Building bloc of clicks 'n' mortar

May 18, 2001

Online courses offered by a consortium of universities are attracting much interest in Asia and Europe. Geoff Maslen, in Melbourne, reports.

The first specially developed courses to be delivered electronically around the world by the ten universities comprising the Global University Alliance will be available in June.

The idea for the alliance was floated early last year and the company was formally established in October. Universities in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States joined the project to deliver online postgraduate programmes throughout Asia. Since then undergraduate courses have also been made available.

Creation of the alliance followed the establishment of the Universitas 21 consortium of universities, which was formed in 1998. The consortium is negotiating with a US company, Thomson Learning, to set up a similar operation providing award and non-award postgraduate courses over the internet.

Although members of the GUA initially offered "off-the-shelf" online units already available to their own students, a meeting in Melbourne last February decided to move immediately to the second phase of the project. This requires the preparation and delivery of specially designed courses to meet a predicted demand, from Asian professionals particularly, for postgraduate business and information technology studies.

A GUA spokesman said more than 100 of the new courses would be available next month.

After the Melbourne meeting, the GUA chairman and chancellor of the University of Derby, Sir Christopher Ball, said the GUA was "uniquely positioned to become the premier global provider of accessible and affordable high-quality education via the internet". "We are the 'first mover' in this business," he said. "We are actually making it happen."

The alliance will not reveal what each university's contribution to the project is, but operating expenses this year are likely to amount to more than $1 million. This figure will increase rapidly as more courses become available and more students enrol.

Enrolments are believed to be in the low hundreds, but as they increase so, of course, will the cash flow from student fees. Students pay $500 per unit, or about $4,000 for the equivalent of a year's full-time study. An MBA offered by the University of South Australia costs $12,800 while a bachelor of applied science from Melbourne costs $18,000 - the same price as a bachelor of commerce available from Athabasca University in Canada. The University of Derby, meanwhile, has a BA in business studies on offer at $15,000.

Sir Christopher said the alliance believed the new courses, designed and delivered by groups of universities sharing their expertise, would prove extremely attractive to graduates across Asia. He said alliance members had been astonished by the interest shown from potential students outside Asia, including Europe, where enrolments had not been expected.

"We think the fact that we are a consortium means we can provide a better education product than any one of the universities operating by itself," Sir Christopher said.

Students enrolling for the GUA courses may undertake units from the different universities but will receive a degree (or other qualification) from just one. Earlier this year, the alliance began an aggressive "brand-building campaign" in Asia with marketing seminars in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and China.

A commercial partner in the GUA venture, Hong Kong-based online education specialist NextEd, has assumed operational management of the project. NextEd had previously provided its global server and integrated technology platform as well as marketing services to the alliance, but it now has an overall operational management role.

The company operates a fully integrated, scaleable and replicable software platform comprising course teaching and learning software, "online campus functionality", electronic communications, student activity tracking, e-commerce applications (such as an online book store), call centre technology for local student service and support and software for online marketing, including database mining.

Sir Christopher said NextEd would streamline the GUA's operations and provide a better service to enrolled and prospective students, as well as the 5,500 registered users of the alliance's website. He said the GUA had also entered into agreements with associate institutions in the region to set up ground support as part of the "clicks and mortar" concept.

Ruth Dunkin, vice-chancellor of RMIT University - one of the three antipodean universities involved - said a key strength of the GUA was that technology made it possible for students to access online content and interact with peers and academics. This could occur both within a university setting and externally, thus extending the learning experience beyond traditional university hours and walls.

"The Global University Alliance will foster a generation of students who will learn how to learn, using new technologies to access the information they want and need for their personal and professional lives," Dunkin said.

RMIT has been involved in putting its courses online since 1995. With its involvement in the GUA, the university expects to have 14 programmes available by the end of 2001. These cover business, information technology, engineering and education.

The University of Derby is offering a BA in business studies, a master of science in strategic management, as well as Cambridge Career Awards in information and communications technology.

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