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APEC dr_dot2009-2010

Distance Education in Asia Pacific

Article Index
Distance Education in Asia Pacific
The Need for Distance Education
ICT Usage in Asia Pacifica Distance Education
Current Priorities
A distinctly Asia Pacific Pedagogy

The openness and efficiency of DE and training has been enhanced by ICT developments since the late 1990s. E-Learning methods, which use the Internet to deliver educational content and enable interaction between teachers and students (Belawati 2003), have allowed ODL to become interactive and personalized while increasing its geographic and socio-demographic penetration. Many non-ODL institutions have adopted e-learning and become dual-mode systems, delivering their courses by DE methods as well as in the classroom. The rapid development of e-learning since 2000 has been greatly assisted by the emergence of open source software (OSS), which makes learning management systems (LMS) widely available and often without cost. With OSS, ODL systems can be created and maintained with relatively low investment.

DE institutions use a comprehensive range of DE technology models. Taylor (2000) describes these in terms of five evolutionary stages, each solving to one degree or another, the problems of geographic distance (place), other commitments (time), and preferred speed of learning (pace) that many students face. The models are: (i) the correspondence model; (ii) the multimedia model; (iii) the telelearning model; (iv) the flexible learning model; and (v) the intelligent flexible learning model.

This analysis is useful as a general introduction to the range of ICTs available in DE. But it is primarily based on an analysis of the western educational situation, and no technology should be assumed to be appropriate in a particular region without testing. In Australia, Europe, and North America, most ICTs are more universally accessible and more reliable than in Asia Pacific. Panda (2005), for example, has reported that online programs at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India have only been successful in reaching "the digitally rich who have access to the Internet or can manage to visit learning and teaching centres regularly". Furthermore, the high costs of such technologies for students and institutions alike do not appear to be diminishing and will henceforward require "major increases in expenditure" (Perraton 2007). In addition to accessibility and cost problems, there are capability, technical support, regulatory, and political barriers (Latchem et al. 2008). These may take years to resolve in the least developed countries.

For this reason, mega-universities such as the Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka: UT) have prudently maintained traditional media alongside online methods (see "The Open University of Indonesia [Universitas Terbuka]"). Young Asia Pacific universities such as the Virtual University of Pakistan (VU) also deliver their courses by broadcast television while maintaining traditional delivery systems (see "The Virtual University of Pakistan [VU]"). Print materials remain the dominant delivery technology in DE institutions, not only in Asia Pacific but worldwide, while high-end technologies such as satellite TV provide supplementary support for the educational process.

In the newly transitioned Asia Pacific economies, ICT can play a vital role in the provision of vocational education.

The Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka)

Indonesia has used DE methods since 1955 to broaden access to education for 215 million Indonesians spread across 15,000 islands. A correspondence diploma program to upgrade teacher skills was created and then integrated with other teacher training programs into the curriculum of the Indonesia Open University (Universitas Terbuka: UT) from its launch in 1984.

UT is the only university in Indonesia using DE modes. Its head office in Jakarta formulates institutional policies for the development and production of course materials, test/examination items, and examinations data processing, and 37 regional offices are responsible for daily operations, student registration, face-to-face tutorials, administrative counselling, and examinations. All units are connected through the University’s wide area network (WAN), which uses a public Internet connection soon to be connected with all State universities using the Ministry of National Education's Intranet system called INHERENT.

The University offers approximately 1,000 courses through 31 study programs in four faculties - Economics, Social and Political Sciences, Mathematics and Natural Science, and Teacher Training and Educational Sciences - and three graduate programs. All course content is delivered through printed learning modules, and 25 percent of course materials are multimedia packages (audio/video-tapes, radio and TV broadcasts, and computer- and Web-based materials). Learning support is provided via face-to-face, online, and broadcast modes. Radio tutorials are broadcast by the government-owned National Radio Station Network. Online courses use a learning management system based on Moodle. All online support services can be accessed by students through the UT-Online portal, which contains online tutorials and exercises, Web-based learning materials, streamed TV programs, a digital library with journals and transcripts, academic counselling, e-book store, and online registration and examination facilities. However, due to students’ limited Internet access, only about 5 percent of them are currently taking advantage of these online services. Ongoing surveys show that students still regard print as the most accessible, affordable, and preferred medium.

The Universitas Terbuka website is at

Hutchinson (2005) provides a detailed evaluation of the first trial of e-learning in Cambodia, conducted at the International Institute of Cambodia University of Technology. The study indicates that e-learning can increase students' confidence in online training. The students said they gained new knowledge and skills from learning in the Khmer script, and appreciated being able to obtain educational services without having to travel to the University in Phnom Penh. The courses also increased their eligibility for jobs: 56 percent of them gained a new job or were promoted in their current organization after completing the online course. In general, the e-learning trial was considered a successful pilot validating the potential of e-learning in Cambodia and the enthusiasm of students for it. But the trial was not without problems. Factors receiving the lowest ratings in Hutchinson's study related to the lack of institutional support for the online process, and the continuing negative perception of DE on the part of politicians and the general public. The results suggest that this perception derives from the association of "good education" with the student's ability to ask a question and the teacher's ability to give an immediate answer, and with the ability to see the participants' expressions and gestures.

