Online learning may not be a new thing. Many established universities had tried to record videos of their lecture sessions and put them online for the students to learn from afar. However, this is not a disruptive innovation. To be called a disruptive innovation, it should enable more affordable and accessible to a much larger population (Harvard Business Review, 2012), and this is how the University of the People (UoPeople) thrives.

The founder of UoPeople, Mr. Shai Reshef, had said that he wanted to create an alternative to disrupt the current education system (Wakefield, 2014). It was made as a non-profit, cheap, and full-online university for a much broader population around the world.

UoPeople’s value proposition, technology innovation, and competitive advantage

UoPeople is a non-profit online university aimed mainly at disadvantaged students from around the world (Bothwell, 2020). It offers an accredited degree at an affordable cost and an easy full-online learning system as its main value proposition. Its non-profit mission created massive attention from people in academic institutions. Many are willing to volunteer as an instructor, even those from well-known universities such as Yale, Oxford, or Columbia.

The university is now able to rely on volunteer instructors, free textbooks, and a lean system that significantly lower the cost to the point that it can offer free tuition for the degree it offered. It is also unique that the technological innovation used by UoPeople includes deliberately making the virtual campus learning site low-tech to ensure inclusiveness. This low-tech interface is intentionally developed so that more people can access it, especially those who are not privileged to have a more sophisticated device. Although students still need a basic internet connection, broadband is not necessary and there is almost no obligatory audio or video content (Wakefield, 2014).

In UoPeople, students are expected to work hard to get an accredited degree. This is the main weakness of other online courses using massive open online courses (MOOCs) models, such as Coursera. Those online courses have high drop-out rates, and students show low effort since they are not necessarily seeking serious qualifications. UoPeople tried to create a campus atmosphere, where students are placed in a virtual classroom with between 20 and 30 others and encouraged to interact with each other online, discussing the subject course (Wakefield, 2014).

UoPeople’s founder said that the success of his institution was partly due to pedagogy centered on peer-to-peer, interactive learning (Bothwell, 2020). The university is intentionally not applying the usual Moocs model which has a very low completion rate. It offers real accredited degrees so that students would work hard to get them. At the same time, it offers the degree at a much lower cost than any traditional university and an inclusive system, so that more students around the world could afford it. These are their competitive advantage that couldn’t be easily imitated by other universities.

This competitive advantage catapulted UoPeople into unprecedented growth in the last five years. In the past year alone, enrollment at the university rose significantly from 31,070 to 65,146 students from more than 200 countries and it is on track to surpass 100,000 students by the fall (University of the People, 2021).

Also read about Triple Bottom Line Analysis of the University of the People

UoPeople’s disruptive innovation

The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, back in the mid-1990, to describe how new entrants in a market can disrupt established businesses (Larson, 2016). It is not a breakthrough innovation in the form of making good products a lot better but instead, it transforms a product that historically was so expensive and complicated, that only a few privileged people had access to it, making it much more affordable and accessible that enable a much larger population to have access to it (Harvard Business Review, 2012).

Higher education has always been expensive and complicated to pursue, while MOOCs online courses offer no meaningful qualification. This is where UoPeople fills the gap. A disruptive innovation would bring forth a product or service that isn’t as good as the best traditional offerings but is less expensive and easier to use (Christensen & Eyring, 2011). UoPeople offers much cheaper accredited degrees for much more underprivileged students around the world that were enabled by various technology.

UoPeople is founded upon the technology of the internet, web-based software, and web-based learning system. Students can rely on free software to write assignments and communicate freely with other students through the virtual campus system, called Moodle. All academic interaction between the students and instructors can be done via Moodle. It contains learning guides and resources, free textbooks, and even an online library to access scientific journals. Although it has many features, the system is developed to be easy and lightweight to access.

Even the one who popularized the term disruptive innovation, Clayton Christensen, felt that there’s a disruptive technology at work in higher education, that would force traditional institutions to rethink the entire traditional higher education model (Christensen & Eyring, 2011). UoPeople is the disruptive innovation in higher education that successfully flourished.

UoPeople’s founder was really aware of this, saying that the current systems are failing millions who want to study but can’t access it; in large parts of the world, higher education is unattainable for ordinary people (Wakefield, 2014).


Bothwell, E. (2020, April 24). Online university head fears students will ‘suffer’ from shift online. Times Higher Education (THE).

Christensen, C. M., & Eyring, H. J. (2011, July 25). How Disruptive Innovation is Remaking the University. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Harvard Business Review. (2012, March 30). Disruptive Innovation Explained [Video]. YouTube.

Larson, C. (2016, November 15). What Is Disruptive Innovation Theory? 4 Key Concepts. HBS Online. 

Harvard Business School - Business Insights. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from

University of the People. (2021, May 5). University of the People’s Enrollment Jumps 210% in One Year.

Wakefield, B. J. (2014, May 8). University of the People - where students get free degrees. BBC News.

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