On February 14, 2014 the New York Times ran a story about a very promising initiative called the University of the People. This young online school, founded just four years ago, offers courses to disadvantaged and underserved groups mostly for free (application costs run $0 to $50 and examination costs are $100). The University of the People has 700 students from 142 countries currently taking classes. Some 25 percent are from the United States and 30 percent are from Africa.
While there are several popular online courseware platforms currently in existence – think of edX and Coursera – University of the People is different. Classes often consist of 20 to 30 students and run for ten weeks. Quizzes and homework assignments are expected of all students, regardless of the diverse range of countries where they might reside. While a reported 3,000 professors have volunteered, only 100 have actually been used in either courseware development or instruction. Current degree offerings include degrees in computer science and business administration.
The idea behind such an initiative is that there is a way to offer free – or very low-cost – high quality education to students anywhere in the world, all through a central course delivery system. Programs like the University of the People manage to do so through open courseware which often relies heavily on textual content. This is an essential component of any such global program due to the lack of broadband internet access in African countries, a major geographic focus of such educational initiatives.