UBC prof launches free online university

VANCOUVER (CUP) — Money could be becoming less of a factor in getting a university-level education.

Next Generation University (NextGenU) has opened its virtual doors to become one of the first services in Canada to offer university-level education for free. Erica Frank, founder and executive director of NextGenU and a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, began working on NextGenU a decade ago.

“For most people in the world, secondary, much less post secondary, training is a dream,” said Frank, adding that this lack of education has created a world “grievously under-supplied with healthcare professionals.”
She has made training people for the health sector a priority for the program, which began offering courses this December in the health sciences field. It is free of cost, barriers and advertisements.

Though primarily directed towards people in developing countries, NextGenU.org’s courses can be taken by anyone for either credit at an accredited institution or solely for continued education and training.
A partnership with the new College of Health Sciences at the Presbyterian University of East Africa, located in Kenya, is largely geared towards that goal.

“What they will do locally is that they will provide the hospitals where trainees will practice and have labs under local supervision and then we’ll provide the computer-based didactics and the overall direction,” said Frank.

Content for the courses comes free of charge from professors and institutions from all over the world, and evaluation is done through peer and mentor assessment in addition to quizzes and final exams coordinated by NextGenU.

David Anderson, head of the department of education studies at UBC, sees advantages to free education and the recent open access trend. “This is an example of a modern version of extending education to the wider population, and then of course its aims are enormously high,” said Anderson.

Stanford University is another institution taking the initiative to improve access to education through the Internet. In September 2011, the university began offering three computer science classes for free online via video-clip lectures.

Anderson retains some doubt over the use of the term “university” with NextGenU site. He points out that historically, universities have been chartered and “approved by the state in some way or other to guarantee quality.”

But Frank defended the quality of NextGenU, saying state-approved institutions have contributed greatly. “All of these materials only exist because professors at other universities posted them online, and said, ‘Please repurpose them and use them freely.’

“Universities are critical as research enterprises, as teaching enterprises. I am very grateful to live in a country where we can have an outstanding institution like UBC that lots of people can afford to go to. But that luxury doesn’t exist every place,” Frank added.

Ash Milton, a first-year UBC student, believes NextGenU will have a positive impact on the world and would consider taking courses from a free university.
“There’s more of a stigma attached to doing a degree online,” said Milton, “But I think that will go away as time goes on and more people use online degrees.”

Frank is planning for NextGenU.org to be giving out completely free degrees in the future. Institutional recognition aside, however, “There’s just all kind of good things that happen when more people get more educated,” she said. “We’ve been using University 1.0 for a couple of millennia and I think we’re ready for the next generation of university.”

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