SCMP Saturday, December 9, 2000


Opening up to an e-revolution


The Open University of Hong Kong and the UK Open University are world pioneers in the use of the Internet for higher education. Because we are pioneers, and because we have large numbers of students using online technology in their studies, we are already past the starry-eyed stage about the new e-world. We are actually inventing the online university.
In my book Mega-universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education, I drew attention to the tensions in the eternal and eternally challenging triangle of access, cost and quality. I consider that this triangle sums up the challenges facing all universities in every country. However, the problem is particularly acute for large and rapidly developing countries like China where resources are limited.
It is the great achievement of the open universities and the distance teaching universities to have reconfigured that triangle. We have been able to show that you can achieve wider access and higher quality without having to increase the cost. We have developed learning systems that provide a better service and a richer experience to students when student numbers are greater.
That is a revolution in higher education. We have broken that link, that insidious link, between quality and exclusivity in education. Of course many people still act as if that link still exists. Some developing countries are still trying to copy the elite models of the past. But the real needs of those countries will not be met by a few elite institutions with small numbers of students. Those needs call for open and distance learning. They call for us to develop those methods for the future, drawing on all new media and technologies that can be useful.
So what does Open University experience teach me about the pros and cons of online learning? Starting with the cons, the first is that online learning is currently a fad, so people do not discuss it rationally. Fortunately, the shakeout that began at the beginning of this year has been useful reality therapy and we have all found enthusiasm for the e-world can, like share prices, go down as well as up.
The second con for educators, especially those who are idealistic about increasing access, like the Open University, is that moving online can exacerbate inequalities of opportunity between rich and poor. Countering this tendency requires special measures.
The British Government has recently launched its "learndirect" project, renamed from the University for Industry because it is neither a university nor for industry. This is aimed particularly at basic employment skills for those who came out of school least well equipped.
Learndirect intends to deliver most of its learning products online, but, of course, most of its target audience have neither computers nor Internet connections at home. So the Government has created many hundreds of computer-equipped learning centres in friendly places like pubs and shopping centres.
The third con is the technology is still pretty primitive. The 110,000 regular Open University students who link with us online use just about every make of computer known to humankind and nearly all rely on the plain old telephone system, sometimes in countries where the system is indeed very plain and very old.
It is hard for us to forecast a time when, say 90 per cent of students will have high-end computers and broadband connections. That is because we have 30,000 students taking our courses outside Britain and those numbers are expanding, especially in the developing world.
The cons are the more frustrating because the pros are quite exciting. Above all, students like the online services we offer. The simplest and most obvious wins are on the administrative side because online gives the student a better service and saves the university money. The Open University has about 180,000 degree credit students this year: 1,300 doctoral, 40,000 Master's and 140,000 undergraduates. The 110,000 who are online are more than half the student body. But there are still 70,000 not online.
A year ago we introduced a facility whereby students could check their academic record; 20,000 do so every week. One student likes the reassurance so much he has looked at his record a hundred times this year. We started a similar service for our 8,000 associate faculty members to check the records of their students a few weeks ago and 1,000 of them have already used it.
In February, we put all our courses and qualifications information online and invited online course reservations. Sixty-five thousand reservations have been made since then and more than eight million pages have been accessed. Nearly 30 per cent of course reservations are now electronic.
We have also created a student guidance Web site that gets rave reviews from students and receives 70,000 page hits per week. Nearly 12,000 students have opted for electronic mailings of all administrative materials, which creates significant savings for us, and 60,000 students have validated e-mail addresses on file.
Finally, another success has been the online booking of the residential schools that are part of some OU courses.
It is clear that those students who are online get a better service and equally clear that we can provide most services at less cost. Flipping that over, it means that it costs us more to serve the students who are not online less well.
Turning to the academic side, until very recently the core function of the UK Open University library was to serve the faculty in the course development process. We provide all students with the basic books and texts required for each course and make arrangements with local libraries for ancillary materials.
Nevertheless, students were beginning to seek help with online resources. In 1996 they accessed no articles online. By 1999 they accessed 80,000. This year we turned the library outward towards the students in our OpenLibr@ry project. It was launched in July and 12,000 students have now registered. So far we are talking about 1,800 online resources for over 80 courses. This is proving very popular with students who appreciate being able to go straight to relevant materials instead of floundering around in all the nonsense on the Web.
The increase in online library use is staggering. In October 1999 we had 40,000 hits on our library Web pages. In October of this year that rose to 126,000. Library services is, of course, an area where the Open University of Hong Kong is a world leader.
Both OUHK and OUUK experience teaches us that the great strength of online technology, as far as students are concerned, is its use for communication and interaction about the course and for accessing documentary resources, rather than as a vehicle for transmitting course content. I say this in the context of university education but it does not necessarily apply to very short courses and training in basic skills.
The UK's Learndirect project, which has courses as short as 10 minutes, will deliver most of its learning material entirely on the Web - although it will have human tutors available. However, at university level the picture seems different. University courses tend to be longer and students are required to read. Our students tell us clearly that if we require them to read a book then they want to have it as bound pages, not on a computer screen.
We can draw several conclusions so far as we develop into an e-university. First, students appreciate supported active learning. Second, the Open University community responds with enthusiasm to e-services. Third, information and communication technology (ICT) is labour-intensive, so costs must be controlled. Fourth, we are sure that we are right to seek a balance of ICT and non-ICT approaches.
Finally, and very importantly, we must remember that online learning is a means to an end.
Our purpose is to be an Open University, defining ourselves by what we do for people, not an e-university defining ourselves in terms of the technologies we use.
But we do believe that these new means will help us achieve our goals better by reconfiguring the triangle in the direction of lower costs, higher quality and wider access.
Internet use at the UK Open University, , has turned it into a fully-fledged online institution:

This is an edited version of a speech, Inventing the Online University, given earlier this week for the opening of the OUHK's new Island Learning Centre.