Kim Clark of US News and World Reports has written an insightful article, Online Education Offers Access and Affordability, that captures many of the latest trends that have emerged out of increased competition in online enrollment and emerging technologies. The article has introduced me to University of the People, a free non-profit university that will begin offering free online education (including textbooks — most likely open source textbooks, not the 15 lb. type you’re imagining) leading toward a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration or Computer Science.

Yep – I said FREE college, except for nominal admission and exam fees. Their vision?

The University of the People promises to open the gates of higher education to anyone in the world interested in attending college. We believe that education at a very minimal cost is a basic right for all suitable applicants, not just for a privileged few.

Hmmm. How radically democratic.

And who will comprise the student body of this institution? Students from all parts of the world, even the poorest countries. This is an example of truly embracing the fullest potential of online learning!

The learning experiences (according to the website) will be coordinated by a community comprised of active and retired professors, graduate level students and scholars who will facilitate and partner with students in a collaborative, peer-to-peer learning environment. What’s missing from this equation is “The” Professor. That’s right — this learning environment seems more fluid, more of a community-oriented experience in which members strive towards meeting an end goal (which, if you think about it, is exactly what any student enrolled in a college class is focused on doing).

As I ponder this model of learning, the students leaving UoP will not only be achieving the learning outcomes associated with each individually degree but they will also be developing the ability to work in culturally diverse teams, assume responsibility for collaborative work, and fostering a global perspective of relevant topics — skills that have been identified as critical 21st Century Skills.

According to an article posted in the Los Angeles Times in February, Shai Reshef, the Israeli mind behind this innovative concept, noted that he had been flooded with interest from hundreds of students from around the world who want to apply and an equal amount of professors who want to participate in the educational community. Admissions don’t open until April. The University of the People will begin as an unaccredited institution but plans to apply for accreditation from a recognized authority “as soon as possible.”

So here we go, everybody! The future is here. If you are employed at a “traditional” higher ed institution, ask yourself and your colleagues this question: Why are students going to continue to come to our college or university to pursue their degree when they have more options than ever before? Options that now include a free online college degree, providing an opportunity to interact, collaborate and discuss with individuals from all over the world.

As Clark’s article points out, however, there is an inherent bias against online degrees today, however. So are the fortunate students who pursue and receive these free college degrees going to be viewed as qualified as their competition who may be clutching a degree from a bricks and mortar college experience? When will this shift? What will it take to make this shift?

If the root of this bias against online learning is the poor quality many online students cite regarding their learning experiences — evidence that includes instructors who don’t respond to emails, lack of interaction with classmates, unclear expectations, dull course materials (see my earlier blog post “Dear Online Professor“) — then perhaps this increased competition for enrollment will up the ante and more institutions will support their robust online enrollments with more dynamic and innovative programs centered around online faculty training, mentoring, and evaluation.

18 Comments to “Free College Degree Anybody? Competition in Higher Ed Sets In”

  1. Anonymous

    I am an eight grade student from the United States. I wrote a post on What inspires me. I would like you to possibly read mine, and then write your own post and comment back on my blog telling me about it. Thanks in advance,


  2. Michelle: Very intriguing article. I am taking a course on “Social tools” through the Univ. of Maine. As a 30 veteran teacher, I see where this virtual world of education can go. I believe the changes the article speaks to are indeed on the way. Universities and colleges across the world will be very different in a short 20 or 30 years from now. Thanks for the article. I enjoy your blog. Tony Hamlin

  3. Hi There-
    This is fantastic…”eventualistically” speaking Education will be available to all…and I believe in sharing- You can never have enough Education and if someone is motivated enough to do the work it should be available to them…they will inturn share and contribute to society at a higher level of expertise.

  4. Hi! My mentor,
    Free College! Wow! that’s amazing.
    I hope this school will be able to change the negative views that some people have about on-line learning and will also be a wake-up call to all the teachers to get the training or push the schools where they are employed at to provide the training they need to be tech-savvy. Because if they don’t they will be left behind and be replaced by teachers from different countries who have the same knowledge but are tech-savvy and are willing to teach beyond the text book.

  5. Anonymous

    University of the People is not offering bachelor's degrees in any other areas besides business and computer science. It is not accredited. So your post is inaccurate. Until they are accredited fully they will not be able to offer an alternative to the B.A. Readers should beware of this. They should also beware a model that expects faculty to "volunteer" their expertise. Professionals cannot "volunteer" their services unless they have an income elsewhere – which means that they are not available full-time to the students of this free system. In this way, Univ. of the People is exploiting the labor and expertise of professional faculty – and a model that is exploitative of any one of its parts cannot be fully trusted.

  6. Michele P.

    Anonymous on Jan 10, 2011 said some radical accusations. First, the school is very upfront about what they offer and perimeters. Secondly, the people who volunteer are volunteers – not slave labor. They have a passion for teaching and my guess, are interested in becoming a part of a ground breaking model.
    The blog writer was if anything, vague at worst, but not wrong or misleading in any way. It was meant to showcase a new idea not serve as advertisement.
    It is valid that you do not like this model, but it is invalid for you to condemn the blog writer while you are actually the one at fault for the accusations you sling.

  7. Hi Michele P.

    Thanks for stopping by and for defending my post against the "anonymous" poster from Jan 10, 2011. Your comment was a reminder for me to circle back to this comment, which I intended to do (I honestly can't believe that comment was already made 1.5 years ago!).

    When I read that comment, I reflected on it a great deal and rather than get defensive, I learned that the commenter represents the great number of people (including, sadly, many educators) who cannot grasp the reality that our learning society continues to attract more and more subject matter experts who willingly create and contribute high quality content for nothing. It's just like volunteer work in other traditional circles — the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, etc. — but we aren't used to thinking of it this way.

    In our industrialized society, information was managed and controlled through our rigid, formalized institutions managed by experts. In an open, global economy, we all have an opportunity to contribute. That changes everything — and, yes, creates opportunities and challenges. The Khan Academy is a fabulous, and perhaps the most famous, example of a subject matter expert who began sharing his content online on a whim (to help his nephew learn math). And look what happened there. Who's to say something similar couldn't, wouldn,'t, won't happen with models like the one shared in this post.

    Finally, I do hope every person who reads a blog post takes note of the post date and realizes that no blogger (well, at least this blogger) doesn't make an effort to track updates and changes on post topics. Sure, if I hear of an update, I'll post a follow up but it's not something I'm actively pouring my brain power into. So, certainly things have changed with University of the People since I wrote this post **in 2009** — and I welcome anyone to post an update here.


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