Hong Kong Chinese University is developing a distance learning programme to enable students to use the Internet to attend courses from remote sites. The idea of distance learning is not new. More than 30 universities in the United States offer at least part of their MBA course work on-line. IBM recently announced a computer network to link universities together to create a 'Global Campus'. The University of California Berkeley offers courses on-line using America Online, and students are becoming more and more wired as schools around the world begin to connect to the Internet. Frank Tong and Soung Chang Liew, both associate professors in the department of information engineering, have been working with Chinese University colleagues to develop Web technology for tele-medicine and tele-learning. Mr Soung said the Internet would never replace smaller classrooms and face-to-face interaction with professors, but could enhance learning in other ways. 'I think the technology is a good supplement to the large lecture hall setting,' he said. 'Students can easily get lost and if they sit far back, they usually can't even see the visuals. It's really not that interactive in a large lecture hall. Most of the time, especially in Hong Kong, I find students don't even ask questions.' He said the new opportunities technology presented included inter-activity, time shifting, lecture customisation and hyper-links to relevant information. He predicted in the future virtual lectures would be available from a digital library and include videos and hyper-links to more in-depth information. 'Many times in the traditional lecture hall, a student will hear about a concept and then later go study that in a lab or at home,' Mr Soung said. 'Using the Internet, a link can be established so the student could view, for example, a physics experiment immediately after a professor introduces it and then continue with the virtual lecture.' He said students would also be able to attend virtual lectures at times convenient to them, a benefit to many people who are interested in higher education, but need to work to support themselves. Mr Tong said the initial use of the technology would be to supplement courses students were expected to know when they entered university. 'English language skills in Hong Kong students have been going down,' he said. 'One remedy would be to hire more teachers, but we are already faced with cost-cutting. We can't hire more staff, but at the same time we can help improve skills with interactive learning.' Mr Soung said they were in the initial phase of the programme in terms of developing the technology to enable distance learning, but he hoped to move into the second phase of developing content soon. The first project will be a collaboration with the Independent Learning Centre (ILC) to offer English education classes. He said this would allow students to study on their own time to bring them up to the level necessary to participate fully in classes. Mr Soung said the ultimate goal would be to develop a stored-lecture system that did not imitate live lectures, but offered advanced features to complement and expand them. There are, however, detractors. Many professors fear Internet technology will wipe out jobs as computers take over much of the lecturing process. But, as many Internet companies are realising, content is the key to the success of the Internet. Professors may even find the Internet creates more work, as on-line lectures must be more thoroughly researched with hyper-links to relevant information and multimedia presentations. Time zones also present a problem. Discussions could lag two to three days by e-mail. Mr Tong and Mr Soung both admitted the project could not flower without more financial support and would remain mostly a local issue until the commercial value of the technology forced larger bandwidth applications into the mainstream. 'Implementation is really a business issue, not a technology issue,' Mr Tong said. 'It's a chicken-and-egg problem. Before it comes along, nobody needs it.'