Interview | Curtis Pickering Shares His World View
By: VIctor Rivero
December 13, 2012
World Education University, or WEU, founded by Curtis Pickering and Scott Hines, is the newest kid on the block in the free online higher education movement — or, perhaps more accurately, one of the only kids on the block — and plans to open its doors to students this fall.
Let’s take a quick look at the landscape of online higher education, shall we? While not exactly free,StraighterLine offers for just $99 per month plus a $39 per course registration fee — as many for-credit college course as you can handle in Science, Humanities, English, Math and Business.University of the People is an online nonprofit offering four-year undergraduate education for entirely free. Coursera, launched on the heels of Udacity (a for-profit online education venture), is committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it. edX is a joint venture between MIT and Harvard (they pitched in $30 million a piece) offering university level courses worldwide at no charge. Khan Academy, despite its name, doesn’t offer any sort of certificate, nor does MIT OpenCourseWare or the Open Learning Initiative from Carnegie Mellon, but that hasn’t stopped millions of learners from listening in.
MOOCs (massive open online courses) have not always offered quite the credit and recognition traditional courses provide, but they’re more recently and very rapidly expanding their offerings into free and open online courses. So, with so much push toward free or nearly free, it appears after a quick survey of the territory, no one has really, actually, for real nailed down a workable business model — after all, how can you offer a quality course for free?
Do Curtis Pickering and Scott Hines know? With 50,000 prospective students and about $1 million in seed funding, WEU is about to hit a steep learning curve — and/or show the rest how it’s done. And we haven’t even talked about accreditation, yet.
There’s been a bit of buzz in the press and education circles about World Education University since you announced its existence a few weeks ago. Can you tell us a bit about WEU and why it’s capturing so much attention?
We are the first University to crack the code on how to offer a high-quality college education completely free to students, which has generated a certain amount of controversy. I’m not sure traditional academia knows quite what to make of us. But the millions of students desperate for higher education sure do. They are reaching out in droves and their stories are heartfelt. For example, a single parent with $80,000- plus of student debt who had to drop out because he could not afford it, heard about WEU and was so excited about being able to go back to school and finish his degree that he posted an article about us in his work lunchroom and started telling his fellow workers to sign up.
You pronounce WEU “we you.” What is the concept behind that?
We are hyper-sensitive to the real world needs of our students. Our company slogan is “WEU – We Built it for You.” Scott and I both come from disadvantaged backgrounds and were the recipients of a free higher education, which changed our lives. This is our give back, our “pay-it-forward.” We intensely believe that Education Should Be Free. We see ourselves as social justice entrepreneurs and are determined to bring college education to the masses.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and Scott Hines, the other founder of WEU?
I grew up in a rural community with few resources, surrounded by poverty. I left school at 15 and started attending college, which I was able to do only because I received an athletic scholarship. That scholarship was my ticket to a better life. As an adult, I’ve spent a great deal of my entrepreneurial career in real estate development and then digital advertising.
Scott had a similar upbringing, growing up in a foster home and eventually matriculating to the Air Force Academy where the free college education he received there also changed his life. He has spent much of his adult life in public service, as an Air Force Intelligence Officer and now as mayor of Rancho Mirage, California. Scott also founded an innovative, national tutoring company catering to low-income kids, and has been significantly involved in government affairs and legislative advocacy work here in California.
What was the impetus for creating WEU? How did the whole idea come about?
I began with a non-profit concept and an intent to partner with national civic organizations to fund scholarships for students to attend WEU. Three years ago, I realized the model was flawed because it was too reliant on donations. It had no scalability or sustainability. So I shifted gears and applied my advertising background to a new “out of the box” model. When I met Scott, I realized his background in for-profit education, government and corporate management offered the new perspective I needed. We joined forces and worked for over a year to improve the business -educational model that is now scalable and sustainable and poised to deliver a great high-quality student experience.
How is WEU different from other free online higher education offerings on the market?
Though we apply a mass-market model to deliver educational content similar to the new MOOCs, we are creating a far more comprehensive university experience that offers full degree programs online and social experiences right down to global online clubs and organizations. We have also developed a sophisticated and innovative revenue model that allows WEU to remain sustainable, as I said. Without this revenue model we could not offer free education to the world.
How is WEU different from the many private corporate higher education models that have been so controversial?
We are a for-profit company with a non-profit mission. In many ways, we are a response to the predatory companies with unscrupulous recruiting practices, because we flip the model on its head and give away college courses, and will ultimately give away degrees, to those who are willing to put in the time and effort to better themselves. Not all for-profit companies are alike. We are distinct because we place students first and simply use a for-profit model to deliver on what is our corporate cultural conviction: that education is a human right.
Who do you see as your target student population? What kinds of people will take your courses?
It has been so inspiring to correspond with the thousands of students coming to us for help. Many have dropped out of college, simply unable to continue paying and are now saddled with student loan debt. Others are too poor to even begin college. We have moms wanting to go back to school, senior citizens scratching intellectual itches, and so many foreign students just desperate to find a way out of poverty.
What will WEU courses look like?
WEU will partly follow the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) model and will be asynchronous. The WEU instructional model differs from other online course delivery models by employing cutting edge, adaptive and personalized elements. We are also creating a significant amount of original content that is rich and multi-media driven, and will harness interactive, emerging technologies, as well, to offer simulations and game-based learning experiences, among others.
What role will partnerships play in WEU?
WEU is developing strategic partnerships with industry leaders in publishing, curriculum development, information technology, gaming, assessment, language instruction, e-Commerce and other areas. We are finding that our mission deeply resonates with corporate America, which is truly interested in contributing resources to be part of the solution to the current education crisis. The future of corporate American lies in a well- educated work force. So they get it and are stepping up. This may be a good place to mention that interested parties should visit http://www.theweu.com/partners.html
What particular qualifications or characteristics do you look for in WEU faculty?
The quality of educators that are on board and continuing to apply to WEU is really what excites us the most. First, we require a high level of academic excellence and a great track record in teaching. Professors, virtually all PhD’s, must also share the fundamental belief that Education Should Be Free. Teachers should be flexible and creative when it comes to course design. We don’t put a lot of constraints on our instructors as long as they meet our high academic standards and have the skills to effectively conduct online courses. We at WEU think our teachers are the super stars and should be treated as such. One of the things Scott and I did early on was to design a revenue share model that allows our professors to earn significant compensation (if not millions) for being part of the WEU team. We think it’s important to reward our professors for their dedication and for the tremendous value they bring to society. As well, we encourage innovation and for all faculty and others on the WEU team to consistently ask the question, “Why Not?”
Is the idea of “social entrepreneurship” or a “social mission” something you communicate to students?
Yes, and we do more than just communicate it. One major component of WEU is the requirement that each student agree to pay-it-forward in some way for each tuition-free course. We ask them to hit the “I AGREE” button for a pledge that says, “ I am getting a free education and for this I agree to do at least one pay-it-forward act during the time I am taking the class.” There is an honor code for fulfilling this requirement but we hope students will begin sharing ideas and that the concept of giving back will capture their imaginations and become integrated into the culture of the school, and ultimately into the culture of their communities, and beyond.