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Pasadena-based plan for online university draws interest

An Israeli entrepreneur hopes to start a global, very-low-cost institution soon. But by dispensing with professors, it's already a tough sell for some.

March 09, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

It won't have professors, not in a traditional sense. And no tuition either.

Still, the University of the People, a Pasadena-based venture envisioned as the first global, online, peer-to-peer university, will be a real institution of higher education, its founder says.

Shai Reshef, the Israeli entrepreneur behind the idea, said the response has been overwhelming since news of his in-the-works university started spreading earlier this year. Hundreds of potential students from all over the world have e-mailed, and hundreds of professors want to volunteer -- and admissions won't even open until April.

"We're unable to answer all these people," Reshef said in a recent interview.

For now, the nonprofit university is sharing office space with Cramster, an online study community that Reshef also heads. It was through his work with Cramster that Reshef decided the peer-to-peer model might also work for online college classes.

"I learned how powerful social networking can be for learning," he said.

A Tel Aviv resident who commutes monthly to his Pasadena office, Reshef said his latest venture involves using open-source technology, free course material from such universities as MIT and the lure of social networking to offer degrees to people who might not otherwise have access to them, for geographic or economic reasons.

Reshef has two decades of experience in international education. Starting in 1989, he served as chairman of Kidum, a for-profit educational services company in Israel. Later, he lived in the Netherlands and chaired KIT eLearning, the online partner of the University of Liverpool. He said this taught him how well online learning can simulate a traditional university setting, but also that it remained too expensive for many students.

Reshef said keeping the new university peer to peer will allow it to remain tuition-free. Classes won't be headed by a professor; instead, students in each class will be given lecture material to discuss in online forums. Students will still have weekly assignments and quizzes and a final exam, much as they do in other online courses.

"The only difference is we don't have the professor to monitor the discussion," Reshef said.

Hofstra University law professor Daniel Greenwood, one of a handful of professors helping Reshef shape the curriculum and structure, equated the idea to an academic version of Wikipedia, with correct answers reached as a group.

To be admitted, students must have a high school diploma, access to the Internet and fluency in English. Instead of tuition, they would pay nominal fees for enrollment -- from $15 to $50 -- and exams -- from $10 to $100 -- with students from poorer countries paying the lower amounts.

Reshef anticipates opening in September with 300 students, to be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Initially, the university plans to offer only bachelor's degrees in business administration and computer science. He expects to apply for accreditation as soon as possible, he said.

Once the university has 10,000 students, it will be self-sustaining, he said. Until then, it needs $5 million to get started, $1 million of which Reshef said he is putting up himself.

But the proposal has many skeptics.

Michael Lambert, executive director of the nonprofit Distance Education and Training Council, said others have tried the model of free education in the past and all have failed.

"If it's free, can it be worth anything?" he asked. "If you can't get a degree or credential out of it, what worth is it?"

John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit group that works to integrate online learning into the higher education mainstream, called the proposed university's chances of accreditation "slim to none." He said accreditation is a thorough process that examines an institution in many areas, including its curriculum and faculty.

Bourne said he liked the Cramster model but found the idea of peer-to-peer teaching problematic. Although students at the new university could ask for assistance from professors through online forums, "students often don't recognize when they need help," he said.

They "don't always get the nuances of the material," he said. "You really need to have guides, even if they are on the side, who are knowledgeable about the course material."

But Bourne said he and others in the education field have been intrigued by the proposed university.

"Everyone is interested in the idea, and everyone thinks there are problems," he said.

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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