University of the People, one of the newest members of the free online education arena, is adding academic heft with credentialed faculty and advisors, and nine out of 10 students who took classes in its first term said they would recommend the university to family and friends.

Launched in September with $1 million in startup money from founder and president Shai Reshef, University of the People’s inaugural class included 179 students who took web-based college courses free of charge, only paying between $10 and $100 to process exams taken at the end of the semester.

The charge depends on the student’s country of residence. Admissions, study materials, and online interaction with faculty members that include retired and working professors, experts from various fields, and graduate students are available at no cost.

A university poll released last month showed that 90 percent of respondents from the first class said they would "definitely or likely recommend the school to their peers and family."

The online school also unveiled demographic information for the first time. The 120 new students joining University of the People for its second term–which began Nov. 19–are between 18 and 63 years old and hail from 47 countries.

Eighty-two students in the newest class are taking business administration courses, and 38 are enrolled in computer science classes.

University officials plan to expand their course offerings in the coming years. University of the People’s third term starts in mid-January, Reshef said. University officials decided to split the school year into five terms instead of three because the institution’s pedagogy called for shorter, more focused lessons and reviews.

Officials were somewhat surprised by students’ overwhelming approval, Reshef said, because faculty members are searching for the best ways to manage classes that include students proficient in English and others who speak English as a second language.

"We expected some bumps in the road, and we’re still expecting them," Reshef said. "There will always be surprises. And not everything was smooth and perfect, but our students are happy with the opportunity we provide them, so they’re patient with us."

Reshef said University of the People professors documented stark contrasts in class participation. Whereas American students would ask series of questions during online lectures, students from Asian countries rarely followed up with queries.

"In some cultures, asking questions is very positive," he said. "In some cultures, it’s an admittance of not knowing the material … so it is all about perception."

Reshef announced this month that David Harris Cohen, former vice president and dean of Columbia University, and Alexander Tuzhilin, a New York University professor of information systems, were named as the university’s provost and computer science chair, respectively.

Reshef said last summer that the university might one day pursue accreditation so students’ course credits are transferable to other institutions, and in an interview with eCampus News, he added that bringing Tuzhilin and Harris Cohen aboard would boost the school’s credibility.  

"I would guess that it wouldn’t hurt for accreditation someday," Reshef said. "Eventually, you would have to show you have credible people in charge of [the university]. … And we want the best academic people to join us in our endeavors."

Harris Cohen, who will now oversee academics for University of the People, served as Columbia’s dean of the faculty for arts and sciences from 1995 to 2003. He was also a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience in psychiatry.

Tuzhilin has held various positions with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and Ecole Nationale Superieure des Telecommunications in Paris.

His work has been published in 90 academic journals, and he has headed NYU’s computer science department for more than 20 years.

Adding academic heavyweights to the university’s leadership is the latest in a series of announcements that could give the school more widespread credibility.

Yale Law School’s Information Society Project (ISP) announced Sept. 22 that it would partner with University of the People in a project that seeks to learn how the web-based program might boost its validity among powerful world leaders.

The project, Reshef said, would benefit web-based schools worldwide that have struggled to gain acceptance from local and national education officials and legislators.

Yale’s ISP, founded a decade ago, brings together policy makers, scholars, activists, and students to focus on five main areas of research: protecting and expanding access to knowledge via the internet; finding solutions for social, legal, and ethical problems that crop up in the information age; granting teachers better access to online course materials; encouraging intellectual property reform globally; and creating policies that will protect civil rights in a web-based environment.

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