Co-operation brings partners closer together

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am

Distance learning has changed dramatically in the 20 years since two institutions joined forces to offer external courses

TWENTY YEARS AGO distance learning in Hong Kong was barely on the education radar. But hi-tech advances and the growth of lifelong learning - and the added pressures of work and family obligations - have raised the profile of flexible learning modes.

The delivery of education is evolving with the changes in the world.

Thomas Shostak, dean of lifelong learning at Ohio University in the United States, said changes would continue because the growing use of the internet allows for live and more frequent interaction between students and professors.

'We will also see more blended learning formats where courses have online and on-site formats. If you combine the student engagement with the technology changes we may see even more instances where students take even greater responsibility for their own learning,' Professor Shostak said.

'This could result in more instances of undergraduate research, more internships, direct involvement in hands-on learning and even more creative uses of technology.'

This is a far cry from 1985, when the Division of Lifelong Learning at Ohio University and Hong Kong Baptist University School of Continuing Education (SCE) joined forces to offer an external student programme to Hong Kong students.

The partnership proved one of the division's biggest challenges, despite 65 years' experience in providing off-campus degree programmes.

Distance learning 20 years ago was just that. The programme (initially a BA in Specialised Studies) was offered by correspondence. There was no local support system for students and the use of technology was limited to occasional telephone calls. Correspondence between the two university departments was predominantly by letter.

More than 70 per cent of students dropped out, including 90 per cent in the first quarter, in its first two years of operation. Cultural misunderstandings added to the problems.

'Adapting the Ohio U system to accommodate Hong Kong students was quite challenging because the university in Ohio is set up to meet the needs of US students in residence on campus. There was also the challenge of explaining the Ohio system to Hong Kong students who were raised primarily in the British system of education. To complicate matters further, Ohio University is on a quarter system, not a semester,' Professor Shostak said.

Significant changes were implemented to prevent the partnership from collapsing. In 1987, an on-site programme co-ordinator at SCE was put in place to help students navigate the unfamiliar administrative procedures of a US university.

The curriculum began offering more on-site courses taught by Ohio University faculty to strengthen its presence in the city. It was the first overseas university to offer on-site courses and degree programmes in Hong Kong.

Now, about 250 students enrol for Ohio's on-site programmes each quarter, 90 per cent of whom are adults with full-time jobs. The number of graduates has risen in recent years, usually averaging between 44 and 55 annually.

Roger Kenworthy, student services co-ordinator in Hong Kong, said recent figures indicated Ohio had gained momentum in Hong Kong, which in part was due to more courses being available.

Four bachelor degree programmes are offered - in economics, communication, psychology and specialised studies. Associate and graduate degrees are available, as are intensive English and professional development programmes, and test preparation sessions. The on-site programmes are the most structured (and most popular) and are taught in an 'engaged learning' style where students become involved in their learning.

Professor Shostak said those unaccustomed to an American approach could be hesitant, but once initial reservations subsided the response could be exciting for students, as well as faculty.

'This can provide a different dimension to the students' educational development and allows them the opportunity to build self-confidence and set their own directions,' Professor Shostak said.

In addition to the regular semesters, short inter-sessions over a five-week period are offered for on-site courses. Between 16 and 18 courses are offered per semester, allowing for smaller class sizes. As well as on-site learning, students can opt to study online, take independent studies by correspondence, or course credit by examination.

Students have the opportunity to partially complete studies on campus in Ohio. The summer term has two five-week sessions during which students can take up to 10 credits per session.

Mr Kenworthy said some students chose to study for more than one summer term and others chose to visit for a full school year, or complete their degree from Ohio's main campus.

With the suppliers of educational programmes and competition increasing, students increasingly expect the education they receive to be of the highest quality at the lowest possible cost.

Professor Shostak said the partnership depended on co-operation to provide creative learning opportunities that were mutually beneficial.

'The biggest challenge is competition among all of us who are providing educational programmes to adult and lifelong learners,' he said.

'There are so many schools, colleges and even businesses from so many different countries that can deliver educational programmes easily to markets around the world.

'We can no longer claim 'ownership' of a particular audience, method, degree or programme. Access to the Web makes learning available to everyone ... This is forcing many of us to rethink how we deliver learning opportunities and what programmes best match our resources.'