Virtual Varsities: Getting a degree from your desktop

Posted on October 29, 1999 
Filed Under CNET, Julian

by Julian Matthews

Jalaluddin Abdul Halim once took long, lonely bus-rides to-and-fro Ipoh city from the remote estate off Bruas where he lived and worked - a journey of nearly 100 km - just to attend accounting classes.

“Sometimes I would reach home at 3am and have to go to work the next day,” he said. The trips also entailed leaving his wife and young children thrice a week to fend for themselves.

But his determination eventually paid off. In 1992, he obtained his diploma which led to a subsequent rise in pay and broadened his career options.

Currently a finance manager in an estate management firm, 41-year-old Jalaluddin has hit the paper-chase trail again. Only this time he needn’t make those exhausting commutes.

This month, he signed on for an online business degree with virtual university Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unitar).

“I wanted a course with little or no classroom activity and this was ideal. I can do it from home. It’s flexible and I don’t have to bear the costs of travelling or lodging elsewhere, ” said Jalaluddin, who currently resides in Ipoh.

The father of five school-going children says the program has the twin advantage of enabling him to learn about the Internet, and get familiar with new accounting software for his present office.

“You can’t get into information technology unless you use it,” he said. Enthused about embarking on his new modem adventures, Jalaluddin foresees only one minor problem ahead - sharing the computer with his kids.

“I may have to wait till they all go to bed - but that’s better than the hassle of all those bus-rides,” he said.

Jalaluddin is among thousands seeking to better themselves at their own time, place and pace through web-enabled distance learning. The Internet has changed what was once a slow and clunky process - via correspondence, TV and videotapes - to something far more personal and interactive. There is a surge in interest of “keyboard colleges” globally offering everything from certificate-level to PhD programs.

The concept of a virtual varsity is still fairly new in Malaysia but judging from its rapid adoption it will definitely give bricks-and-mortar universities a run for their money.

Pioneering Unitar has already set a blistering pace. From a batch of only 300 last September, the university’s enrolment has shot up to 3,415 students — 3,046 in the undergraduate programs and 369 others pursuing postgraduate courses.

“Our target market is working adults, and high school certificate and diploma holders, while housewives and senior citizens will feature fast as students of the future. We also plan to take in foreign students,” said Dr Syed Othman Alhabshi, Unitar’s president and chief executive.

Dr Syed describes Unitar’s virtual education concept as a hybrid, middle-ground approach - a combination of conventional, face-to-face instruction and online, multimedia delivery.

Students are given CD-ROM courseware and have online access to lecturers but are also required to attend tutorials and exams at its 12 study centers nationwide that serve as “mini-campuses”.

“At the centers, students meet and interact with professors and other students, can use computer facilities and do research in our library. Students may visit the study center once a week or once a month depending on course requirements but generally will have to attend a minimum three tutorials per semester per course,” he said.

Dr Syed believes the hybrid model will stay for sometime as some courses such as engineering still require hands-on experiments and warm-body supervision. “But the distributed campus model we have adopted is far more cost-effective than a conventional centralized campus,” he said. The university currently offers mainly information technology and business administration programs but plans to expand its offerings in future.

Next January, private college Kolej Damansara Utama (KDU) is offering American degree and Master’s programs through a collaboration with Tuoro University International (TUI) in California, an US-accredited virtual university.

KDU chief executive Dr B. C. Tan said students stand to save dramatically in tuition costs for the program which is about US$13,160 compared to attending an average four-year degree program in the US of about US$72,000 or US$ 36,000 for 2 + 2 twinning program. “It has the added benefit of minimizing the brain drain often associated with Malaysian students studying in America and not returning,” he said.

Dr Tan said the TUI-developed “cyber classroom” concept encourages more interaction with threaded discussion lists, real-time collaboration, live audio and video class conferences, and individual conferences between faculty and students. “There is at least twice as much interaction online than in the traditional classroom,” said Dr Tan.

He added students will also able to get full text access to TUI’s cyber library with over 8,000 academic and professional journals and over 1,000 newspapers from around the world. “This information is well-organized with powerful search engines and instantly available to the students anytime and anywhere,” he said.

