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New Global University To Be Both Free and For-Profit

A former digital media czar and small town mayor are working together to launch a new fully online university that will be free for students. The two founders, CEO Curtis Pickering and President Scott Hines, said they expect to open World Education University at the end of October or beginning of November 2012.

Pickering said in a statement that both he and Hines were from "economically disadvantaged backgrounds and products of free college education," and they "believe that everyone should have this same opportunity." Pickering received an athletic scholarship and Hines attended the Colorado Springs-based Air Force Academy. Neither has run a school before. However, Hines founded a tutoring service that grew to serve students in districts in 26 states and which he eventually sold.

"For us it's a personal journey," Hines explained. "We believe those opportunities lifted us from poverty and allowed us to go on to be successful in a number of different areas." Both now reside in tony Rancho Mirage, CA, a town next to Palm Springs and where Hines serves as mayor. Pickering had earlier sold his interest in a Kansas City-based advertising and digital signage firm.

WEU (pronounced "we-you") aims to become a comprehensive, degree-granting institution. "We've brought together a lot of our industry expertise and built a pretty amazing team of entrepreneurs in both education and technology and have put this team together to attack this enormous problem," Hines said. The "problem" is educating the "historically underserved populations in high-poverty communities and developing nations," as well as the "newly disenfranchised middle class who cannot afford the burden of debt associated with a university education."

The Education Model
To address the large number of students the university expects to attract, it will rely on multiple forms of technology, Hines said. The school will use a number of systems "built from scratch," including two proprietary applications it calls PALS, the Pinpoint Adaptive Learning System, a kind of course management system, and CLA, the Cognitive Learning Assessment. CLA will be part of the admissions process. When students register for courses, they'll take a "thinking style test," similar to Myers & Briggs. "When you take the test, the outcome will tell you what type of cognitive learning style you have," he explained. "It's based on a number of different research systems. It really becomes the basis for this adaptive system."

Those results will match up with one of 16 learning outcomes, Hines added, "that will tell you how your brain typically processes, stores, and recalls information. That serves then to inform the artificial intelligence within the system on how to present information to you.... Some people are more visual. Some people enjoy gaming types of content with their education. Some people like it auditory. Some like to read. Some like to interact with peers. We try to present a number of different options for students and personalize that learning experience as much as we possibly can."

The school will have open enrollment, which means a student can start any time he or she chooses. It also will allow students to progress at their own speed. "We do not subscribe to the Carnegie model. It's completely outdated and doesn't take into consideration technology," Hines said.

Each student will be assigned a faculty "mentor" who will facilitate the course and guide the students through. The university will also have "mentor coach instructors and tutors."

But the "superstars" of the faculty are the course creators, Hines declared. These include "notable individuals who bring courses [to us] that may already exist in other institutions or may be developed from scratch." Those course creators will work with WEU on a revenue-sharing basis. "We reward very significantly those that create the best classes." "Best" will be defined by student ratings. "The classes that rate the highest bubble to the top of the list and those that rate the lowest bubble to the bottom of the list and there's constant feedback coming from the student learners--really our clients and customers." That continual ranking, he added, "puts a lot of pressure on course creators to develop dynamic classes that are not only informative and based on great information but are also interesting and fun and dynamic."

Upon launch the initial program will include 150 courses in two dozen subjects, running the gamut from art history to criminal justice to English literature to medical billing to pharmacy technician to political science and theology. Hines said the school will also develop a master's degree program in creative writing and journalism as one of its initial offerings.

If the variety of courses sounds like a mixed menu, it's only what potential students--and industry--have told WEU they want, Hines insisted. The roster of subjects appears to grow as new partners express interest in the program. For example, Hines said a large insurance company has approached WEU about designing a bachelor's degree in insurance. "Most people graduate with a general business degree and have to go get their insurance licensure and go through on-the- job training.... We want to be responsive to that and design programs in partnership with industry while still having the academic and intellectual input that comes from a trained intellectual. We think there has to be a balance there."

The university has been collecting the contact information for interested students, a list that currently tallies in the "thousands," he said. The school has also "looked at what the industry needs are and tried to pair that with what we do believe from an academic standpoint is important for people to grasp."

For degree programs, WEU is looking to purchase two accredited colleges, "although we have to get approval from the accrediting bodies before that happens," he said.

The Business Model
The business model too has multiple arms. Hines said the company behind WEU has developed 30 potential revenue verticals to support the university. "We're very transparent with our students," he added. "They understand that it's corporations and small businesses and grants from foundations that underwrite their education. Though it's free to students, it's certainly not free to deliver. It's quite expensive."

Among the revenue-producing ideas under development:

  • Online advertising tied to individual student interests. "As students progress through their learning, we have tremendous stickiness with the website, because people are there for hours a day, weeks, months, years," Hines said. Students will be asked to answer marketing questions about themselves, he explained. "You [might] log in and before you get into your studies, you have to answer a question like, 'Are you an active runner? Yes or no?' It takes you two seconds. If you answer yes, you're a runner, we log that into your profile, so when a Nike or somebody comes along and wants to advertise with WEU and help support free education, those types of ads would only show up on the home pages of students who have indicated that they're active runners."
  • Consumer research and marketing, in which companies pay WEU to administer surveys to its students. This model would be tied to a student point system. "As students do well on quizzes or tests and progress through courses, they earn points along the way. They can also earn points by responding to advertising," Hines said. "If a student takes one of those surveys, they earn points. Those points are collected in their student profile area. [Then] they can go to the student union or online student center in our online campus and redeem those points for stuff. For example, we might have a partnership with a national coffee chain that offers a downloadable coupon for a free latte if you achieve a hundred points." He compares this to Groupon's deal-of-the-day coupon model.
  • Publishing of course content. Hines said that some of the faculty members working with WEU "are developing courses for us in exchange for us publishing and marketing their ebooks, which are then available for sale. Students can buy them, or the general public can buy them. Then we do a revenue share with our professors."

Hines said the university was also in talks with "four different foreign governments about working with them to develop programs and everything from credentialing and diploma-type programs all the way up to post-graduate degree programs, based on the workforce needs of that developing or emerging economy."

But ambitions for dominating post-secondary education worldwide don't end there. The university is also developing a tablet device, called the "We-Tab," which Hines described as a "low-cost ruggedized tablet that can be offered in developing countries, where students can come to a hot spot in their area, upload or download their lessons for the day or the test they've taken, and go back home and work on it." WEU has joined the Microsoft education partner network and expects to add the components of Office 365 onto those devices. He expected that tablet to be available at the end of 2013 or first part of 2014.

For that reason, he said, the website for WEU is being developed with the intent of making it mobile from the moment the school launches.

"We are not looking to get rich," Hines stated. "That was not our genesis of this. We started down the path of being a nonprofit. But nonprofits are only as good as their last donor dollars. There are only so many foundation dollars out there. We wanted to create a non-profit company with a non-profit mission but found that putting it into a for-profit model really gave us the flexibility to be innovative and design tons and tons of ways to monetize web traffic to be able to deliver free education. We put just as much thought into our revenue model as we do in how to deliver high quality innovative education. We're comprehensive and turnkey and sustaining."

He added, "I've said, I think we're either going to be an incredible global phenomenon or we'll crash and burn hard."

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