The University of the People, a tuition-free online institute of higher education founded in 2009, has what some may call a controversial vision — “that access to Higher Education is a basic right and should be available to all regardless of geographical, social or financial barriers.” Instinctively, my first response is: Isn’t this just idealized thinking? About to write off this impractical experiment, I happen to look through the course catalogue for the University of the People, when I notice a required course entitled “Online Education Strategies.” Its description tells me “it will provide an overview of strategies for student success including time and stress management, effective study skills, and personal ownership of the learning process.” Unlike the other strategies, which I have been bombarded with since freshman year here, if not since kindergarten, “personal ownership of the learning process” is a phrase, I realize, that I have heard rarely — if ever — at Princeton. It is also the only strategy that directly addresses its students as individual human beings.

Yes, I realize the irony in suggesting that online programs may be more human-friendly and human-focused than traditional programs. How could human interaction through technology ever be more human than in-person human interaction? But my suggestion may not seem so far-fetched when one looks at the human benefits offered by online universities like the University of the People. Beyond the fact that they are far less costly and much more widely available for students across the globe, online universities also, according to some student testimonials, provide unique avenues for collaborations between peers and teachers by connecting them through long-term “online study communities” where students “share resources, exchange ideas, discuss weekly topics, submit assignments, and take exams” (an alternative to temporary precepts?). Indeed, the best online universities have attributed their success to remaining open-minded, human-to-human connectors, while traditional universities can tend to be forced to deal with additional factors like daily campus operations and maintaining “status,” two factors online universities have been almost completely able to avoid because of their low-cost nature.

How could human interaction through technology ever be more human than in-person human interaction?

Even when we do compare online and traditional programs according to traditional criteria, online programs perform strongly. According to US News citing studies by the Department of Education among other organizations, “students are able to retain more and perform slightly better in an online setting than in a traditional one,” but “blended learning” is the most effective form of instruction [1].

This, however, doesn’t mean online learning is perfect. Online schools are often limited in the majors they can offer. For example, although the University of the People offers humanities and arts courses (such as “Greek & Roman Civilization”), it only offers two majors, Business Administration and Computer Science.  On top of that, in recent years online universities have had a lower average retention rate (55%) for full time students than the national average (77%) [2].

But online education is not about replicating the traditional college structure or experience.  Rather, it is concerned with serving the (different) typical needs of those seeking their educations online (i.e., students restricted by geography and available time).  This means that evaluating the effectiveness of online higher education programs is a challenge greater than comparing graduation rates and other data side-by-side with data from traditional education programs.  This is because online education communities are building and evaluating themselves according to different criteria than the usual (graduation-retention, admissions standards or even alumni giving rates).  This is obvious not only from the focus on practical, marketable skills at many online education institutes (from University of the People to Codecademy), but also from the emphasis on helping students meet their learning goals on their individualized timelines.

Perhaps a discussion of online higher education seems irrelevant or out of place in a publication written by and for students who have already chosen the traditional higher education experience.  However, online programs have also been making noise in traditional education settings.  From Princeton courses like Algorithms & Data Structures becoming available on Coursera to the implementation of “flipped classrooms,” Princeton evidently sees value in participating in and learning from the successes (and failures) of online education.  In fact, some students are already manufacturing their own e-learning programs from publicly available content from traditional universities (see: Scott Young’s MIT Challenge).

The real distinction between online and traditional universities is the distinction traditional universities make between the university as a community and the university as an institution.  By not distinguishing between university as community and as institution, online programs have shown us a way that we can make humanity as essential to learning as learning has traditionally been to understanding humanity.  Princeton should follow e-learning’s lead here.


  1. US News Report on E-Learning
  2. US News Report on Online University Retention Rates

For more information about E-Learning, the University of the People, and Scott Young’s MIT Challenge, please visit:

University of the People
Scott Young’s MIT Challenge

About The Author

Isabelle is a Projects Chair with Princeton Women in Computer Science and interned last summer in the CS department. She is passionate about technology, creative writing, and education.