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The university in my bedroom

It is 9:30 p.m. in Lima, Peru, and Carolina Barriga’s four young children are finally asleep. The television is off, the phone has stopped ringing, and the house is reasonably neat. Seizing the moment, she decides to do a little work on her MBA degree.

Barriga logs on to the Internet from her home PC and sees that her marketing professor has sent a detailed reply to a question she submitted about his lecture on the previous day. As an attachment, the professor’s e-mail includes a digital video clip from a related lecture. Barriga plays the clip on her PC, prints a chapter from an online textbook she has been asked to summarize for the rest of the class, and sends an e-mail update to a group of fellow students with whom she is preparing a mock business plan. Shortly before midnight, she finally logs off and goes to bed.

Barriga’s professor lives in Monterrey, Mexico. Her classmates are scattered across half a dozen Latin American countries. And her classroom exists only in cyberspace. She is one of 80,000 students throughout Mexico and Latin America who have taken "virtual" courses offered by the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM). Most of these courses use a combination of televised lectures (delivered live via satellite) and Internet-based resources. According to Carlos Cruz, president of ITESM’s Universidad Virtual, by 2005 the bulk of the school's virtual classes will use the Internet alone (See link at right to read an interview with Cruz).

Virtual higher education, still dismissed as a futuristic pipe dream in some circles, is a reality in Latin America.

Distant but personal. When Barriga decided to pursue an MBA degree after years of working as an industrial engineer in the telecommunications sector, her principal concern was quality. She read an annual survey of Latin American MBA programs published by AmericaEconomía magazine and noted that ITESM was ranked number one–partly because it had the highest ratio of students who are offered jobs after graduation. She briefly considered moving her family to Monterrey for two years, but decided that would be too disruptive. When a colleague told her that ITESM had recently begun offering degrees in Peru via distance education she was initially skeptical, but a detailed presentation at ITESM’s Lima offices quickly changed her mind.

"I was attracted to the independence and the flexibility that the virtual degree offered," she recalled. "I liked the idea of being able to read materials and do assignments whenever I want." Barriga had left her job in telecommunications partly to spend more time with her family, to get more involved in her political party’s campaign efforts, and to help a relative who is starting a plastics factory. "With the virtual program, I’ve been able to keep doing all these things while taking two courses per academic term," she said.

But can the quality of a virtual degree possibly compete with one offered in a traditional classroom setting? Barriga conducted a careful review of the curriculum at Peru’s two highest-ranked MBA programs and concluded that ITESM was superior. And in practice, she has found the virtual classes frequently exceed her expectations in terms of the individual attention she receives from instructors and the overall quality of lectures and related materials.

The human touch. Once a week, Barriga goes to ITESM’s Lima offices to hear a two-hour televised lecture broadcast live from Monterrey. During the lecture she and some three hundred students in half a dozen countries send questions via e-mail that are printed and read by the professor on a first come, first served basis. "Sometimes the questions I send don’t get answered during the lecture," Barriga said. "But in that case I always get a thorough reply via e-mail within a day, and frankly that’s probably easier than trying to schedule time with a professor in a normal university setting." Each class, she explained, has a principal and two associate professors, one assistant professor and two technical support specialists.

When she first signed up for ITESM classes in April 2000, Barriga said she felt somewhat detached from her virtual professors. Within a few weeks, however, she established a level of personal connection with them that she thinks is rare in many large universities. "When my professors send me an e-mail it usually begins with a personal remark or a question about the latest political developments in Peru," she said. She also claims that the diverse and multinational nature of the student body–and of virtual class discussions that take place via Internet "chat" rooms–make her learning experience richer than it would have been in a Lima classroom.

ITESM’s Universidad Virtual is not cheap. Barriga’s MBA will cost around $18,000 in tuition fees by the time she completes it. But according to Barriga, that price is either the same or lower than what she would have paid at the two highest-ranked Peruvian institutions offering MBAs.

