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. 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.