Online degrees become reality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Will it one day be possible to take a university course on your smartphone? The answer is yes, according to HKU Space, which is already developing a mobile platform for its continuing education courses.

'It's very exciting,' says Zhang Weiyuan, head of the Centre for Cyber Learning at the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education.

'You can easily imagine it becoming common in a few years, when wireless networks will be more mature and portable devices will be even more popular.'

With busy work and family commitments, it's not always easy for Hong Kong professionals to study for a postgraduate degree, even if it would advance their careers. For that reason, more and more locals are turning to online courses and programmes with e-learning components.

Three universities now have dedicated e-learning programmes. HKU Space, Chinese University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies and the Open University all offer web-based studies ranging from one-off certificate courses to fully fledged master's degrees.

'The major advantage is flexibility,' Chinese University course co-ordinator Pekoe Ng says. 'Students don't have to work according to a fixed schedule, so they can use the materials provided to them and finish the course on their own time.'

The university offers online courses of two to three months in business management, language and law. 'Students like them because they apply directly to their work and their life,' Ng says. Study materials are put on the web, including three or four assignments per course. Face-to-face tutorials can also be held, and students are awarded a certificate.

Online study can also lead to a master's degree. In recent years, the Open University has shifted some of its distance learning courses to the internet, especially those in business and law. Students can now complete a two-year master's degree in certain programmes without ever setting foot on campus.

'The Open University is basically a distance learning university - we send students a package of course materials that replaces the lectures,' says Chung Siu-leung, director of the Lee Shau Kee School of Business and Administration. 'Starting in 2007, we thought, why not do things online? Now, everything students need to study is online. Even the tutorial classes are conducted through the internet.'

Chung says the new approach offers flexibility to lecturers, too, who can now make use of audio-visual materials and extra information that couldn't make it into the old course packages. Students can also interact with their professors during online tutorial sessions, thanks to a webcam and an interactive user interface.

'If those were physical classes, students might miss it, but when it's online, they can always go back to review it because it's all recorded,' Chung says.

One of the university's most popular online programmes is the Master of Laws in Chinese Business Law (Business Applications), offered in both Chinese and English, which helps students understand the legal complexities of doing business on the mainland.

Henry Or, the general manager of a company that runs two mainland factories, graduated from the programme this year. 'The e-learning mode was the most enjoyable [aspect] of my studies,' he says. 'It allowed me to attend all the classes without any location limitations.'

Online study offers more than just convenience, however. After HKU Space introduced more web components in its programmes, it found that graduation rates increased and the number of teaching hours decreased.

Zhang attributes this to the fact that online learning materials are always available for review, which helps avoid one of the big problems of lecture-based courses. 'Normally you have a three-hour lesson and by the next week, students have totally forgotten most of what they had learned,' he says.

For all its advantages, though, he finds Hongkongers surprisingly reluctant to embrace online-only courses. 'They still like some face-to-face interaction,' he says, even if most of the course is on the web. The convenience of getting around the city could have something to do with that, but so might the limitations of internet learning platforms, which can sometimes feel rather clunky.

Nevertheless, change is in the air. 'In the past, many schools looked at tech-driven approaches to develop online material, but we realised we needed a pedagogical approach,' says Jeanne Lam Yuet-ching, associate head of the Centre for Cyber Learning. HKU Space is developing courses specifically with the web in mind, and it plans to eventually move in the direction of the Open University and offer web-only courses.