A briefing room at the United Nations yesterday morning made a very official setting for an announcement about the international, high-tech, and almost free future of higher education. Shai Reshef, featured in our Most Creative People  list, has begun accepting enrollment for his innovative nonprofit online university. "We are opening the gates for students from all over the world, who may not have the means to study elsewhere," he said. "We see ourselves as part of a trend in education of opening information and using what's available."
Indeed, there is a major trend blossoming in the crossover of information technology, the open-source movement, and education. The University of the People will draw on the wealth of free course material that has been made available in recent years under Creative Commons license by the likes of MIT (OpenCourseWare ), Rice University (Connexions ), and hundreds of other institutions. Students will discuss the material in online forums with other students from all over the world and with volunteer faculty--those who have signed up to teach so far are professors, retirees, graduate students, and professionals in their fields.
Reshef, a small man with a sweet smile whose face turned pink with excitement as he answered questions, has seeded the organization with $1 million of his own money (from his career in for-profit education companies, one of which he sold to the U.S. giant Kaplan) and needs to raise $5 million more. He calculates that the school can become self-sustaining at a scale of 15,000 students, each of whom will pay nominal fees based on whether they hail from rich or poor countries. Currently, the UoP has registered 200 students out of a planned first class of just 300, but they already hail from 52 countries.
The UoP plans to offer accredited bachelor's degrees, starting in the fields of computer science and business administration, for a price that maxes out at $4000. Can free raw materials be translated into (almost) free education? That's still an open question.