TED Talk: University of the People

Yesterday evening, I watched the TED Talk by Shai Reshaf, “An ultra-low-cost college degree.” His belief is that higher education is a “right.” The problems he sees with higher education are its costs, unsuitable culture, and its want of capacity to meet the demand of all who want higher education. Accordingly, he founded “The University of the People.”

The University offers a limited curriculum: degrees in business administration and computer science. It relies, I suppose like many universities, on generosity of donors – especially professors who offer courses for free. He reports 1700 students from 143 countries from all over the world – truly an intercultural experience. On its web page, the university reports accreditation from the Accreditation Commission of the Distance and Education Training Council (DETC). That is something. Still, I would feel more comfortable if the school were accredited by a traditional accrediting body – one that accredits brick and mortar institutions.

I really love this idea for students. “Free” is a difficult price point to beat. Nevertheless, I haven’t looked at any of the courses – so I have no opinion on them. A USA Today article, indicates nine courses ready to be taught; and 20 under development. That’ s a pretty narrow focus to an education. I suppose that there must be more courses available or coming.
Of course, quality of the educational experience is always a concern. A BBC article of earlier this year, “University of the People – where students get free degrees” notes a study of Coursera: Only 4% of the students that take courses with a MOOC, finish it. That statistic is a concern about interest and quality. On-line education is going to be tough for an number of students. I don’t know how this school does.

Another anecdote raises a different concern. How will employers and others look at the degree? The same BBC article above reports on a students’ success story. It’s a nice story, but at the end, the student doesn’t yet have a job. I would really like to hear about other school’s acceptance of this institutions degrees.

The TED talk is interesting; the university’s founding is ambitious. Still, I think that relying on such a program for educating very many people is a risk. But, it might be a nice supplement, and down the road, such programs may be more acceptable.

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