The president of Harvard University, Dr Drew Faust, has expressed confidence in the future growth of online learning, citing an international education among its advantages.
About 600,000 people have already taken courses on the e-learning platform edX launched by Harvard and MIT last autumn. The non-profit site features video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, and online laboratories.
Some 60 per cent of the students enrolled are from outside the US.
"It is international, and many of these courses are extremely interactive, so that when students weigh in their ideas from all over the world it broadens the experience of our students here," says Faust, who is visiting Hong Kong today as part of a tour to strengthen links with the university's alumni, 1,200 of whom live here.
The platform has also helped the elite institution develop different approaches to its own classroom teaching, such as variations of the blended model, which is a combination of virtual and face-to-face learning.
But the history professor stands by the value of campus-based learning, and says that time spent in residential halls plays an important part in the educational experience.
"I believe the experience of being together, of having accidental interactions, of being part of a team and of the residential model of higher education is unparalleled. It has very special attributes," she says.
"Students living together, working together and being in the same dormitories and houses is a very important aspect of what they gain from the experience.
"They are learning [to be] whole people, because they are living in an environment that is supportive of all kinds of personal growth, as well as learning the academic subjects that are part of their curriculum," Faust says.
Harvard looks for a wide set of attributes among its tens of thousands of applicants each year. It assesses all applicants on academic qualifications, and takes into account reports from alumni, who interview applicants back in their home countries.
"We want our students to learn from one another as much as they learn from the classes they take. We really try to craft a class of students that has musicians, athletes and artists.
"All of them are very capable intellectually, but they also bring other characteristics to the mix, so that they have an exciting and illuminating time together," says Faust.
"We are very concerned about the character and the quality of human beings."