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Columbia Spectator Staff

After years of working behind Columbia's iron gates, David Harris Cohen, former vice president and dean of the faculty for Arts and Sciences, now finds himself commuting to a different sort of campus—one that isn't defined by aging buildings and green lawns, but by a URL. Cohen—who is now retired from Columbia—is the provost of University of the People, a new, tuition-free online institution that opened its virtual doors this past September and is currently seeking accreditation. Started by Shai Reshef, an Israeli entrepreneur, UoPeople's goal is to provide an affordable higher education to students across the globe that otherwise might not be able to afford it. As an unaccredited institution, the university offers the opportunity to obtain a college-level education without paying for an actual degree. Until the university gains accreditation, students won't graduate with accredited degrees. "Given the tuition situation with most major institutions right now, it was intriguing to see if that could work," Cohen said, referring to the steadily rising cost of higher education. In line with its mission of global access, the university has thus far enrolled 400 students from 80 different countries. Students though must be proficient in English to enroll, and all courses are conducted in English. The educational model is based on peer-to-peer interactions—learning is primarily accomplished through reading and online discussion with peer groups of 15-20 students. Lecturing is minimal, and grading is partially based on the peer-to-peer model, as students are evaluated by one another as well as by a professor. But learning and teaching over the web is not always easy, Cohen said. "There's the challenge of, 'can you mount a successful university online?' and 'can you do that in a global context?'" he said. "In peer grading, there tends to be strong bias towards grading higher for people from same country you're from." The national and cultural diversity of its students might also prove to be a challenge if the University begins to offer more humanities-oriented courses. It currently offers two programs of study—business and computer science. Cohen said UoPeople is looking to develop a hybrid model that emphasizes both pre-professional studies and liberal arts. The venture has also attracted the attention of the Yale University Law School, whose Information Society Project—which explores issues of educational access with new information technologies—has formed a partnership with UoPeople. Despite support, some are skeptical of the school's ability to provide students with a quality education over the Internet as well as its financial viability. UoPeople is likely to face challenges in sustaining its business model, said Andrew Delbanco, director of Columbia's American Studies program and Julian Clarence Levi professor in the Humanities, in an email. For those who value the experience that only a physical classroom can provide, the idea of an online education falls short. "One of the things that is difficult to emulate with online education is face-to-face interactions with faculty and other students," Alfred Aho, Lawrence Gussman professor in the computer science department, said in an email. He also pointed to the value of building teamwork, project management, and communication skills through group projects. Computer science is one of two tracks currently being offered by UoPeople. "Being in a physical classroom with the opportunity to discuss what you're studying is important," Michelle Kwak, CC '12 said. "You get a greater spectrum of views." Delbanco said that while it is important to democratize education across the world, it is also important not to sacrifice quality. "The deeper issue about all online ‘universities'—both for-profit and non-profit—is whether they can provide anything beyond training in testable skills such as languages or computer programming," he said. "It's hard for me to imagine how they enable students to develop genuine self-reflection—which is, or ought to be, the heart of a college education." But Cohen maintained that UoPeople provides a different option. "I'm a strong believer in pluralism in higher education," he said. "There are a lot of different kinds of institutions in the US, and people can find the niche that best suits them. And to have all of these different alternatives is an important element." The goal, though, is to increase access, not change the system, Cohen said. "I don't see this as replacing anything." ray.katz@columbiaspectator.com

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