Where Are the Students? Out in Cyberspace

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Where Are the Students? Out in Cyberspace

Of the 900 freshmen entering Korea Digital University, only 150 showed up at the Dong-a Ilbo building in downtown Seoul last Saturday for the convocation marking the beginning of their college careers. Where were the rest of their classmates on this momentous occasion? Most likely at their workplace or home, watching the ceremony live on computer screens.

Students at Korea Digital University, one of the nine government-accredited cyber-universities that open their doors this month, will not be required to be physically present in classes to earn credits toward a bachelor's degree. In fact, those admitted to one of the seven universities offering four-year courses, or to the two universities granting an associate's degree upon completing a two-year program, may never meet one another except, perhaps, at the commencement ceremony. But then again, even attendance at the commencement ceremony may be optional.

At cyber-universities, all lectures are delivered via the Internet, and exams are taken on the Web, dissolving barriers of time and space. "You can choose to listen to lectures by streaming video or view them in text-only format, depending on your Internet connection," said Kim In-soon, a Seoul Digital University official.

Students are not the only ones missing from the lecture hall. The university's five full-time professors either come into the university studio or use a PC camera in their own offices to record their lectures.

"This does not mean that there is no interaction between the professor and the students and among the students themselves," Ms. Kim affirmed. Professors have scheduled times for online conferencing to facilitate discussions, and students can engage in online chatting while "attending" a lecture.

While the students have no classroom to come to, lecture attendance is mandatory. "We will check attendance, that is, whether a student has clicked on and viewed the lecture," said Ms. Kim. However, there are ways to cheat on this, and the school still needs to find a way to verify that those sitting for an exam or quiz are in fact who they say they are. "We are still working on this. But, I think that no matter what we come up with, one will find a way to cheat if he or she really wants to," she said.

At Seoul Digital University, 75 percent of its 800 students are working. Their average age is 31. "Cyber university is a perfect way of getting life-long education," said Ms. Kim. The higher institutions of learning in cyberspace also offer programs that are uniquely suited to the Internet medium, such as digital media design, Internet contents and multimedia.

The number of applicants attests to the interest in these programs. Competition for a spot in the university's multimedia department, for example, was stiff, with 4.7 applications for every place, compared to the average rate of of 2.7 across the four departments.

Cyber-university is the perfect marriage of Korea's extensive network of high-speed Internet and its people's zealous pursuit of learning. Working 12-hour shifts at a Cheil Jedang plant in Pusan overseeing machinery, Kim Moon-jong, 33, found it impossible to continue his education. "I went to vocational high school so I could get a job right out of school. After a few years on the job, I wanted to get further education but it was impossible because I work at night in some weeks," said Mr. Kim.

When he heard about cyber universities at the end of last year, he did not hesitate to apply. "It was just the opportunity I had been hoping for," he said. Mr. Kim, who signed up to take policy studies at Seoul Cyber University, knows he has a rough four years ahead of him but he is determined to plow through it. "If you set your mind to it, anything is possible. I hope to set an example for my younger colleagues that it can be done," he said.

For his college degree, Mr. Kim expects to pay about 8 million won ($6,300) over the next four years in registration and tuition, a sum which is between half and two-thirds cheaper than costs at offline universities.

"Korea is probably the first country in the world where the government took the initiative in establishing cyber universities," said Jang Woo-sam, deputy director of Life Long Education Policy Division at the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development.

Web-based distance learning is expected to fill the huge gap in the retraining of workers in Korea. "People needed motivation to get retrained and we decided to give it in the form of bachelor's degrees," explained Mr. Jang. Students at cyber universities are awarded bachelor's degrees, just like their offline colleagues, upon earning 140 credits.

Cyber-universities also open doors to higher education to a greater number of people, taking in students who may not be able to attend regular universities. It has been 16 years since Kim Yon-sook, 36, last set foot in school. Now a beautician with her own shop in Geumho-dong, Seoul, and a divorced mother of two young children, she is about to take up a place studying economics and trade at Seoul Cyber University. She is so excited about studying again that she said she feels butterflies in her stomach.

One may wonder what a beautician would do with a degree in economics and trade, but she has bigger things on her mind. "I could branch out into e-commerce or something to do with the Internet. Perhaps I will be able to find something where I can make a lot of money," she said. How is she planning to find the time to study? "I will just have to get up at four in the morning to devote three hours to studies," she said matter-of-factly.

For the non-traditional students at these online universities, college life may not prove to be what it is cracked up to be. Chung Sang-woo, 31, coordinator at the Taegu chapter of an organ-donor program, is well aware of the difference between the online students and their offline counterparts. For one thing, his fellow students are much older, most of them in their mid-30s, and there will be no on-campus activities and social events.

"It will be difficult but I hope to be able to offer better help to the kidney patients awaiting organ transplants after formally studying social welfare," said Mr. Chang, who flew to Seoul to attend the convocation ceremony and to meet his classmates last Saturday. "Only 25 of us are meeting tonight, although there are 100 students in the department," he said, adding that it is regrettable that only a few of his fellow students will ever get to know each other.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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