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Webs and flows

Published on Friday, 01 Mar 2013
Instructors, led by Yoav Shoham (left) and Matthew Jackson of Stanford University, join students from other parts of the world at coursera.org in a community video conference.
Photo: Coursera and iStockphoto

Online teaching resources are driving exciting new trends in the education sector globally – and Hong Kong’s top universities are catching up

While the internet and web-based tools have added many new dimensions to higher-education learning, traditional teaching methods are not about to be replaced by the virtual world, say teaching professionals.

“We do not see any trends to indicate that our main credit-bearing courses will become fully web-based,” says Jacky Pow, associate professor and co-ordinator of the full-time Postgraduate Diploma in Education and Diploma in Education programmes at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).

Teaching professionals remain the gatekeepers of education programmes at HKBU, he says. Attending lectures and interacting with professors and fellow students is part of the learning process, and cannot be easily duplicated in an online format.

He does say, though, that the university encourages students to use web tools for research and to access library materials, and that students use Google Docs and Wikispaces for group work and projects.

“Web tools can certainly enhance the learning experience and help teachers provide students with up-to-date information,” he says. “A good example is the way Hong Kong teachers use web-based tools and information to teach liberal studies.”

The rapid adoption of interactive technologies by educators, meanwhile, is enabling the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK) to enhance and expand its programmes.

“Our university is moving in the direction of ‘blended learning’, which involves mixing different learning modes such as face-to-face learning, distance learning and e-learning,” says Chung Siu-leung, director of OUHK’s Centre for eLearning.

He adds that the use of e-learning and the availability on online coursework has led to a richer and more interactive learning experience. “I believe different modes complement one another and I don’t see one mode replacing the other,” he says.

Chung believes that new advances in hardware and software applications are making mobile devices and smartphones indispensable tools for e-learning. “Technology and e-learning has made it more convenient for students to choose where and when they study,” he says.

OUHK uses Apple’s iTunes U to allow the general public to view or download educational resources online, an initiative already in full flow at various top US and UK universities such as Yale and Oxford. Additionally, through its e-learning platform, overseas students have been able to enrol on OUHK programmes since 2007.

Technology is also playing an increasingly integral part in children’s education. In response, the Hong Kong Education Bureau (EDB) has launched a programme designed to expand information literacy and strengthen e-learning effectiveness. It says its projects have been structured to help students visualise difficult academic concepts, and it is also exploring social networking and other blogging features to enhance interaction among students and teachers.

Technology is also being utilised to help teachers research learning resources more effectively. For example, teachers are encouraged to share experiences on how students can build up their own learning portfolio and conduct self-assessments of their own.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), meanwhile, are in the process of launching free online programmes available to the public, following in the footsteps of universities such as Stanford and Princeton. The courses are being offered through Coursera, an educational technology firm co-founded by Stanford associate professor Andrew Ng, who spent part of his childhood in Hong Kong.

Launched in 2008, Coursera offers about 200 programmes spanning a number of areas, including the arts, business, history, computer science, the humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences and mathematics. Each programme takes about 10 weeks to complete, with graduates being awarded a certificate. Coursera claims it has registered almost 2.7 million users, and is seeing 1.45 million course enrolments per month.

Professor Tony Chan, president of HKUST, says the university plans to launch three online programmes early this year. “These online programmes will add new perspectives in the areas of humanities, life science, science and technology, and more,” Chan says.

The delivery process consists primarily of lecture videos together with learning activities. There will also be short, standalone homework assignments that are independent of the lectures. No prior specialised background knowledge is required.

At the same time, CUHK is planning to use Coursera to launch five free online programmes.  Professor Joseph Sung, vice-chancellor and president of CUHK, says the university strives to explore innovative ways to enhance the learning experience. “The courses aim to bridge the gap between East and West by adding new perspectives in the areas of Chinese arts and culture,” he says.

Technology is also prompting changes in the MBA environment. The Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) plans to put some of its Postgraduate Certificate in Management modules online. “This option offers students a flexible and rigorous learning experience that complements the flexible study options the school already offers,” says Robert Widing, dean of MGSM.

“Our students are typically in their late 20s and early 30s, are extremely tech-savvy, and require flexibility, convenience and on-demand service from their MBA provider,” he adds. “We are providing them with a quality online interactive learning experience, which suits their lifestyle, aids their MBA experience and moves with their career.”

The online classes will be highly interactive and will require students to participate in discussion forums, wikis and blogs. “However, lecturers will still actively engage with the group and participate in discussions to raise issues and share insights,” Widing says. 

The university of cyberspace

With just a few clicks, educators and students have access to a variety of online tools to source, store, present and organise resources, share ideas, and work collaboratively.

Jacky Pow from HKBU says web-based tools such as Google Docs and Wikispaces help both students and educators. “Educators can post assignments and students can use online tools to do research and complement their studies,” he says.

For higher education, there are online tools such as YouTube EDU, which has a special section devoted to education-related videos, and Academic Earth, which features video courses and lectures from major universities.

Free e-books covering everything from classics to text books are available at the Project Gutenberg website, while at the Apple Learning Exchange, educators can create and share lessons and activities. Google for Educators, another useful website, has compiled a huge amount of information and resources for teachers and students.


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