Online students to get taste of reality

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am

Students at a Singapore-based online graduate school are being offered the opportunity to step out of their virtual learning environment and on to a real-life campus as part of their master's degree programme.

U21Global, which has students worldwide including about 150 from Hong Kong and the mainland, is giving students on its Master of Management in Information Technology programme the chance to spend one semester at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Successful students will be awarded a postgraduate certificate in Information Systems by the Australian university on top of their master's qualification, in what represents the first opportunity for on-campus study for students of the online school.

According to U21Global's dean of information technology programmes, Wing Lam, it is an illustration of how the barriers between online and regular education are gradually being worn down.

'Even though we are an online institution, that is not to say we are not involved in face-to-face education,' Dr Lam said.

'The University of Melbourne is an important academic partner. Some students may not want to take up the option of face-to-face study and be perfectly happy to do it online. But it's all about providing more options for students so they can study the way they want to study.'

Established in 2001, U21Global now has students in 60 countries and is backed by a network of 20 research-intensive universities in 12 countries. It appeals mostly to mature students in their 30s, often people who are working as middle managers and who have been in the workplace for an average of nine years.

'Our programmes are geared towards people at a management level,' Dr Lam said. 'Whatever they study with us can be applied in the workplace. That is why more mature students come to us.

'The second reason is that we are backed by 20 reputable universities. That gives them a sense of reassurance. We tend not to have too many younger students.'

Among its recent innovations, U21Global in September launched its own campus on Second Life, a virtual platform of 9 million residents created by Linden Labs. The campus covers 65,536 square metres of electronic real estate.

Dr Lam said he expected the quota of mainland students to increase significantly in the years ahead.

'The level of English in China is improving significantly,' he said. 'As China matures, both in terms of educational approach and in terms of general economic development, there will be a lot of people who will want a serious management education, so we see great potential there.

'Interestingly, despite its reputation for quickly grasping new technologies, Asia appears to have been generally slow to warm to online learning compared to the west where most established universities now use at least an element of online learning.'

Dr Lam said he believed traditional Asian ideas on education were to blame for the reluctance in some quarters to embrace the concept.

'Universities in the west have a stronger history of experimentation whereas if you look at Asia, education is still very traditionally centred around a professor, a guru, who is giving knowledge out to willing students,' he said.

'The educational philosophy in Asia hasn't changed much and that's the main inhibitor. It's not so much the technology itself. Asia still has a bit of catching up to do.

'It is improving and I am seeing more online and distance learning programmes, but it hasn't advanced as much as in the west.'