Technology

Offsite Learning: On Target?

Distance learning continues to pick up advocates -- including corporate executives.
Lotte ChowSeptember 1, 2002

Victor Ngo works long hours and spends more than half of the year on the road. Yet competitive pressures and ever-expanding job responsibilities mean the Singapore-based audit manager for U.S. bank Citigroup must constantly upgrade his business acumen. Even a grueling international travel schedule fails to provide a safe haven from further study. So last year, realizing he could no longer delay the inevitable, Ngo enrolled in an MBA program.

But not for Ngo a weekly round of lectures and lessons, crammed into the end of a tiring workday.

Instead, the banker chose distance learning, through Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, as his mode of study. “With my work schedule, I couldn’t have done it any other way,” he says. An on-campus degree would require his attendance at class two or three times a week, a time commitment he simply could not afford. Doing so once every few weeks, as his work schedule permits, is a lot more manageable. Self-paced study allows Ngo to focus on his work when he needs to, and to study when he is free to concentrate.

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Not surprisingly, he is sold on the concept. “A traditional on-campus program just doesn’t offer the kind of convenience and flexibility that distance learning does,” he says.

A growing band of Ngo’s time-constrained, knowledge-hungry peers agree. Heavy-duty work commitments are forcing executives — especially those in professions such as finance, law, management and IT, where self-improvement is almost mandatory these days — to study at their own pace, in their own place and on their own time.

Once considered the backwater of academic endeavor, distance learning is booming. Universities and education centers in the region report a 20 to 30 percent annual increase in their post-graduate distance learning enrolment in the last two years. One of them, The Open University of Hong Kong, the first school in the SAR to offer distance learning, saw its enrollment grow more than six times to 26,000 in the last decade.

Global Learning

Ten years ago, only a handful of universities in Asia — mainly those serving students spread across the vast distances of Australia — offered distance learning. Most institutions in Asia were easily accessible to the public, so there was little need for people to learn from afar.

The rise of a global education network has changed all that. Eyeing an entrepreneurial opportunity, in the 1990s many Western universities set up distance programs to address overseas demand for course places that could not be met at home. To do this, they often forged alliances with schools from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi, all designed to offer their prestigious programs — culturally adjusted to suit the regional business environment — both online and in classrooms. Before long, distance learning became not just mainstream, but downright desirable.

Increasingly, these partnerships are multilateral. In March last year, Philippines-based System Technology Institute (STI) started an online education unit, partnering with 11 universities in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Australia, to cater to busy working executives. This network means a student sitting in the Philippines can undertake an MBA degree from the University of Surrey in the U.K., complete with tutorial support and student interaction from STI. The Informatics Group’s Center for Opening Learning in Singapore and the NIIT Online Learning Center in India offer similar setups.

Some schools go a step further. In June, Deakin University, The Open University of Hong Kong, The Open University of the UK and Canada’s Athabasca University formed an alliance that allows students to participate in virtual study groups and take courses offered at each other’s colleges — and receive full credit for them.

“The initiatives will give distance education students wider study options, and access to courses and resources that are not available in their own schools,” says Lindsay MacKay, a professor at Deakin University. “They will give students the opportunity to interact and network with their peers from overseas, a feature that is highly prized among our post-graduate students, many of whom are executives of multinational companies,” he says. What’s more, the alliance members are working to develop international MBA programs to meet the needs of global managers, MacKay adds.

New Groove

Such initiatives have revolutionized distance learning. In the past, the typical distance learner lived in a remote location, received his course materials by post and mailed his assignments to the school. He was pretty much on his own. Today, a distance learner more likely lives in the city and downloads her course materials from the Internet. She enjoys a world of options. At the click of a mouse, she can interact with professors and classmates via emails, messaging, chat-rooms, threaded discussions, bulletin boards, file sharing and videoconferencing — and gain access to E-libraries and E-databases.

If she feels lonely and wants companionship, she can attend lectures at a local education center and afterward meet up with classmates to discuss assignments and group projects. “It’s a blended, mixed delivery,” says Terry Hilsberg, CEO of Hong Kong-based NextEd, a supplier of computer systems for E-learning. “In today’s breed of distance education, you get the technology to study by yourself if you wish, or you get the face-to-face element if you want human interaction. Distance learning is multifaceted and offers people choices,” he says.

Citigroup’s Ngo, for one, finds the multidimensional delivery of distance learning appealing. Aside from learning online and from tutors in Singapore, the Deakin MBA student may attend lectures on campus in Australia if his work schedule allows and if the topics interest him. In November, Ngo will do just that, heading Down Under for a series of lectures on strategic management and change management. “Distance education is a combination of offerings: E-learning, face-to-face learning and residential learning. And you get to choose to do them at your convenience,” he observes.

