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University of the People offers low-cost college courses via the Internet

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Feisal Omar/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A man browses the internet at a cyber cafe in Mogadishu, Somalia, earlier this year. University of the People allows students anywhere in the world to take nearly free courses online. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given $500,000 toward the effort.

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University of the People has an ambitious goal: to use the Internet to provide an extremely low-cost college education to students around the world.

And the nonprofit’s big idea is starting to gain traction with grantmakers.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $500,000 to support the university’s effort to gain accreditation. The grant comes on the heels of recent awards by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Intel Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Since its inception in 2009, University of the People has enrolled 1,500 students from 132 countries. Courses are taught by professors from around the world who volunteer their time, and the university offers degrees in business administration and computer science.

“If you educate one person, you change his life,” says Shai Reshef, the technology executive who founded and leads the university. “If you educate many, you change the world.”

While University of the People uses the Internet to deliver courses, the organization takes a straightforward, no-bells-and-whistles approach to technology.

“Since we wanted to make sure that any person with any Internet connectivity will be able to study with us, we don’t require broadband,” says Mr. Reshef. “So we don’t have audio, and we don’t have video.”

The wide variety of ways that students gain access to the Internet has surprised even the university’s leaders.

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