We kicked off our Next Wave 2021 virtual event series this month with Democratizing Access to Education, a conversation between Shai Reshef, President of University of the People, and Catharine (Cappy) Bond Hill, Managing Director of Ithaka S+R.

Our attendees asked many terrific, wide-ranging questions; so many in fact, that we didn’t have time to discuss them all. We appreciate that Shai and his colleagues at UoPeople took the time to respond to them here.If the Q&A below sparks additional questions or comments, please email us.

It’s so clear that your institution’s model is based on equity. That’s great! Does this commitment penetrate to the specific course curricula/content? If so, any examples you can share? 

UoPeople offers its students a liberal arts education. With such a curriculum, students are taught to engage with systems different from their own and to examine their prior assumptions and beliefs. It is a journey of personal and intellectual growth impelled by a framing and reframing of one’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. More importantly, a liberal arts education is preparation for life as a responsible citizen. UoPeople graduates possess intellectual resourcefulness and a questioning attitude, a commitment to reason and an openness to alternatives, an appreciation of diversity, and the soundness of judgment necessary to take action and lead others. We also recently redesigned our foundation courses (introductory courses in every major we offer) to incorporate sustainability content. Instead of offering a separate “track” or degree in sustainability, we chose to integrate it into all degree programs, so UoPeople graduates understand the importance of sustainability in their personal and professional lives. You can learn more about our curriculum.

With so much diversity among students, how do you address cultural differences in terms of how students understand the world and also how they approach education and learning? 

We intentionally keep our class sizes small — between 20-30 students are placed in each course. Given that we have students from over 200 countries and territories, the composition of each course reflects the greater geographic and cultural diversity present at UoPeople. Our peer-to-peer and collaborative learning pedagogy ensures that students from all walks of life learn together and from one another.

Are students organizing themselves outside class for study groups, or even socially (albeit online)?

Students connect with one another on Yammer, our internal social network. They also organize themselves into study groups on WhatsApp, in addition to their discussions throughout the course on the Discussion Forums. Pre-COVID 19, our students in certain cities were able to meet up in person thanks to the forming of UoPeople@ Communities. These Communities, in locations ranging from Shanghai to Northern Virginia, and Riyadh to Lagos, host alumni events, applicant information sessions, and other events to connect students in person.

Does the U of People faculty accept retired teachers? What are the criteria for selecting your faculty?

Yes, we certainly accept retired professors! Instructors with relevant experience in the fields we teach, or in general education can teach with UoPeople, provided they have the necessary qualifications. We give priority to those with experience in online education.

What are your thoughts on the future of postsecondary education?

It is clear that the pandemic has accelerated the demand for online learning. It has also highlighted that most postsecondary institutions must dramatically reduce their prices in order to attract students. The only way to do so is by moving online. The schools that don’t adjust to an effective online model or have the resources to survive the financial roller coaster may have to merge or close. Eventually, higher education will evolve into three groups created from price pressures on universities. First are the elites, such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford – these schools will not change at all, as students will continue to pay sky-rocketing tuition. The second group is the “accessibles” — entirely online schools that offer a good quality bare-bones education at a very inexpensive price. Lastly, we will see the specialists — colleges will specialize in their offerings to the point where higher education will look more like commodities.

Could you tell us more about what you use for a library for UoPeople and where funding comes from for running this part of the university? Also, how do you approach teaching materials, text books, and so forth? Are all materials OER or do students need to purchase books/materials? 

UoPeople’s Library Services are overseen by the Library Services Advisory Board. Whenever students have questions throughout their studies regarding access to resources, they ask the Chair of this committee who points them in the right direction. Members of this Advisory Board also help our Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) find open source content when designing any specific course. We only use Open Educational Resources (OER) so that our students are never required to purchase costly textbooks. Students and faculty have access to subscriptions via Library and Information Resources Network (LIRN), a collection of over 60 million proprietary resources. In 2020, we were granted full and complimentary access to JSTOR, thanks to Laura Brown and the team, for which we are incredibly grateful.

For UoPeople in Arabic, since the concept of OER does not exist, we signed an agreement with a library that supplies all of our materials for our students. We do not pass this cost onto our students, in keeping with our mission.

You’ve talked about how universities are partnering with UofPeople. There are many publishers attending the Next Wave. Are there ways publishers can support your mission?

The best way to support our mission is to enable our students, who come from the most historically underserved populations in education, access to their materials free of charge.

Again, our thanks to Shai for sharing the UoPeople story with us. As one attendee said, “This was very interesting and moving.” And in the words of another, “BRAVO!!!” We look forward to continuing to learn together at our next event, Advancing Equity from the University to America’s Prisons, where we’ll be joined by poet, scholar, and advocate Reginald (Dwayne) Betts.