University of the People’s Class of 2025? Photo: papalars

The United Nations launches the world’s first public, online, free university.

Perhaps it’s not the world’s most pressing problem, but leading changemakers recognize that bridging the digital divide in the developing world is an important priority in the field of social development.

Many organizations–from the Gates Foundation to One Laptop Per Child–have implemented programs intended to help people in underserved areas get technologically connected. The latest group to join that effort is the United Nations, which has just announced the launch of the first public, online, free university, open to all the world’s citizens.

As the UN’s press release indicated:

“For hundreds of millions of people around the world higher education is no more than a dream…. They are constrained by finances, the lack of institutions in their region, or they are not able to leave home to study at a university for personal reasons.”

The University of the People is intended to make higher education more accessible to the masses through open-source technology, open course materials, e-learning pedagogical strategies, and peer-to-peer teaching. The UN explained that classes will be comprised of 20 students, who will participate in weekly online lectures, peer discussions, and e-tests. Professors are volunteers and post-grad students.

The launch of the university has already attracted considerable interest; more than 200 students from 52 countries have enrolled, despite the fact that the University of the People is not yet accredited. Lacking accreditation, the university cannot confer degrees; however, the University of the People’s website indicates that seeking accreditation is a priority.

The idea of a global, almost-free university (students pay a nominal fee for registration and tests) is certainly an appealing one, but may raise some logistical, pragmatic, and philosophical concerns. At present, for example, the university’s admission guidelines indicate that applicants must possess a high school degree or an equivalent proof of 12 years of schooling, as well as English fluency. These two admissions criteria might well prevent access and enrollment to the very populations the university purports to be attracting.

Still, we’ve got to start somewhere, right? I’ll be interested to see how the program develops.

To learn more about University of the People, visit the university’s website here.

Community Connection:

If you’d like to help improve educational opportunities, browse through Matador’s organizational profiles, which feature dozens of NGOs and non-profits around the world that are dedicated to improving educational opportunities and resources in underserved communities.