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How e-commerce and big data are shaping postgraduate degrees

Master’s degree courses help students keep pace with rapid advances in everyday uses of digital technology

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2017, 10:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 11:01am

The flow of innovation around digital technology seems to be gathering pace and reaching further and further – not only into the way we do business, but also the way we lead our lives. Keeping pace with these developments, and with their practical applications, is a challenge for anyone, let alone a busy professional or executive.

Two master’s degree programmes offered by Hong Kong universities focus on applications having, or promising to have, the biggest impact on both the economy and on wider society.

The master’s degree in e-commerce, run by the Polytechnic University (PolyU), was launched in 2000. Over the past 17 years, shopping habits have been transformed, with the range of products and services predominantly bought through online channels increasing all the time.

It has often been noted that local consumers have tended to lag behind those in other developed economies in this regard. But Professor George Baciu, of PolyU’s department of computing, and the programme leader for the e-commerce programme, believes this no longer holds true.

“Hong Kong consumers are already embracing e-commerce platforms for product purchases, product rankings and customer feedback, as can be seen from the abundance of apps that are developed in Hong Kong,” he says.

With electronic payment now so widely used in retail and B2B (business to business) transactions, and with the strong growth of businesses operating primarily in this field, such as Amazon and Alibaba Group Holdings – owner of the South China Morning Post – Baciu sees e-commerce already firmly established as a fundamental part of our commercial lives.

However, there are obstacles to be tackled, both for existing businesses looking to develop their e-commerce channels, and for start-ups entering the field.

“The main challenge is finding skilled technologists [who] not only understand the process flow, but are also able to contribute to the enhancement of the client interactions in online and offline operations,” he says. “Another challenge is maintaining the robust security protocols that are employed in e-commerce transactions and in the safeguarding of customers’ credentials.”

Baciu notes that his department’s e-commerce programme is the first in Hong Kong that was developed based on a fully-structured curriculum that includes business, accounting, logistics and computing, and tailored towards e-commerce practitioners and middle management working in industry.

The main challenge is finding skilled technologists [who] not only understand the process flow, but are also able to contribute to the enhancement of the client interactions in online and offline operations
Professor George Baciu, PolyU

Although the programme is open to graduates from bachelor’s degree courses, many are employed when they apply. “Many applicants also indicate they are preparing to launch new start-ups,” he says. “Some students have already initiated their own start-ups and are actively involved in the development of their own strategic venture.”

The levels of technical smarts required by the programme vary from basic programming skills to the ability to design web-based applications, Baciu says. Notwithstanding this, applications are invited from all who are keen to learn and upgrade their knowledge base in these areas.

There are two pathways through the programme. Students can choose to take subjects from either the executive or technical groups of courses, and they will obtain a certificate of recognition from the department after fulfilling the subject requirements. If students wish to gain exposure to both the executive and technical aspects of e-commerce, they can opt to build their own portfolio of subjects within the general requirements.

If they choose the executive option, they need to pick four from a core category of courses which includes information systems and e-commerce strategy, B2B and B2C e-commerce and management, and entrepreneurship. Among the electives open to them is the information systems audit and control course.

For those taking the technical route, the completion of six core courses – with options including big data computing, intelligent information systems, and software testing and quality assurance – is required.

Despite the rapid rate of change in the field of e-commerce, Baciu says it isn’t a major problem for the programme to keep pace. With broadband connectivity and access to all the potential sources of technical and management material available, as well as to an excellent electronic library platform, his department is able to constantly update both its knowledge base and its curriculum material, to reflect the latest technological trends.

“For example, we are now in the process of adopting the new fintech and AI/machine learning training platforms and material for our curriculum in e-commerce,” he says. “One of our most popular courses is big data analytics, which we had to expand in order to accommodate the demand.”

Professor Chen Lei is programme director of the MSc in big data technology run by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Offered jointly by HKUST’s department of computer science and engineering and its department of mathematics, the programme was launched in 2016 and is, Chen says, the first MSc course in big data available in Hong Kong.

Though invisible to most of us, applications based on big data technology are already having a significant impact on our lives. When we’re shopping online, the recommendations we receive are arrived at through the manipulation of big data. The use of this technology in traffic management systems helps to ease congestion on our roads. The assessment of credit risk, and the pricing of insurance premiums, are also increasingly dependent on big data technology.

However, Chen says that vast quantities of raw and confused facts and information are of little use in themselves. “We need to know how to collect useful and meaningful data and how to clean and integrate data. We also need to find useful insights in the collected data, such as interesting patterns, and then unitise these patterns.”

This is where Chen believes HKUST’s master of science in big data technology can play a really useful role. “The programme is primarily designed for those who are interested in dealing with big data analytics and applications,” he says. “It is aimed at educating students about big data and issues related to big data technology.”

On enrolment, students are expected to be familiar with the workflow of big data systems and with their social and societal implications. From there, and through the integration of different disciplines in the course of their studies, they will learn about all of the key aspects of big data technology, and the ways in which it can be used in the real world.

“Students will learn the major components of big data, namely infrastructure, integration, storage, modelling and management, computing systems, analytic and mining systems, security, the policy and social implications of this technology, the human factors involved, and about applications in various fields.”

Chen says that armed with this knowledge, successful graduates will be equipped to perform a number of big data tasks in a range of roles such as: identify, explain, and use big data infrastructure; solve integration, computing and storage problems; perform various analytic tasks using management and computing techniques; derive knowledge and strategies from analytics and apply them to privacy protection and policy making; and investigate existing problems and conduct original research.

The curriculum for the master’s in big data technology is regularly reviewed in the light of the advances being made. “Our programme continues to monitor the recent developments in big data technology and we will offer the courses to keep pace. For example, we are going to offer a block chain course from spring 2018.”

Demand for those with expertise in this field is only likely to grow. At present, Chen sees graduates going into a range of sectors, such as IT, finance and logistics, but he believes many more areas within society, and in the daily lives of individuals, will benefit from further advances in the technology.

Medical outcomes, as well as our general health, can be transformed by using the insights gleaned from the appropriate processing of masses of data. The information obtained from the recording of the vital signs from premature or sick infants can be fed into algorithms to predict infections 24 hours before any physical symptoms appear, he says. Also, the data gathered from wearable devices can be used to monitor adults’ physical condition and analysed so suggestions to improve our wellbeing can be made.

Big data can also be used in the management of public utilities and cities, to fight crime, prevent cyber attacks, and foil terrorist plots. It is also an important tool in improving the quality of research and helping to push back the boundaries of science, he says.

“For example, in every space programme, the experiments conducted to unlock the secrets of our universe generate huge amounts of data,” he says. “The techniques and the computing power developed in such frontier projects can also be leveraged in many other areas of research and industry.”

This article appeared in the Professional Education Guide 2018 as: rise of e-commerce and big data