Advocates agree that such variety is not just handy, but crucial to effective learning. Virginia So, an MBA distance learner at The Open University of Hong Kong, admits that some “soft” topics, such as interpersonal skills and communications, are better suited to a classroom filled with people. The finance manager at Hong Kong-based Kingstar Trading International, which deals in French cosmetics, 34-year-old So works 10- to 12-hour days and seldom makes it to class. When she does — about once a month — she makes sure she interacts with professors and fellow classmates. “E-learning is useful and convenient, but it can be quite lonely and robotic. Face-to-face learning gives it a human touch; it complements the “E” part,” So says.

Easy as ABC

Importantly, online learning does not require a student to be a technology geek. Even a rudimentary knowledge of computers is sufficient. Most schools provide students with a guidebook or a toolkit to help them navigate the intricacies of online communication and downloading materials from the Internet. If a student still has questions, he can attend a face-to-face introductory information session at an education center nearby.

While some schools ask their E-students to install sophisticated software to facilitate learning by video or audio means, most, like The Open University of Hong Kong, require only that they have access to a personal computer with Internet connection and a CD-ROM drive. “I am not IT savvy, but I can easily understand and follow the instructions in the guidebook,” So says. She reckons that schools pay attention to making E-learning as straightforward as possible simply because they know most students will be too busy to spend time worrying about information technology issues.

To use the E-library for her course, for example, So simply logs into her school’s Web site and clicks on an icon. She then goes to “catalog” and begins to search for her desired text by subject or title. Depending on the amount of material she needs, she can then either download from the Web, collect the book in person, or arrange to have it sent to her. “Using the E-library is a lot like using a real library, except you need a user name and password to gain entry to the E-library,” she says.

Classy Discussions

Distance learning may be flexible and multifaceted, but does it represent quality learning?

Ngo, who has grown accustomed to studying in hotel rooms between meetings and in airport lounges between flights, is betting that it does. “It wouldn’t be worth the time and effort if it isn’t,” he says. He feels that because course materials are delivered online, they are newsier and more up-to-date than traditional textbooks and printed documents. What’s more, he finds the online discussions instantaneous, engaging and well-rounded. “I am surprised at how fast I get a response after I send an inquiry in the online system,” Ngo says, noting that online discussions allow students from the same class but different backgrounds to look at each other’s query and give feedback. “That way, you learn from each other and get a diverse opinion on a subject,” he says.

The fact that students in his class are drawn from a wide range of industries and countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia provides Ngo with an opportunity to learn how people from different cultures operate in certain business situations. Another bonus of online interaction? “When thoughts are written down rather than verbalized, people pay more attention to getting them right. The result is precision and clarity of opinions,” he observes.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Academics stress that because distance learning students must pass the same assessment criteria and sit for the same exams as their on-campus peers, they enjoy the same recognition from their institution. “Their diplomas are the same. We don’t put down ‘via distance learning’,” says Deakin University’s MacKay.

But does a distance-earned degree carry the same weight with employers as an on-campus one? Ngo feels that at the postgraduate level, in particular, the level of acceptance is high. “When you are in middle to senior management, employers care more about knowledge, skills and performance than the mode of attaining a degree,” Ngo says. “At the end of the day, it’s the result, not the method, of learning that matters to them.”

Kingstar’s So agrees. So, who earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting via distance learning, recalls that at job interviews, employers cared more about her qualifications, experience, and ability than how she got her degree. In fact, some prospective employers were even more impressed when they found she earned her degree via distance learning while holding down a full-time job. “They admired the fact I had the drive, determination and discipline to complete my degree,” So says. Encouraged by such attitudes, and determined to take the next step up the corporate ladder, So has embarked on a distance-MBA to improve her job prospects.

Lotte Chow is a freelance writer based in Sydney.

Studying the Options

Dozens of universities and education centers offer distance learning. Here are tips for choosing the one that’s right for you:

Reputation. The school’s standard and reputation is key. “It must have a high standard of academic excellence and reputation in distance learning,” says Victor Ngo, an audit manager who shopped around, taking a few courses via distance learning before settling on the best option for his MBA.

Program. Carefully consider the academic program you wish to study. Some schools are better known (and usually for good reason) for some programs than others. “Look for the one that interests you and check out its ranking,” recommends Terry Hilsberg, CEO of NextEd, a supplier of E-learning computer systems based in Sydney.

Resources. The greater the school’s resources, such as tutorial support, E-library and E-database, the better. If you want to take courses and receive credits from different universities concurrently, look for one that has alliances, says Deakin University professor Lindsay MacKay in Victoria, Australia.

Special needs. If you have a specific need, look for a school that meets it. Virginia So knows she may not be able to finish her MBA in two years due to work commitments, so she enrolled in The Open University of Hong Kong, which doesn’t impose a time limit on how long students may take to complete their degrees. She also knows she wants to work in China one day; Open University is known for its China content, and its faculty’s China knowledge and connections are widely acknowledged. Ngo, meanwhile, prefers a Western university because its distance learning students are more likely to be multinational, just like Citigroup, the company he works for.

Students who are keen to make a career change after finishing their advanced studies may look for a university that has an active job placements service. Others want to work overseas, so they choose a school whose credits are recognized abroad. —LC

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