Harvard vs. Local U. Does Barriga’s experience signal a revolution in higher education? Will students who previously had very limited and often mediocre choices for higher education soon be able to get degrees from the world’s leading institutions, without ever leaving their hometowns?

That is the vision being promoted by a growing number of educators–and for-profit companies. Indeed, virtual education is seen as a tantalizing business opportunity–a way for universities to leverage their intellectual capital by reaching a much larger student body. In the United States, where the phenomenon is most advanced, three-fourths of all universities are believed to be offering online courses of some kind. According to the International Data Research Corp., the number of students taking online courses from four-year colleges in the United States will have tripled between 1998 and 2002, to an estimated 2.2 million students. These figures have attracted entrepreneurs who have formed companies with the explicit purpose of licensing and repackaging college courses in a manner that takes advantage of the Internet.

Perhaps the best known of these ventures is UNext, a private company based in Deerfield, Illinois, with some 400 employees that has already spent an estimated $100 million preparing a series of Web-based business courses. UNext is backed by Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate in economics who coined the term "human capital," and an all-star crew of educators and venture capitalists. Like Mexico’s ITESM, UNext is aggressively expanding outside of the United States and has recently opened offices in Brazil. According to John Buerkle, president of UNext International, the company believes most of its future growth will occur in developing countries. (See link at right to read an interview with Buerkle about UNext’s strategy in Latin America).

Not for everyone. And yet Barriga is by no means a typical student. She already has a good education, substantial work experience, considerable financial resources, and–most importantly–the discipline and motivation to complete demanding assignments without supervision. According to Claudio de Moura Castro, until recently a senior education advisor for the IDB, this makes her an ideal candidate for virtual higher education. But it also shows why ITESM, UNext and similar ventures do not threaten traditional universities for the time being. (See link at right for an interview with Castro and the promises and limitations of virtual universities).

In fact, most of the companies and institutions that are touting virtual education are not really attempting to compete with traditional universities at all. Instead, they are targeting the specialized niche of continuing business education: short, problem-focused courses that corporate managers need to stay current with technological and management trends. Though ITESM, UNext and others are serious about eventually offering a variety of degrees online, they acknowledge that most of their students, and the bulk of their revenue, will come from contracts with large companies that will buy access to a catalogue of courses their employees can take as needed.

Even the most enthusiastic proponents of virtual universities acknowledge that there are some disciplines, such as medicine, that will never be appropriate for this approach because they require extensive laboratory work and hands-on interaction with practitioners. And many students who want "virtual" degrees in areas such as history, social work or literature can already get them through the kind of traditional television-based distance education that has been around for more than 20 years. England’s Open University and Spain’s Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), for example, have graduated hundreds of thousands of students using a highly structured and time-tested teaching methodology. In Mexico and Brazil, similar programs geared toward high school students and vocational training have also established an impressive record of success.

So why should the Internet change things? According to its proponents, Internet-based education will allow for a quantum leap in the quality of instruction by introducing interactive and collaborative features that simply aren’t possible in the traditional distance learning paradigm. They also claim that the Internet will reach more students and offer more flexible options than TV-based systems. In short, they foresee a much larger audience for a much more sophisticated and convenient range of products.

The three interviews that accompany this article offer some hints as to how this remarkable phenomenon might evolve. In the meantime, the IDB is examining ways to assist Latin American universities that are interested in building virtual campuses. Last year the IDB’s Multilateral Investment Fund approved $1.7 million in combined grants and loans to Peru’s Instituto Tecnológico Superior (TECSUP), a private business and technology school, to help it develop virtual professional training programs (See links to related article at right for details). And last September, the Bank hosted a seminar in Washington, D.C., at which representatives from distance education institutions from across Latin America discussed the challenge of marrying new technologies to traditional distance education systems and techniques.

Look to future issues of IDBAmérica for updates on the impact of online education.

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