Online learning with the University of the People - part 1
Safeera Sarjoo

Online learning with the University of the People - part 1

We spoke to Shai Reshef, the President and founder behind the University of the People to learn more about his passion for online learning

First published date September 19 2017 Amended date September 19 2017

The idea of earning your degree through online studying is a concept that a lot of people who previously attended university may find hard to comprehend. However as the digital age continues to break through into most sectors, the way we learn is bound to change.

We’ve moved beyond learning a language on the go into territory where you can walk away with an accredited degree, which can lead to employment in high demand sectors. In fact, 42% of leading learning companies say that online learning has led to an increase in revenue, according to an Executive Report by The Ambient Insight.

With the opportunity to now gain a degree online, we wanted to talk to a professional in the field who could give us a glimpse into attitudes towards online learning and how students are benefitting from this less-than-traditional route.

In the first of our two part interview, we learn more about Shai Reshef and the University of the People (UoPeople) which is equipping people with the education they need in order to further their career prospects.

What prompted you to establish the University of the People?

I worked in the for-profit education world for over 20 years. As the founding chair of KIT e-learning, the online learning partner of the University of Liverpool and the first online university in Europe, I saw first-hand how great online learning could be. But while online learning was proving to be a great success, I started to feel that something was missing. I was conscious that, for most people, getting a great education is nothing but wishful thinking. It’s just too expensive. Then I realized that everything that had made online learning so expensive is actually available for free. There’s open-source technology. There’s Open Educational Resources that professors produce and put on the Internet for everyone to use. There’s this culture of social networking where people share, teach, and learn from each other for free. I told myself, ‘Wow. All I need to do is put it all together and create a university.’ So I did, and that is how I came up with University of the People – the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online university.

When you educate one person, you can change a life, but when you educate many, you can change the world. Nothing is as important as education. I knew that I wanted to give back and to make an impact on the world, so it made sense for me that this would be through education. 


Did you face any particular challenges when establishing UoPeople?

Creating and implementing an online university that is affordable and accessible to people around the globe is not without its challenges. One challenge is managing and using efficiently an army of 4,000 volunteers. A second challenge is getting the word out to our target audience of students. Although we have had publicity in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times and through TED Talks, many of our potential students are not consumers of this kind of media. People who stand to benefit from tuition-free education need to know about us, and yet the people who may need us the most may have a hard time finding out about us. As a nonprofit, and to remain tuition-free, UoPeople must operate on a very lean budget. Thus, without a wealth of funds for marketing, the university is largely dependent on word of mouth and media coverage. Our mission is to ensure that no one is left behind for financial reasons, and therefore we need all the help we can get both for making sure students can find us in the first place and then – our other challenge – being able to assist them with financial aid, if necessary. Making sure we are visible and accessible, when people who need us are researching their options, and ensuring we have the necessary scholarships to support our students are our biggest challenges.


Do the people who enrol at UoPeople differ greatly from those who enrol at university?

The answer is yes, our demographics differ greatly from traditional universities.

If we take the U.S. as an example (because we are a U.S university and because our recent intakes show a dramatic shift in the demographics of our students to U.S.) 37% of our students come from the U.S; however about one-third of UoPeople’s U.S. student body is foreign-born -- this includes new immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented students.

This percentage is in stark contrast to the less than 10% of overall U.S. College attendees (i.e. at other colleges) who are foreign-born. This is due to FINANCIAL as well as POLITICAL constraints to accessing higher education. Online learning breaks down these barriers.


Other interesting stats about our U.S students, as found from recent student survey results:

•           Almost 60% of our U.S. students have indicated they are first generation in higher education.

•           95% of current students have indicated they are considering pursuing further higher education (Master's Degree, Ph.D.) after graduating from UoPeople.

•           There are 50% more women in the UoPeople Computer Science Program compared to the U.S. average.

•           60% of UoPeople’s U.S. students come from areas of low income (according to income by zip code). The University believes that this percentage is considerably higher than the average of U.S. university students.

•           92% of U.S. students at UoPeople fall in the lower 3 quartiles of income (based on median income by zip code).

•           About  one third of our US students are carrying student loan debt from previous universities.

If you’re interested in U.K. numbers, while we have not done any targeted student survey for the U.K, we do know that 37.5 % of our UK residing students were born in the UK, whereas 62.5% of them are foreign-born.


Your programs focus on Business Administration and Computer Science. What can students go on to do following completion of these programs?

These programs were specifically chosen as they are the two most in demand programs in the world for employers, and will help our students find jobs.  Preparing students for the workforce is a high priority of UoPeople. Beginning in the classroom, the rigor of our accredited degree programs is ensured by world-class academic leaders and academic partners. Our leaders come from universities such as the University of Oxford, Columbia University, and Yale University, and our partners include organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Clinton Global Initiative, among others. Outside of the classroom, UoPeople students receive internships, mentorships, and job opportunities from our global corporate partners, including Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. Finally, by focusing on career planning, resume writing, interviewing, and job searching skills, UoPeople’s Career Service Center prepares students to find jobs after graduation. Given all of these exciting options, it is not surprising that UoPeople feels confident that its students will be able to find jobs or advance in their current jobs. Some of our graduates have found work at international companies such as World Bank, UN, Amazon, IBM and others.


Are you looking to expand into other areas of study?

We have just launched our MBA program and we are preparing toward a new program in Health Science soon. 


Read the second part of this interview where we speak to Shai about the current online learning landscape.

Safeera Sarjoo

Safeera is Editor of Whatuni and a journalist from Kingston University. Always the inquisitive, her writing spans across a number of areas such as sustainability, fashion, lifestyle and now education. Her belief that you never stop learning and passionate nature has taken her to New York City as part of her degree and across the airwaves on national radio talking about the issues that matter to her.