THERE has been a surge in the number of people logging on to the Internet to learn, but online education will not replace traditional forms of teaching, academics say. In the three years since the Open University introduced Internet-based learning, 30 courses have become available with 3,500 students using the service. Dr Michael Robertshaw, associate professor of the Open University's school of science and technology, said online courses provided students with more flexibility and variety than those in a classroom setting. 'With multimedia components, we are able to give students things they wouldn't normally be able to get hold of in a conventional environment - for example, visual stimulation,' he said. Dr Robertshaw, who has been teaching online since 1998, believes that because the Internet has become a more important medium of learning, education providers will have to adjust. But he says it is only one of many ways in which students can learn. 'Some students will always prefer to be in a face-to-face environment, while others prefer studying independently. 'What we are doing is providing a new option for students in the way they learn. It [electronic media] is not an alternative, but an option.' However, online education will lead to greater competition among different education providers in Hong Kong by enabling more foreign universities to offer distance-learning courses. Some foreign institutions have already joined with local companies to provide online courses for students and professionals. Since 1993, OnLine Education ( www.online.edu ) has offered degree programmes that allow people to obtain foreign qualifications via the Internet. It currently has more than 1,000 students, 43 per cent of them from Hong Kong. Programmes on offer include a master's degree in business administration (hospitality) from Oxford Brookes University in Britain, and a number of health studies degrees from Charles Sturt University in Australia. OnLine managing director Nicola Davies said the courses enabled students to obtain overseas degrees without travelling abroad, and gave them flexibility to work at their own pace. However, it is more expensive. While fees for an undergraduate degree programme at a local university cost about $42,000 a year, a foreign degree from OnLine costs about $72,000 a year. But minor online courses are available for as little as $188. At eSchool Ltd ( www.eschool-world.com ), the company designs the content of its courses, which range from languages to software applications and e-finance, targeting adult learners. It also runs a Mandarin language programme with the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuous Education. According to general manager Tony Pang Chor-fu, the company is discussing with foreign institutions the provision of joint programmes. 'The Internet enhances traditional methods of learning by making it more convenient to learn. It also makes the delivery of information more efficient,' he said.