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Online Degrees Come of Age in Asia

On the island of Fuvahmulak in the Maldives, a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean, Abdulla Rasheed Ahmed’s options for acquiring a doctoral degree were somewhat limited.

Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

The nearest university is an hour’s flight from his home. And in any case, it doesn’t offer a doctorate in education, the program Mr. Abdulla, a school principal, wanted to pursue.

Having already taken time off to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Malaysia, Mr. Abdulla was reluctant to take more time away from his job or family, so he enrolled in Asia e University, an institution in Kuala Lumpur that offers online courses.

“Studying online is very suitable for working people,” Mr. Abdulla said in a telephone interview. “You can study at anytime, anywhere, regardless of your location.”

Some universities have long specialized in such distance education, but now more homegrown Asian institutions are seeking to tap the demand for higher education in underserved areas. And as Internet connectivity spreads, more students like Mr. Abdulla are realizing that their education options are no longer bound by geographical constraints — or even by the older model of distance learning, in which students received bundles of course materials in the mail.

“It has really taken the ‘distance’ out of distance education,” said Wong Tat Meng, president of the Asian Association of Open Universities, who is vice chancellor of Wawasan Open University in Malaysia.

Universities around the world have jumped on the e-learning bandwagon to varying degrees, from posting course materials online to making participation in online discussion forums an assessable course component.

Yet some education experts say such programs are not a panacea in removing barriers to a university education. Poor Internet service in many parts of Asia, particularly rural areas, remains a problem, leaving many students unreachable. In addition, online universities, they say, face many challenges, from competing with the more established campus-based universities to building a credible reputation in an environment saturated with schools of questionable qualifications.

Open universities, or institutions that specialize in distance education, have long been part of Asia’s higher education landscape, but the number has grown rapidly in recent years, especially in China and India, according to Mr. Wong.

He said the Internet had led to a “quantum leap” for distance education providers, particularly in places with good broadband infrastructure like South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

South Korea, Mr. Wong said, was the most advanced Asian country in terms of e-learning, with a number of universities delivering courses entirely online.

He said China, which is home to 68 online colleges, is rapidly becoming a major player.

Mr. Wong believes that demand for higher education in South Korea and China, coupled with the fact that these countries have high-speed broadband in major cities, was driving the increase in online providers.

“Many working adults simply do not have the time to attend face-to-face lectures delivered in conventional universities,” he said. “Also, governments simply cannot build sufficient brick-and-mortar universities fast enough to meet the huge demand for knowledge workers needed to drive the knowledge economy.”

It is this demand for education that Asia e University is seeking to meet.

The university was established in 2008 under the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, a grouping of 31 countries, with the aim of giving more students the opportunity to complete higher education.

The Malaysian government finances the university’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, while public and private partners finance the operations in the various countries where its courses are offered. Its motto is “by Asians for Asians.”

“Our focus is to provide access,” said Ansary Ahmed, the university’s president and chief executive. “There are still many countries in Asia where the participation rates of the population going to university is still low.”

Some students, like some of those in India and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, already study entirely online, but most of the university’s 5,000 students are enrolled in blend of online learning and face-to-face sessions at learning centers in the students’ home countries.

The university expects the online-only path to become increasingly popular, but with students found in places as diverse as Indonesia, Cambodia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ansary said the extent to which students completed their studies online was often determined by broadband access and their proficiency in English.

“Wherever we have a language problem, there’s less online and more blended,” he said.

The university has developed its own courses but is increasingly working with universities around the world. It recently began offering a joint M.B.A. program with the International Business School of Scandinavia in Denmark.

One advantage of online courses, Mr. Ansary said, is that there are no restrictions on the number of students who can enroll.

One of the challenges facing universities that provide online courses is proving that their courses are credible.

While institutions like Asia e University and Wawasan Open University are approved by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, Mr. Ansary said it could be more difficult to convince people of the quality of online education in countries that lacked rigorous quality assurance mechanisms.

G. Dhanarajan, an education consultant with the Asian Development Bank and honorary director of the Institute for Research and Innovation at Wawasan Open University, said acceptance of online learning was greater for professional development courses, like information technology or accounting, than for degree qualifications.

Mr. Dhanarajan, a former chief executive of the Open University of Hong Kong, said there was still a preference for traditional “chalk and talk” arrangements because of skepticism about the quality of online courses.

He said governments were trying to find better ways to assess online programs but the proliferation of “diploma mills” in the past decade had eroded confidence in online institutions.

“These have become part and parcel of the problem regarding the acceptance, recognition and respect for online learning,” he said.

Mr. Dhanarajan said Asia was a “qualifications-mad continent,” making students vulnerable to bogus courses.

“There are thousands of them on the Web, so how does a government agency keep track of all of these?” he said. “They can’t. All you can do is continue to try to educate your population. At some point there will be a level of sophistication that people will be able to discriminate for themselves.”

In the meantime, building a reputation is likely to remain challenging for online universities. And as they seek to expand their reach across Asia, they must face the reality that some countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Bhutan and Laos still lack extensive broadband services.

“I think institutions have big dreams, but we also need to ground those dreams on the kinds of infrastructure that’s available,” Mr. Dhanarajan said.

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