration and computer science deans are both from NYU. We are lucky to have more than 3,000 wonderful volunteers. When we ask them to become subject matter experts (to develop courses) or be instructors, we give them an honorarium. To give you a sense of the amount, an instructor spends anywhere between 100-150 hours per course, and they receive about $450 per course. While obviously this amount is not significant, it is there to show our appreciation to our instructors, foster their commitment toward the university and to create a contractual obligation in order to ensure that they stay with us for the entire duration of the course. Almost all of our instructors have stayed with us from day one as a volunteer at UoPeople.
High: How do you stimulate collaboration among the students?
Reshef: As part of their studies, students are required to participate in class discussions, as well as evaluate other students’ work (peer-to-peer learning). The class discussions are at the core of our studies, and students receive a grade for their contribution to these discussions. With 20-30 students in each classroom, our instructors can easily ensure all students take an active part in discussions, as well as provide individualized encouragement and support for each student.
High: What sort of funding level is required in order to sustain the university?
Reshef: UoPeople operates on a very lean budget ($1.2 Million in 2013, with expected growth to $1.8 in the coming years).The fees UoPeople charges, paid either directly by the student or through a scholarship, ensure that the University has a stream of revenue which will make it sustainable upon reaching 5,000 students, a milestone expected in 2016. Grant funding has enabled the founding and growth of UoPeople to date and will continue to be a pillar of support to the University’s ongoing activity. The University requires an additional $5,000,000 in order to reach sustainability.
High: What is the retention rate of student? What methods will you employ to increase the rate?
Reshef: Our retention rate has changed dramatically since we began teaching in 2009. At the beginning, we were open to everyone without closely monitoring the level of English proficiency held by our students. The result was that we accepted students who were not prepared for our high level of academic standards. As a result, they had to leave after a short period of time. This was a grave disappointment for them but also hurt our qualified students who were in a class with students who were not ready for university level studies. Since then, the University has strengthened its academic requirements, as well as introduced an accelerated English course for students who need assistance improving their English. They have to pass the course in order be accepted as degree-seeking students. As a result of this change, last year 75 percent of students continued on to their second year of studies, in comparison to 2009 when only 40 percent of students progressed to their second year.
High: What other metrics do you track in order to prove that the University of the People is on track with its mission?
Reshef: University of the People has students from 142 countries. While the United States is our most represented country, the most represented region is Africa. We have students from almost every developing country in the world. We have students who survived the genocide in Rwanda, the earthquake in Haiti, tsunami in Thailand, and many more. For most of our students, we are the alternative to no alternative. Saying that, our students are extremely satisfied with what they get. 95 percent of them would recommend us as a good institute of higher education.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.