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Illustration by Emilio Rivera III
Click Here for a Diploma
Get ready for a deluge of online degrees - and regulation issues
By CESAR BACANI and OLIVER ROHLFS

ALSO
Interested in online education? Check out the following sites for information and insights


David Christopher wanted an MBA. But the Sabah-based executive had no time to attend on-campus classes. He thought he had found a solution in the International Postgraduate Facilitator Management Center, which uses the Internet to market online master's and doctorate programs offered by three universities. Before signing up with a school called the Irish International University, however, Christopher checked with Ireland's embassy in Kuala Lumpur. He was told Ireland has not accredited the institution. "None of the [seven recognized] Irish universities or the National Council for Education Awards, which together represent the degree-awarding bodies in Ireland, validate any degree from the 'Irish International University,'" First Secretary Damien Boyle later wrote Asiaweek.

As the Internet becomes a fact of life in Asia, expect a deluge of online and offline advertising touting virtual degrees from known and unknown institutions all over the globe. The first rule for the would-be student: Check the school's credentials with your department of education, professional bodies and the embassy of the country where the school operates. "It is up to consumers to ensure they are choosing a 'real' university," says Marion Coomey, who is professor of radio and television arts at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University. "Most of the courses and programs started up within the last five or six years, simply because that is when the technologies have been available to try out. Online learning is still very new."

And it is not for everyone. For all its convenience and flexibility, experts warn that online learning requires plenty of self-discipline, organization, responsibility, support from family and friends, and perseverance. Only motivated self-starters who can get working on a lazy Sunday morning need apply. "Don't underestimate how much time and commitment an online course takes before enrolling," says Jacqueline Cohen, a certified teacher and web-based instructional designer in Hong Kong. Many programs emphasize participation and the exchange of ideas via e-mail and chat rooms. "You need to speak up - write! - when you have questions; the teacher can't see the puzzled look on your face," says Janet Cook, an environmental science teacher in Japan. She is earning her master's in online teaching from the California State University in Hayward.

It helps if the student is an adult learner, someone who has already completed a degree and has the maturity and desire for further studies. This does not mean undergraduates cannot sign up (although education experts say younger students should not miss the experience of actual college life). After all, thousands of teenagers are enrolled in distance-learning universities all over Asia. "We have long been a mail-and-mortar school," says Denise Bradley, vice chancellor and president of the University of South Australia. "We are simply moving one step forward to become a clicks-and-mortar university." Her institution has joined eight others in Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Taiwan and the U.S. to form the Global University Alliance, which will initially offer Internet-based post-graduate programs in September.

Not that a conventional distance school can automatically transform itself into a virtual university. "Good quality online teaching requires that materials be prepared specifically to use the features of the Internet," says Mike Robertshaw of the Open University of Hong Kong. "Converting existing hardcopy into electronic format and making it available through a browser is not online education." Good support is important. "In a conventional environment, formal and informal activities such as tutorials help the student overcome difficulties and deepen understanding," he says. "In online education, you need to provide opportunities for similar activities through e-mail, mailing lists, chats, newsgroups and bulletin boards."

Some schools mix online and face-to-face classes. UNITAR in Malaysia, a private university opened in 1997 upon the invitation of then minister of education Najib Tun Razak, requires undergraduates to attend twice-a-month lectures at one of 13 study centers. At the University of Technology Sydney, journalism students meet once-a-week with their professor. A few institutions are totally online. "The Open University in England has no campus and traditional classes," says Coomey. "Students have access to tutors to answer questions. They write all their essays and tests online. The University of Phoenix [in the U.S.] has a similar system." Both schools welcome international students.

The University of Southern Queensland in Australia offers three modes of study: on-campus, distance-learning and over the Internet through USQOnline. "Our courses are structured so that students can swap modes of study, allowing them to suit changing circumstances," says vice chancellor Peter Swannell. The school recently appointed Jim Taylor, a 21-year distance-education veteran, as deputy vice chancellor for global learning services. Students of USQOnline, he says, have the same assignments and lecturers, and receive the same degree certificate as on-campus students. The university was awarded a Prize for Excellence last year by the 145-nation International Council for Open and Distance Learning in Norway, a UNESCO-affiliated body that Taylor serves as a vice-president.

What about tuition? On average, USQOnline charges $520 for a semester-long unit of study (a subject or course, in a conventional school). Twenty-four units are required for a bachelor's degree (meaning students pay at least $12,480) while the necessary units for a master's program range from 8 to 12. At Malaysia's UNITAR, undergraduates pay $7,900 over four years. Those taking the 15-month MBA program are charged $4,000. (Unlike USQOnline, however, UNITAR's courses are designed for Malaysian residents because of the on-campus requirement.) These are considerably cheaper than what a student spends in a bricks-and-mortar university - a four-year course in a well-known Australian school can cost a foreigner $100,000.

Of course, the online student must have his own computer and a fast Net connection. "My biggest problem is the cost of Internet usage in Japan," says Misawa science teacher Cook. The occasional hardware and software glitches can also be frustrating. "Like any course, some online offerings will be poorly planned and presented and some will be superb," says Coomey. She is writing a paper on the current state of online learning. Among her findings: Students report increased confidence in using technology and believe they are developing their communications, leadership and collaboration skills. "The complaints are usually a desire for more contact with the teacher and frustration when the technology breaks down," says Coomey.

One caveat bears repeating. No global body currently regulates online universities. The International Council for Open and Distance Learning does not have the authority. "It is an individual's responsibility to check the reputation of an online institution," says Ana Perona, chief of international coordination. A private Nevada-based agency that calls itself the World Association of Universities and Colleges (WAUC) awards accreditation to "alternative" schools, including virtual ones. But the online experts Asiaweek spoke to are not aware of its activities. "Nothing on their website filled me with confidence," says Robertshaw.

"The U.S. Department of Education does not recognize global accreditation associations," concedes WAUC president Maxine Asher. But she insists that her organization is qualified to accredit universities "because of its outstanding directors, its seven-year history of service, its strict accreditation standards and its global goals dedicated to the improvement of post-secondary instruction." It is a good idea to check whether a WAUC school is accredited in the country where it operates. The diplomas awarded by one WAUC member, the Distance Learning Institute in Jakarta, are not recognized by the Indonesian government. The two-year-old school, however, is still allowed to operate.

For now, online students are better off sticking with known schools. "There is no online accreditation system yet, but if the brick-and-mortar university is accredited, then the online programs they offer are as well," says Cohen. Remember our friend David Christopher? He enrolled in an online MBA program offered by Charles Sturt University, an Australian school founded in 1947. Elite schools are also making the leap. The National University of Singapore (NUS) has already developed an online delivery platform. Universitas 21, a group of top universities in Asia (including NUS) and the West, is partnering with media giant News Corp. to offer online courses next year. Asians will soon be spoiled for electronic choice.

With reporting by Ian Jarrett/Perth, Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur, Arif Mustolih/Jakarta and Joseph Dawes/Singapore

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Net Studies

Interested in online education? Check out the following sites for information and insights.

-- Degree Net at www.degree.net gives comprehensive advice about distance education and information (and gossip) on schools

-- The Open University of Hong Kong lists the members of the Asian Association of Open Universities at www.ouhk.edu.hk/~AAOUNet/about.htm

-- The University of Southern Queensland tells all about USQOnline at www.usqonline.com.au

-- Britain's Open University can be reached at www.open.ac.uk

-- The University of Phoenix, Arizona, is at online.uophx.edu

-- Smart Planet offers hundreds of free courses on virtually all subjects at www.smartplanet.com

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