Ideal way to lighten the load

May 16, 2003

Classrooms can't cope with Asia's education needs. E-learning is a solution and is gaining popularity as Sars keeps students at home, writes Mark Rowe in Singapore.

Asia is widely viewed as the world's emerging hot spot for higher education, with demand for universities growing in direct proportion to rising living standards. This growth brings challenges that analysts believe can be met only by e-learning.

According to IDP Education Australia, Asia is home to nearly half the world's students. This number is predicted to rise from 17 million in 1995 to 87 million by 2020. Demand will be vast in the world's two most populous nations, China and India. By 2020, China will be unable to supply the 20 million university places required to meet the needs of its developing economy, and by 2015 India will struggle to supply a needed 9 million places. Demand will far exceed the capacity of the global education industry to provide enrolments.

E-learning offers a quantum leap in economies of scale and increases access to learning opportunities by freeing teaching from geographical constraints. E-learning is also expected to boom if the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus forces students to study more at home.

Alan Olsen, a consultant and researcher on international education based in Hong Kong, says: "Asia is seeing a massive and insuperable demand for higher education. It is beyond the ability of the world's universities to satisfy that need by physical campuses. Students are looking for first degrees that they cannot access any other way."

Yet cultural nuances and technological obstacles remain. India's Indira Gandhi National Open University boasts about 1 million students enrolled on a variety of distance-learning courses. Last autumn, it launched two virtual courses, including a three-year degree programme incorporating the UK's BTec/higher national diploma. But although the university recently introduced satellite communication systems to roll out a ten-year education and training network to facilitate remote classes and downloading of lectures, it still relies on printed material and periodic attendance at study centres.

Sanjay Agarwala, director of Eastern Software Systems, India's leading e-business software provider, is critical of the state of e-learning in the country. He cites a lack of expertise in terms of development and of reliable communication infrastructure, insufficient bandwidth and sub-standard course material.

"E-learning is still a long way from entering the mainstream and hasn't really taken off as it should have," he says. "There is a stigma that someone with this sort of qualification has taken the easy route and wasn't good enough to take a traditional course. Most students prefer the feel of a classroom, rather than just sitting in front of a computer and waiting for a reply."

India presents another challenge that also applies in Asia Ñ a wariness that e-learning is a form of cultural imperialism.

Olsen says: "For the medium term, most e-learning will be supplied by developed countries to developing ones. But higher education in the West is now so ethnically diverse that you cannot get away with monocultural and insensitive material. A lot of work is being done on internationalising the subject matter, and in the next ten years we will see Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong delivering it as well within the region.

"There is a scenario where you have UK content being delivered online by Singaporean entrepreneurship that meets demand from China and later on from Indonesia and Pakistan. Then you'll really have globalisation."

In contrast to India, where there is a desire to seek e-learning expertise from within, China knows the West will be required to provide its higher education. For now, China is focused on increasing space at its physical universities. In Hong Kong, however, there are a number of virtual institutions that are popular with postgraduates studying MBAs online. They allow people to continue to work Hong Kong's traditional long hours.

"E-learning in Hong Kong is not mainstream yet, but neither is it the exception," Olsen says. "But Sars will be with us for a long time, and doing a course online means you can continue through an epidemic."

Asian governments are acutely aware of e-learning's potential. The first Asia e-learning Network Conference was held in Tokyo last year under the auspices of Asean, the Southeast Asian economic association that comprises ten countries, with additional support from Japan and Korea. Governments, universities and e-learning providers drew up plans for an Asia-wide approach to the development of e-learning.

In Malaysia there are two main providers of virtual education, the Open University Malaysia and University Tun Abdul Razak (Unitar) - Malaysia's first virtual university, set up six years ago. About 7,000 students are enrolled at Unitar, and the university offers a dozen academic programmes, including business administration, information technology and humanities and social sciences, at levels ranging from first to doctorate-degree level.

Students and faculty members engage in learning and teaching activities via a mixture of face-to-face, online and multimedia environments. Fees for a standard four-year undergraduate course are about £1,000 a year, rising to £3,000 for a masters degree. Foreign students are encouraged, with many enrolling from China.

The Malaysian government has taken steps towards enhancing the use of ICT in e-learning, such as upgrading the ICT knowledge and skills of teachers and students. It has also introduced a programme of "smart schools", which use browser-based teaching-learning materials and related print materials for Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language), English language, science and mathematics.

Yet future success of e-learning in Asia may be helped by something more prosaic: a Malaysian pilot project using e-books has reportedly been popular with students simply because it lightens the load of the traditional "Asian heavy schoolbag".

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