It was all just a big joke! That's what I thought when I started studying the online education industry. How are you going to get people to actually finish their degree without set timelines and dates to push them to finish? Most online education companies really sell the idea of freedom of pace and in certain contexts, this is great, but for the majority of people I saw this as a giant hurtle to actually finishing a course or even a degree for that matter.
The second major hurtle online education needed to overcome was the price vs value paradox. Normally online education is free and that's really great because it gives access to higher education to those that don't have the monetary means to actually go to school. At the same time, other institutions and companies see the "free education" as somehow not valuable or not effective. This stigma needed to be overcome. Lastly, how was online education going to help people get truly educated? As humans, we only remember about 5-10% of what we see and the major forms of online education included videos and text prompts.
Who can solve these problems?
I believe that University of the People handled these three problems very well.
I came across University of the People when I was looking for a good MBA program to finish. I had already received my Electrical Engineering bachelors and I wanted to get an MBA because of my love for business. I started to look around at cheap options online and I came across two amazing platforms. The first platform was Smart.ly. The second was University of the People.
Smart.ly was amazing because of the gamification of education. I finished all the free courses I could and applied multiple times to their actually MBA program, but got denied every time. During the same time I found University of the People.
I was pretty skeptical about joining because their website was a bit old looking and clunk-ish. Not too old, but old enough to doubt whether it was a real organization. I looked into the founder's famous TED talk on education for all and I did a ton of research on how it was being accredited. Turned out that it wasn't Regionally accredited, but it was Nationally accredited and because I found their name on the list of DECA accreditation I figured it must be legit.
The first thing you need to consider is if National accreditation will work with your goals. Some companies and other schools will only consider Regional accreditation, but ultimately the same board that does Regional accreditations do the National ones so ultimately it's just a popularity contest in the education world.
Problem 1: Timelines
University of the people solves this problem by splitting up their school year into five terms. Each term is eight weeks long. I thought this was really good because unlike Khan Academy or other online forums, University of the People gives hard and fast deadlines for assignments and discussions to be turned in. This makes it feel like a regular school semester and gives that motivation for actually finishing the course you started.
Each week in the MBA program you are required to write a response to the Discussion prompt, write a 2-3 page paper on the relevant subject for that week and occasionally a Portfolio piece or a Group Project will be due. So this program is just like a regular class with deadlines every week and assignments due at certain times. The great thing is that the week ends on a Wednesday night, so for me I could do some work on Thursday and Friday, take a break for the weekend and then finish up on Monday and Tuesday.
Although there were timelines it still was very convenient to finish the work whenever you wanted, it just gave a good incentive to get the work in at the end of each week.
Problem 2: Price vs Value
University of the People's big claim-to-fame is their Tuition Free classes. This doesn't mean the education is exactly free. It's true that there is no tuition, but they require you to pay an assessment fee per class you take. Altogether, I spent $2460.00 exact for the MBA. $60 for the application fee and then $200 per class for 12 classes.
The assessment fee made sense after taking the first class. So normally online education is just you and the computer. The program will put up text, you read it and click next or choose the right answer, then move on. Here there was an actually instructor that monitored the progress of the class and was there to answer any questions the students had about the subject material. The great thing was that all the textbooks they reference are open source and free for students so with no tuition and no book fees a $200 assessment fee for the instructors time for eight weeks seemed very reasonable.
Problem 3: Getting Truly Educated
University of the People solves this problem very uniquely. I'm not sure if it's the correct solution, but it's a decent solution.
University of the People is all about collaboration. So I accomplished almost one group project for every single class. Group members were from all over the world. I had group members from Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, North America and Australia. We worked together in groups to accomplish the assignment and it gave a good feeling of comradery even from across the world.
All assignments are peer reviewed by a random group of students in the class. Every assignment is graded by the average of three random students every week, but the instructor was there to make any corrections if the average skewed unfairly. The instructor also headed the discussions and you were required to comment on at least three other people's comments. This made for some very interesting discussions and keep everyone engaged in topics that they were really interested in.
This group effort for the education kept the "online" experience real. I really felt like I was in a normal university setting that was much more convenient. The convenience of doing the work at your pace within the timeframe. The convenience of open source books and the opportunity to connect with people from all over the world.
I started the University of the People program as just a way to see what the future of online education was going to become, but I ended up just finishing the program. I received my graduation diploma in the mail last week and that was the end of my University of the People journey, but it wasn't the end of my educational journey.