Lack of infrastructure, course materials, and technical support have also been noted in other evaluative studies of online education in Asia Pacific (Baggaley and Belawati 2007; Latchem et al. 2008). However, negative conclusions of this type do not seem to be deterring Asia Pacific educators from attempting to implement online DE. The danger is that rushing to implement online DE methods before addressing issues of inaccessibility and ineffectiveness may damage the credibility of DE. Prior to their adoption in new geographic areas and cultures, new online media needs to be carefully evaluated. Some of the necessary measures are rapid adoption of appropriate technologies (e.g. high-compression audio-conferencing) and intensive training and awareness programs informing teachers and the public about the new technologies and practices that make e-learning an increasingly reliable and valid option.

A promising set of conclusions is emerging from the work of the PANdora network, a major collaboration among 13 Asian nations in the development of policy and practice for ICT usage in DE and training contexts funded by IDRC (see Appendix 5.1A). Doung et al. (2008) have reported a study of DE attitudes and technologies in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, with a sample size of 130 teachers, students, and government workers, and with a particular emphasis on gender issues. Their results indicate differences in the use of ICTs between the males (71 percent) and females (29 percent) in the sample. For the men and women

The Virtual University of Pakistan (VU)

Pakistan has a population of 160 million, almost half of which is below the age of 30. In 1999, the established universities stated that they could not cope with the increasing student numbers and lack of qualified faculty. In 2000, the establishment of a ‘virtual’ university became part of the action plan drawn up by the government to fulfil the nation’s ICT needs. The plan for a Virtual University of Pakistan (VU) was approved and funded in 2001, and the first VU students were admitted in 2002 into a four-year BS program in Computer Science/Information Technology.

It was recognized from the outset that it would take many years for broadband Internet to become available nationwide, and it was decided that courses would be delivered via four free-to-air satellite TV channels, with mentoring, tutoring, and teacher-student interaction occurring on the Internet. VU engages world-class resource persons to prepare and deliver lectures from the University's studios. Animation and slides are added by the VU graphics department, and lecture notes and handouts are provided in print form and through VU's online learning management system.

The servers used for VU's website, email system, and learning management system are state-of-the-art machines with redundant power supplies and RAID hard discs. They are located on a 155 Mbps fibre trunk linking to Pakistan’s main router on the national backbone. VU's TV channels use Pakistan’s first communications satellite (PAKSAT-I). The strategic placement of the servers on the national backbone and the use of the national satellite ensure that any breakdown in international links does not affect university operations.

Although 2002-2007 student enrolment statistics showed a wary attitude to the University on the part of the general public, rapidly increasing student numbers since 2005 have indicated greater acceptance of its ICT-based DE methods. In just six years, VU has been able to establish its credentials as an institution providing quality higher education using a judicious combination of broadcast television with high production-value lectures, Internet support, and student assessment conducted in conventional academic environments.

The VU website is at

alike, many DE technologies (e.g. online discussions and text-chats/instant messaging, Internet telephone, and audio/videoconferencing) are inaccessible. But in the case of the more familiar technologies such as texting via cellphones, the women report more frequent usage than the men. The women’s attitudes to ICT and DE are also more positive than those of the men, who are more inclined to doubt that DE can ever equal face-to-face education and that politicians and the public will ever accept it. One may speculate that women are more supportive of DE technologies owing to their more positive attitude to study and self-improvement, which in turn may derive from traditional social roles making education more unattainable for women (Chang 2006; Loh-Ludher 2007).

Another PANdora project has investigated gender issues in educational ICT usage in Bhutan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (Samaranayake et al. 2008). The study compared male and female students' attitudes to computers in work and study settings, as well as their work habits and learning styles. Numerous differences are reported between responses given in the three countries and between response of the men and women in each country. So many gender-country interaction effects are observed (e.g. men and women in Sri Lanka showing different gender biases than those observed in Bhutan) that further analysis is needed to confirm these gender-based trends. In general, the study supports the conclusions reported by Champagne and Walter (2000) about the great diversity and differences among Asian learners as a whole, and the lack of clear evidence of a uniquely "Asian" learning style (see "A Distinctly Asia Pacific Pedagogy?").

In general, the PANdora network's research findings confirm the conclusions reported by Hutchinson (2005) and others, and indicate a major need for organizational upgrading and training to advance DE in the region. Other countries in which similar results have been found include India, Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand. To deal with the need for training and information programs about DE in the region, the PANdora project ( has released an extensive series of DE publications and guidelines.


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