Founded in 2009, University of the People (“UoPeople”) holds the distinction of being the first tuition-free, non-profit online university. To date, UoPeople has admitted more than 2000 students from over 150 countries, including the Sudan, Indonesia, and Haiti. Students enrol in either Business or Computer Science, for Associates or Bachelor’s programs. Most of the academic labour is supplied by volunteers, for which there is apparently no shortage. Open content is used and delivered using open source technology. Students rely heavily on peer-to-peer learning.

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In higher ed circles, discussions about of UoPeople typically frame the initiative in philanthropic terms: it’s grand and generous, but quite removed from higher education proper.

Certainly, generosity came to mind when I spoke with Shai Reshef (pictured above); the Founder and sponsor is modest and plain-spoken, and clearly has a sincere desire to help students.

But UoPeople can also be understood as a highly resourceful example of business model innovation; it bears a striking resemblance to the textbook definition of disruptive innovation (before the term was stretched beyond recognition):

  • it combines technology with a new business model to offer a stripped-down, feature-poor version of an existing service (higher education);
  • it seeks to serve “non-consumers”, rather than offer an alternative that attract students that have other, convenient and affordable options for getting a college education.

It’s true that the UoPeople relies on volunteers, many of whom are only able to share their expertise freely because they have jobs with universities. (The Provost is from Columbia, a Dean from NYU.) But Reshef confirms that the operation is sustainable in its current form and, in time, the anticipated surplus of funds could be used to hire a certain percentage of staff at market rates. It’s also important to remember how relatively large the “free economy” is in the education sector. (For more on the “free economy” concept, see Chris Anderson’s original riff here).

More than a philanthropic effort, the UoPeople may also be understood as an example of the different forms that higher education can take to meet the needs of increasingly global higher education system – particularly in the developing world.

Learn more about the University of the People.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

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