Public health professor pursues tuition-free online university

As UBC and other universities strive to reduce their greenhouse emissions over the coming decades, one faculty member is determined to hit a far more ambitious goal – creating a completely carbon-free university, now.

Prof. Erica Frank, UBC School of Population and Public Health, is preparing to launch – an online university that will initially emphasize health sciences education.

NextGenU’s primary target is the millions of current and potential students in the developing world, where specialized higher education is a scarce resource. Frank believes computer-aided education can help address the huge imbalance between the need for health professionals and the number of seats to train them all.

Frank, a physician and Canada Research Chair in Preventive and Population Health, thinks NextGenU can make post-secondary education a more environmentally, financially, and socially sustainable enterprise by allowing people to learn where they live and work, instead of forcing students and instructors to relocate great distances, regularly commute, or, in the case of continuing professional education, travel to distant meetings. Online materials are provided through wind-powered servers, while skills-based learning will come from volunteer local mentors, and local and international peer-to-peer training.

And tuition? There is none. NextGenU will not only be carbon-free, but free, period.

“Traditional education, what I call ‘University 1.0,’ is enormously resource-intensive,” Frank says. “Buildings must be built, maintained, powered, and heated or cooled. People must travel to them. And that also costs a lot of money, with much of the cost passed on to the students themselves. NextGenU enables people to advance their knowledge, their skills, their careers, without any additional burden on the planet – or students’ finances.” can operate with a small budget, as nearly all instructors donate their time, either in creating courses or acting as local mentors. Educational materials are drawn from web resources like Health Sciences Online, NextGenU’s first library, an online portal that Frank began in 2001 that contains links to 50,000 learning resources.

Frank’s commitment to environmental sustainability extends beyond NextGenU. She recently won a two-year $20,000 University Sustainability Initiative Teaching & Learning Fellowship from UBC to create on online course on climate change and health – one of NextGenU’s first offerings. Prior to moving to UBC, she co-designed and lived in the only energy-independent home in Georgia (all of its power was self-generated), and also served as president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Altogether, NextGenU plans to have about 20 courses ready for its launch, expected in the next couple of months. NextGenU is not offering any degrees for now, but will immediately offer an equivalent of a master’s degree in public health, called a Certificate in Public Health, endorsed by the American Association of Public Health Physicians, the Public Health Foundation of India and the Presbyterian University of East Africa in Kenya.

NextGenU will also launch with residency and other training programs for physicians in the developing world, in the areas of emergency medicine, pediatrics, and preventive medicine.

While the venture is aimed at the developing world, Frank believes many courses will be useful for students in Canada and other wealthy nations.

“NextGenU is for a new generation of learners, who do not want or may not have the luxury to pay for their education, or leave their homes to receive it, or degrade the environment through the act of learning,” Frank says. “The standard model of university education simply doesn’t work for vast numbers of students, so we’re launching, testing, refining and expanding a new model.”

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