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New Low-Cost University Plans to Use Social-Networking Tools

The new University of the People, an online institution that promises to offer courses for minimal cost to students thanks to free online materials and social-networking tools, will most likely have more symbolic significance than practical impact on the higher-education landscape.

The university got a big write-up in The New York Times, but some education bloggers, including Seb Schmoller, have expressed skepticism about the project, started by the entrepreneur who runs Cramster, a service that some describe as offering homework help by publishing the answers to problems in popular textbooks.

One key aspect of the project is the notion that with so many quality course materials published free online by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others, some entity should come along to add a teaching component so that students could get college credit on the cheap. University of the People plans to essentially encourage students to teach themselves by working in groups, under the guidance of instructors — many of whom are expected to be retired college professors — who will moderate.

A project that we wrote about last year, called Peer 2 Peer University, proposed the same basic idea.

University of the People will be a nonprofit entity. Though it will not charge tuition, there will be fees to sign up ($15 to $50) and to take exams ($10 to $100) — which sounds like the budget airlines that offer low fares but charge for each piece of luggage and every drink. Clearly the costs will be far lower than those at traditional institutions, though.

For starters the new university will offer only two degrees: a B.A. in business administration and a B.Sc. in computer science. To be admitted, students must prove they graduated from high school, can speak English, and have consistent access to the Internet. A statement on the university’s Web site says it plans to apply for accreditation but does not have it yet.

It seems that either University of the People, or P2PU, or some yet-to-be-created institution, will find a way to offer a radically cheaper college degree using online tools. The new models will probably take some time to mature until the right mix of teaching and self-study is perfected. —Jeffrey R. Young

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