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Blackboard, television or computer screen?

Carlos Cruz is president of the Universidad Virtual of Mexico’s Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM), one of Latin America’s most prestigious private universities. Long a leader in distance education via satellite television, ITESM is now moving aggressively into Internet-based instruction and is expanding its course offerings, which have traditionally focused on business, technology and management. ITESM’s Universidad Virtual now has offices in 10 Latin American countries.

IDBAmérica:Online education is expensive and requires costly equipment. Will it ever be relevant to the majority of Latin Americans who are poor or live in remote areas?

We think it will. Through satellite technology it is already possible to reach small rural communities that don’t even have a telephone. We recently set up a two-way satellite link in a community center in Santa Ana de Allende . The center has 10 computers that are shared by local residents, and the satellite connection costs only $6,000. New satellite technology is coming on the market that costs around $3,500 to do the same thing, and it keeps getting cheaper. Granted, that is still a lot of money, but if you spread the costs across a community it becomes reasonably affordable. So we don’t need to wait until the telephone network reaches remote areas.

At ITESM we view this as an incredible opportunity to close the development gap. Our new mandate is to move beyond the corporate sector and form partnerships with small communities, governments and educators who need continuing education.

IDBAmérica: ITESM is famous for television-based distance education. Is it really feasible to replace this with courses delivered exclusively on the Internet?

We started out 11 years ago using satellite television. Five years ago we began to incorporate the Internet. But today many of our postgraduate degrees are offered primarily online, with satellite television as a supplement. So today we have all three kinds of programs: television-based, exclusively online and a hybrid of the two. In some programs, like our master's degrees in electronic commerce, students can opt for any of the three approaches, depending on what suits them best.

Right now ITESM has more than 1,200 students who are studying exclusively online, and around 12,000 who use hybrid programs. But I think that within five years most of our courses will be offered entirely on the Internet, because by then we will have the necessary bandwidth to offer fully interactive features online, at a reasonable cost.

IDBAmérica: Most of your students have already completed undergraduate degrees and are working on professional degrees in business fields. Do you intend to offer undergraduate degrees in traditional academic fields such as history or mathematics?

We already do. The first doctorate we offered online was in education, and we think our approach can work well in all disciplines if it is done right. It is true that our fastest-growing programs, and the ones where we offer the fewest scholarships, are those related to business administration. Most of the students in those programs pay their own way. But in education and other disciplines we work with governments and unions to develop payment plans and scholarships that make it possible for their members to get degrees with us.

At present, a conventional master's degree from ITESM costs around $18,000, but we’re able to offer the same degree, online, for about half the cost. At first, when people graduated from our virtual university, they would ask us not to include that fact on their diploma. Now, they tell us to display it prominently, because they want their boss to know that they are making a sophisticated use of technology.

IDBAmérica: What are the main obstacles you’ve found when trying to enter other Latin American countries?

Our biggest problem is the different levels of technological development. Chile is very developed, for example, but Ecuador and Venezuela still have problems. Another challenging area involves laws and regulations concerning education. In Colombia you are required to produce a thesis to receive an MBA; in Mexico you aren’t. Requirements for undergraduate degrees vary considerably from country to country.

Because of these inconsistencies our approach has been to build good relationships with local government institutions and to form partnerships with local universities such as the Universidad Católica in Chile and the Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires. In a few countries we have obtained full certification to offer degrees. We are also about to open a regional office in Miami that will coordinate all our regional offices.

IDBAmérica: Are you worried about competition from U.S. companies like UNext or the University of Phoenix?

Yes, they are a formidable threat, if only because they have tremendous financial resources. We are planning to spend $17 million on our online efforts during the next three years, but this is nothing compared to what UNext can spend. Also, they have excellent people and I’m sure they will come out with an excellent product.

On the other hand, we have been selling high-quality distance education for a long time now. We know the needs of Latin American students and we already have offices in 10 of the region’s countries. So we think we’ll be able to hold our own.

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