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March 19, 2009 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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Shai Reshef

Timing is everything in business.

Somewhere along the way, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef became interested in educational services and realized that one issue unites people around the globe: a need for improved education.

The problem, however: "The tools for providing accessible higher education were out there, but the price was too high."

That's when he discovered the strength of online study communities, and it couldn't have come at a better time. In the case of the price tag of college education in the United States, it's shocking, but tuition at Ivy League schools can be a whopping $40,000 a year -- and more!

So it is with relief that come September, the world's first, global, tuition-free, Internet-based, academic institution -- the University of the People -- will open its doors. Registration begins in April at: www.UoPeople.org.

According to Reshef, founder and president of UoP, the university will be open to any student with access to a computer and Internet connection who can submit a certificate of graduation from secondary school and demonstrate proficiency in English.

Even more good news for those working or who simply can't afford tuition at a campus: UoP announced that in lieu of tuition, it plans to charge nominal application and examination fees, which may be adjusted on a sliding scale based on the economic situation in the student's country of origin.

So for those all over the world who until now viewed college as a "pipe dream," said Reshef, this "represents a huge leap in the democratization of education."

At least in the initial stages, UoP will offer two undergraduate degrees: a B.A. in business administration and a B.Sc. in computer science. Full-time students will be able to complete the undergraduate degree in about four years.

All students will be eligible for an associate degree after two years. UoP intends to apply for accreditation from recognized authorities as soon as the waiting process for eligibility is met.

Giving Back

Parlaying a successful career in education and worldwide travel, Reshef said that as an Israeli, he is doing this in part because it is "Jewish to give back to society and improve the world."

Already, he has put $1 million of his own money into the nonprofit, and is seeking to find an additional $4 million.

His new online institution, he is sure, will catch on.

According to a survey by the Sloan Consortium, approximately 4 million students are enrolled in online education. As a tuition-free service, UoP will take the concept of e-Learning to an unprecedented, broader, worldwide audience and revolutionize higher education by providing universal access to college studies, even in the poorest parts of the globe.

"Education, just like democracy, should be a right, not a privilege," said Reshef.

As chairman of the board of Cramster.com, a leading online community of students and educators, he stressed that "education is a proven mechanism for upward mobility."

That's why Reshef and UoP anticipate tens of thousands of students enrolling in the first five years of operation. Although the university will cap enrollment at 300 in the first semester, the peer-to-peer pedagogical model encourages rapid expansion of the student body.

Reshef said that the new university would be able to function effectively on a limited budget -- without sacrificing quality of education -- by using collaborative and open-source e-Learning. Within online study communities, students will share resources, exchange ideas, discuss weekly topics, submit assignments and take exams.

The university will use librarians, master-level students and professionals to develop and evaluate curricula and oversee assessments.

Students will be able to find the lecture of the week and necessary reading material. "It'll be like a virtual room," he said, where students study together and will be guided by volunteer professors, some of whom are retired.

In any business, of course, competition exists.

"While there are several online universities, they function on a for-profit, tuition-based model, meaning students incur high fees to enroll," pointed out Reshef. He insisted that the university will remain a nonprofit.

Indeed, you can certainly say that Reshef possesses the business acumen to succeed. He has 20 years of experience in the international educational market. From 1989 to 2005, he served as chairman of the Kidum Group, the largest for-profit educational services company based in Israel.

In 2005, he sold the company to Kaplan, one of the world's largest education companies and a subsidiary of The Washington Post.

Between 2001 and 2004, while continuing as the chairman of Kidum, Reshef lived in the Netherlands, where he chaired KITeLearning, a subsidiary of Kidum.

The objective? To create what he calls a "global chalkboard." 

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