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Talking with the World's Youngest Teacher and the Founder of the University of the People
Sunday, November 08, 2009
This was an interesting week with interesting people. Below are some details.

Meeting the World's Youngest Teacher:
On Tuesday night, I drove to Indianapolis to hear a talk from the world's youngest teacher at our IUPUI sister campus. It is slightly over 1 hour away, though with rish traffic a tad longer. As I noted in my recent blog post interviews, the name of the person I was about to see was Adora Svitak. Adora is 12 years old and has been teaching half her life (she learns and teaches online and also teaches teachers how to use technology). She has 3 books already written and read and endorsed my World is Open book.

Adora Svitak is a sign of nontraditional teaching and learning in the 21st century. She is a leader in the nontraditional learning movement which I attempt to document in my World is Open book. As I noted before, Adora reads 2-3 books a day and types 100+ words per minute. She had written hundreds of short stories. Wow. You might check out her homepage or Wikipedia page.

When I got to IUPUI, I discovered that Adora teaches with a very cool Promethean Active Board. People from Promethean typically come to help her out and bring all the equipment. This included the clickers or response system for audience participants. While she was in Indianapolis for the national Middle School conference, this night she was teaching teachers about writing. She gave them a series of writing-related tips. Things like break all the rules, use collaborative writing, build on student interests, make learning relevant, design inquiry-based activities, use Web 2.0 technology to excite students into learning (blogs, wikis, etc.), make learning a social and sharing event, and so on, were among her ideas. While most of these ideas have been common aspects of the process writing people for a few decades, hearing a 12 year old who is an accomplished writer and teacher spout them off is worth paying attention too.

Adora was interactive with her audience. She involved them in discussion, fielded many questions, and used the clickers to get their ideas and opinions. It was great to see her using active learning while simultaneously sharing her expertise.

Needless to say, Adora loves writing. She has been writing articles, short stories, and books since her mother got her a computer when she was 6 years old. In effect, it was technology that sparked her love of writing--here is a prime example where technology has definitely changed the life of someone. It perhaps does not hurt that her father works for Microsoft. While Adora is well above grade level in English, social studies, and writing, she is at grade level in her math and science. She still has a lot to learn and she realizes it.

When I spoke with her at dinner, there were times I felt like I was talking to a graduate student of mine, instead of a preteen. We discussed many topics--travel, technology, main interests, writing books, speaking, active learning, TV interviews, etc. It was clear to me by the end of the night that Adora has had a lot of experiences around the world. Her mother, Joyce Svitak, travels with her to all events. Each stop is a learning experience filled with visits to historical monuments, libraries, museums, schools and universities, parks, convention centers, and other points of interest. The sky is the limit for this young lady.

A Call from the Founder of the University of the People:
The week got more interesting on Thursday morning. It was then that I got a call from from Shai Reshef who founded the University of the People. While also chairman of Cramster, Shai said he is currently devoting his life to the UoPeople. He is on a mission to provide access to higher education to the people of the world.

The UoPeople is a free or nearly free unviersity (there are some minor assessment costs per course depending on the country you are in that range from $10-$100. There is also a university entry fee of $15 to $50, again depending on the country you are located in). Shai noted that the UoPeople is intended for the millions (or billions)of people around the globe who do not have access to traditional higher education. Like Lucifer Chu who used his own money to create OOPS which is translating MIT content to traditional and simplified Chinese, Shai is contributing his own money to get this innovative university started (a cool $1 million of his own money). Of course, like the Wikimedia Foundation, his university also takes donations. He noted that the business plan indicates that they will break even when they get to 15,000 students. This might not be too far off into the future.

When I asked about current enrollments, he said that they have 180 students this fall. He also noted that people are signing up from nearly 50 countries already--for example, Jordan, Saudi, Brazil, Vietman, China, USA, Ethiopia, Russia, Syria, Columbia, Nigeria, Germany, UK, Israel, etc. The initial two courses are orientation ones in computer science and English which students must pass in order to continue their studies. At this point, they are not inventing any courses or technology. They are using free content found online and the Moodle course management system. There is no video content found in the UoPeople courses at this point; it is all text. Shai told me that the university is about access first and low cost. They do not want to deter people who are interested in learning. Hence, no video content for now as many would not be able to access them.

For the 180 students, there are more than 800 professors volunteering to teach. This is not your Aunt Betsy type of PTA volunteers. These professors come with master's or doctoral degrees. Simple math indicates that this is more than 4 professors for each student. That is certainly the best instructor-student ratio I have ever heard of. What's more, it is an indication of the many people who want to teach college level courses or expand beyond their current offerings. But these "professors" are not directly instructing students. Instead, they are available for students when and where needed. I think that is the model of 21st century teaching and learning. When a learning need arises, a teacher should appear. And those teachers can come from any setting or location on the planet.

When I asked him about similar ventures, Shai noted that they are different from Peer 2 Peer University, in that P2PU does not offer programs and degrees. Instead P2PU just provides guides people through free online content. How do these compare? Perhaps think of it this way...perhaps OpenCourseWare and Open Educational Resources are Level 1 or Phase 1 of the Open Education movement--free stuff which you can explore online. P2PU is a transitionary phase but let's call it Phase 2--free stuff you can explore online with help from mentors, tutors, coaches, and facilitators. The University of the People is then Phase 3--free courses and degrees using free and open content. What is Phase or Level 4 or 5? Where is this headed?

Shai also surprised me by saying that they hope to be accredited at some point. He did not mention how or by what agency. For now, the University of the People is located in Pasedena, California. You might stop by and visit if you are in the LA area.

So much happening today in the open education movement! How can you not be interested or excited? We will all benefit from it in a few years in ways we cannot even dream about today. Happy dreams tonight.
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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 6:25 PM  
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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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Click here for information about my recent book, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

Visit the Indiana University Home Page of E-Learning Expert Curtis J. Bonk.

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