Online universities are charging little or no tuition for access to a wealth of college curriculum, and advocates say the free web-based classrooms may expand higher education to the developing world.

Classes at free online universities — known as open universities — include American students who could have difficulty convincing employers that their education is valid and equal to their peers who paid tens of thousands to attend public or private brick-and-mortar schools. Open universities aren’t accredited yet, although officials at these institutions said the colleges might pursue accreditation after a few years of proving their credibility.

“[Open universities] are part of exactly what the internet should be,” said Shai Reshef, founder and president of the University of the People, a free web-based institution that will welcome its first class in September, when 300 students — most of them from developing nations — will take quizzes, read lectures, and turn in research papers on the university’s web site. “That’s why [the internet] was invented — to enable information to flow everywhere. … It needs to be accessible to people who haven’t been able to access it before now.”

Web-based communities of students at University of the People will learn from an established group of professors — both retired and active — graduate students, and experts in a variety of fields. The school is gravitating toward an environment of constant online interaction instead of relegating students to watching lengthy recordings of lectures from universities — such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology — that distribute online curriculum with no charge.

University of the People will charge between $10 and $100 to process student exams taken at the end of each semester. The charge will depend on the student’s country of residence.

With more than 4 million American students enrolled in accredited online programs, according to a recent survey conducted by the Sloan Consortium, Reshaf said offering education for free could eventually be considered comparable to traditional schools. The university, he said, would increase student enrollment by 30 percent every semester, beginning next spring.

“We know it will take time before people will be able to evaluate us and see how good the university is,” said Reshaf, who worked in several areas of for-profit education over the past 20 years before tracking the proliferation of online study web sites where students shared material and advice. “People want to see it’s a worthwhile program.”

Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) is another venture that has grabbed the attention of open-source advocates over the past year. Like University of the People, P2PU it is not accredited, but officials and advisers said they are researching ways to secure accreditation for students.

P2PU students are placed into groups of 8-14 people for six-week college courses hosted by what the university calls a “sense maker,” a class facilitator there to answer student questions, identify essential readings and assignments, and ask overarching questions. P2PU invites experts and graduate students to pitch ideas for new courses and how they should be taught to online students.

The school’s first 10 course options include music theory, data visualization, non-fiction writing, alternative energy, and open economics. Officials said they were unsure how many students attend classes at P2PU since the site began hosting students just this year.

“It’s an … approach where anyone can participate without fear of having to be tracked, providing information, or much of anything else, since the learning will occur by choice, not coercion,” said Ahrash N. Bissell, an adviser for Peer 2 Peer University and executive director of ccLearn, an organization charged with removing technological and legal barriers to online educational resources.

Observers of the open university trend said free or low-cost alternatives to the traditional college experience are ideal for students with a deep interest in certain topics, but capitalizing on that knowledge could take some convincing in the professional world.

Maya Frost, author of “The New Global Student:  Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education,” said in an interview with eCampus News that higher-education officials and parents still see online learning as “unregulated and risky” — a major hurdle for schools like P2PU and University of the People.

“For those who recognize the value of knowledge for its own sake and want to deepen their understanding of subject matter that is meaningful to them, an open university can be a great choice,” said Frost, who describes open-university students as “self-directed scholars.” “Not everyone will value their education the same way they themselves do, and their task upon graduation will be to prove themselves to those who doubt the validity of their path.”

“The good news is that those who are motivated enough to take advantage of the open university option tend to be good at getting relevant experience as well, and [that] is likely to be more compelling to employers than a resume from someone who has plodded along a prescribed path without showing evidence of curiosity, flexibility, and innovation,” she said.

Chris Lesinski, a blogger who tracks education technology trends, credited institutions like MIT and Stanford University for making lectures available online for anyone to download and watch, but said an entire college education via the internet and without cost could remain a foreign concept for traditionalists in campuses’ Ivory Towers.

“Universities aren’t exactly forward thinking all the time,” Lesinski said. “I think it’s the main thing that holds back open universities. … There’s a technophobia there. People who are still using AOL for their eMails are the ones running the universities.”

Links:

University of the People

P2P University