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People U. brings college to the masses

Imagine getting a bachelor's degree for less money than a semesters' worth of books at Brown.

The University of the People, an online degree-granting nonprofit opening its virtual doors this spring, will do just that.

The organization is the brainchild of California-based Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef, who is currently chairman of a Web site offering online homework help to high school students.

Reshef said the idea grew from his years working in the online education sector.

"I found out how strong online communities can be," he said. "I thought, 'Let's take this great tool of the online study communities and bring them into academia.'"

According to its Web site, the organization will cap enrollment at 300 students in its first semester and will initially offer only two degrees, a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. Students will pay application fees between $15 and $50 and assessment fees between $10 and $100, depending on their home countries.

"The idea is, if you're coming from a poor country in Africa, you'll only be paying $15 for admission and $10 for exams," Reshef said.

Reshef and other donors will provide the startup funding of $5 million. The organization will be self-sustaining when it reaches its enrollment goal of 10,000 students, Reshef said.

"On a personal level, I felt that after the last 20 years in the field of for-profit education, it's my turn to give rather than take," Reshef said."We want to reach every single place on earth."

Reshef said the courses will have virtual classrooms, which will bring together 20 students from around the world every week to read and discuss course materials. Graduate students and retired and working professors worldwide will prepare the lectures and hold virtual office hours. Some staff will be paid, while others will volunteer.

"Quite a few (U. People professors) are going to come from well-known universities,"

Reshef said.

The response to the initiative has been positive so far.

"We didn't expect so many people offering help in such a short period of time," Reshef said, adding that he has received numerous e-mails from academics.

The organization joins a thriving world of online education. In addition to the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which have Web-based degree programs, many traditional colleges and universities have made course materials available on the Internet. Numerous colleges offer lectures on iTunes U., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an Open CourseWare initiative that puts most of the school's course material online free of charge.

Michael Pickett, Brown's chief information officer, said the organization is consistent with the broader goals of higher education.

"Part of the mission of all universities is to share information and to share discoveries with the world," Pickett said.

But he expressed some concerns about the efficacy of online learning.

"You can obviously get a degree online - hundreds of thousands of people do it," Pickett said. "I personally am skeptical at this point that people would come away with the same knowledge, the same relationships and the same ability to dig for solutions," provided by a traditional college education.

But Pickett also said that distance-learning ventures such as the University of the People serve a different purpose than traditional institutions like Brown.

"It's a different kind of student," he said, noting that high tuition costs force many people to use cheaper online alternatives.

Reshef agreed his organization aims to serve the underprivileged.

"There really is no comparison and no competition" between it and other schools, he said, adding that his target students "have no alternative."


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