November 5 2014

Shai Reshef: Changing the World through Disruptive Education

Written by Lambda Solutions

Our Adaptive Learning Guide
Get instant access below
Download Now

"When you educate one person you can change lives, and when you education can change the world." - Shai Reshef, President at University of the People


We recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Shai Reshef—education entrepreneur, President of University of the People, and one of WIRED magazine’s top 50 people predicted to change the world. With a lifetime of experience working in the for-profit education sector, Reshef retired from the for-profit world, only to be reminded that there was still much to be done to make education accessible for all—which in turn, would change the world.

Thus, in 2009 he founded University of the People to provide accredited post-secondary degrees in business administration and computer science to those unable to gain access to traditional universities due to financial, geographic or societal barriers. A truly inspiring individual, Reshef tells us about his inspiration for creating University of the People, his views on how higher education is changing, his goals of changing the world through education, and his challenges in striving to make higher education accessible to all. What we learning from Reshef in his insightful interview is that it will take a true form of disruptive education like University of the People to change the world.


Can you tell us a little bit about your story and how you became inspired to create University of the People?

I was involved in for-profit education for over 20 years and in charge of education programs for hundreds of thousands of students from the kindergarten to college-level. I was also involved in starting the first online university in Europe. We delivered online university degrees for the University of Liverpool. It was a remarkable experience because we saw how students from all over the world were able to remain employed, live at home and still get a great education. However, at the same time, we realized that for most people it [online education] was nothing but wishful thinking because it was still too expensive. On the one hand we said, “Wow—here is a great new tool [online education], but at the same time it is still inaccessible for the majority of people.”

I ended up selling this and my other businesses to go into ‘semi-retirement’, only to realize retirement was actually not for me [laughter]. I knew and felt I still had a lot to do and realized that it was time to give back. I knew I wanted to give back in a way that would have an impact on the world and for me that impact was clearly in education. It was education because I realized over my career that when you educate one person you can change lives and when you education many you can change the world. I looked around and realized that everything that made university so expensive was already available for free: open source technology, open education resources, and the new internet culture of social networking where people learn, share and teach each other for free. When I put it all together University of the People became a very real and plausible concept that I knew I had to create. And here we are today!


In your view, which disruptive education innovations are changing the way we think about higher education?

Well I think there are quite a few things that are happening simultaneously…

1. First of all I believe the major force behind disruptive education is the internet itself. I personally believe that there was no better reason for the invention of the internet other than education. The internet enables us to spread knowledge everywhere. Up until a few years ago the internet was not where it is today—if you were in a remote area you couldn’t get the knowledge. We have students today who are the first in their villages to have ever been able to access higher education. This is a great thing. Now the internet allows people from all over the world, even in the most remote of places, to browse the web to find the information they need. Especially with the notion of freedom and free information on the net; take Wikipedia for example—you can get any information you want for free. I think this is the main force that is changing the way people acquire knowledge and in turn is largely changing higher education as we know it.

2. Then there is the willingness of others—for various reasons—to teach and help others. Through this discovery I developed the idea of a tuition-free education. Someone introduced a site to me—a portal where students come every day and are taught by professors who help them with their homework. I asked, “Why do professors do this—what do they get in return?” My friend’s response was, “Nothing”. I had been in the education industry for over 20 years where tutoring was largely a paid service. There is a new culture being created with the internet where giving and sharing happens seamlessly.

As I explored this tutoring portal in greater depth I realized that hundreds of professors, whom were mostly retired, were coming online every morning to help students with their homework in return for karma points. Putting it all together, I recognized that we could restructure the high costs associated with higher education to utilize the internet and altruistic professors to provide tuition-free university to those who need it most.

UNESCO stated that in 2025, almost 100 million students will be deprived of higher education simply because there won’t be enough seats available for them. We are building a model to solve this problem because we [University of the People] realize that there is a way to accommodate these students. Whether it is us or others, these people need to find seats. Maybe not physical seats but virtual seats—I truly believe there will be seats available to everyone in the future.


You have undoubtedly created a revolutionary and disruptive concept that helps people to see how higher education can be delivered in an affordable, accessible and effective way. Projecting into the future, what is University of the People’s biggest challenge and how can the global community help you address it?

I think that University of the People faces two main challenges. The first challenge is spreading the word. We have had some amazing publicity in publications like the New York Times and TED which is terrific but when you think about it… many of our students aren’t consumers of this kind of media. Take refugees from Sudan, for example. Refugees from Sudan tend not to read the New York Times on a daily basis [laughter]. The people who need us most have a hard time finding out about us. As a non-profit, and in order to be tuition-free we must operate on a very lean budget, meaning that we don’t have a wealth of funds to allocate towards marketing. When you ask about how the global community can help us address this, they can do so by simply helping to spread the word. People who stand to benefit from tuition-free education need to know about us and need to be able to approach us.

The second challenge is financial aid. We need help ensuring that students can not only find us in the first place, but once they do, that we can assist them with the necessary financial aid. While we are tuition-free, there is a modest examination fee of $100 per exam. A full-time bachelor degree student taking 10 courses a year for four years will pay $1,000 per year; $4,000 for the entire degree. For those students who cannot afford even this, we offer a variety of scholarships. It is our mission that no student will be left behind because of financial reasons alone. Therefore, we need more scholarships as we grow. So far, Microsoft, HP, Fondation Hoffmann, Western Union, and many individuals have set up their own scholarship fund, but it’s an ongoing challenge to make sure it will be there.

We have been growing quite dramatically (with students from 150 countries) so we are on our way but we still have a long way to go, so we are grateful for any help with both spreading the good word and supporting the cause!

At Lambda Solutions we could not agree more with Reshef when he says, “ when you educate one person you can change lives; educate many and you can change the world”. Please join us in supporting University of the People so together we can benefit from a more equitable world, where 100 million people are not deprived of education by 2025.

If you're looking for content similar to this article, check out our Guide to Accessible E-Learning.Though often thought of in relation to people with physical disabilities, web accessibility benefits all users—making it easier for them to perceive, understand, navigate, interact, and contribute to the information and functionality that make up your learning management system.

Download Now

Maximize Your Revenue, Efficiency & Learning Effectiveness