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Disrupting higher education: Shai Reshef at TED2014

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Shai Reshef. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Shai Reshef. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Shai Reshef believes higher education is a right, not a privilege. In January 2009, he founded University of the People, a nonprofit, tuition-free, online university dedicated to opening up higher education to anyone in the world with a high school diploma and a willingness to learn — “regardless of who they are, where they live or what society says about them,” Reshef says at TED2014.

“We open the gates for every qualified student,” he says. “Any student from any part of the world with any Internet connection can study with us. We don’t use audio; we don’t use video; broadband isn’t necessary.” University of the People currently serves students from 143 countries, including Syria, the US, South Africa, Jordan and Nigeria.

The way the university works is this, Reshef says: University of the People keeps costs down by forgoing a brick-and-mortar institution and traditional textbooks, and by using volunteer staff  — from administration to instructors — out of a group of 3,000 who offered their time. Professors from elite institutions all over the world, including New York University, Oxford University, Yale University and the University of California Berkeley volunteer their time freely. “Using open educational resources and the generosity of our professors, we don’t need to send students to buy textbooks,” he says, “All of our materials come free — even professors.”

The only cost that students face is a $100 fee per each final exam taken, and Reshef works to make sure that “nobody be left behind for financial reasons,” through scholarships and support for any student who need it. Right now, the University offers two academic programs — business administration and computer science — and that decision is purposeful, Reshef says, as “these are the two professions that are most in demand worldwide, and the likeliest to help our students to find a job.”

Just last month, University of the People received full accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council — “the ultimate academic endorsement” — a milestone that only presses Reshef to work harder to open education up to more students. “We’ve demonstrated that our model works,” he says, “It’s our time now to scale up.”

“A new era is coming,” he says, “the disruption of the higher education model as we know it today — from being a privilege for the few to a basic right, affordable and accessible for all.”