Dr Tan said that KDU is also well-prepared to face the hazards of online cheats. It implements a fingerprint log-on for students and requires live responses during conferences about their assignments. “The professor will easily recognize a student who cannot intelligently discuss an assignment. Students doing exams from home will also have cameras on their computers focused on them and be individually proctored via the Internet,” he said.

Dr Tan advises prospective students to be wary in their choice of a virtual university with the numerous players popping up. “Avoid any distance learning program that does not exhibit a quality curriculum or teaching methodology and make sure they are accredited.”

Online education specialists MahirNet Sdn Bhd has taken a different approach - offering a smorgasbord of courses from selected local and foreign universities. MahirNet acts more as an online facilitator rather than a university, deploying, managing and marketing existing courses over the Internet.

So far, MahirNet has only three programs - Bachelor of Communications and Masters of Human Resource Development from Universiti Putra Malaysia and a diploma course from the Malaysian Institute of Management. But it is in negotiations with both local and foreign universities in South Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe.

Advisor Dr Vincent Lowe points out that not all courses can lend themselves online. “For instance, in medicine, there is an apprenticeship component and doctors need to develop clinical skills which can only come from actual practice under supervision. While virtual learning can do some part of these training requirements, it cannot fulfil all of it,” he said suggesting law, engineering and accounting had similar stringent requirements.

Dr Lowe believes face-to-face delivery of education via lectures and tutorials will still be a crucial part of the learning process. But he is skeptical that full-time devotion to this form of instruction is necessary or even desirable in future. “It is important to interact with instructors face-to-face, but perhaps not throughout an entire course. Periodical meetings should be adequate to sort out learning issues or difficult parts of chapters,” he said.

Can online technology really improve education in Malaysia?

Dr Lowe believes it can as it encourages self-learning. “Too much of learning here is by rote or dependent-learning, not independent learning. With online learning, all learning has to focus on competencies, learning how to learn instead of merely being spoon-fed.” Unitar’s Dr Syed agrees that online technology works only when students and lecturers embrace the learner-centered approach and not teacher-centered approach.

“From our experience, students ask more questions because they are not intimidated. They also have access to more information and are free to interact with other students and lecturers through online chats and discussion groups .”

But not all the news on virtual varsities has been so enthusiastic. At least one study has shown that technology may actually deepen the divide between the education haves and the education have-nots.

Researchers Lawrence Gladieux and Watson Scott Swail, from the US College Board, released a study in April this year that stated that although education is the great equalizer, technology appears to be “a new engine of inequality.”

“The playing field remains tilted towards the affluent. The most advantaged citizens-and schools-are most able to benefit from cutting-edge technologies. Advantage magnifies advantage,” stated the study.

“The virtual campus may widen opportunities for some, but not those at the low-end of the socio-economic scale,” said Gladieux and Swail suggesting that new technology also tends to be expensive and have a short half-life, and actually strains education budgets, rather that relieves them.

“Online courses are works in progress and require ongoing outlays for maintenance. Some institutions are actually charging more for them than for on-campus instruction,” said the researchers.

Although the researchers qualified that the data available was limited, and primarily based on U.S. experience, the trends and issues they stated were not far different in Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world, as technological globalization was reshaping tertiary education everywhere.

The researchers advised policy-makers to ensure a level playing field especially for the lower-income and less-advantaged citizens.

In August, Malaysia announced the set up of an open university, Universiti Terbuka Malaysia, (Unitem), which will spearhead the government’s drive for online learning programs. Unitem is touted as a one-stop centre for courses offered by the 11 existing public universities. Its plans include developing and delivering applications and tools for web-based instruction through an Internet portal, featuring live video feeds of lectures, audio and text.

Evidently, in Malaysia, as the Internet becomes more prevalent in people’s lives, there will be more avenues to get a degree. Whether the delivery of sorely-needed quality education is via desktop or through traditional means or a combination of both, one can only hope the educational experience for the individual will be enriching and far more fulfilling.

Published in CNET Asia, Oct 29,1999

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