Ji Kyu Hynn wanted to take a break from teaching his business class last week, so he signaled a producer to stop a camera. He stood up from a desk in a small studio here and opened a thick, soundproof door that seemed like a space-age airlock.
Mr. Hynn, a professor at Hanyang Cyber University here, said teaching for an online university takes some getting used to, and he's still adjusting. For one thing, he rarely cracks jokes in his taped lectures, because such quips seem strange in the vacuum of the studio. And he steers clear of references to current events, since the lectures are reused for the next year or two, and such references can make the video lectures feel dated.
Like their professors, South Korea's 17 online colleges are still adapting to the new realities of teaching at a distance. The country has invested heavily in the virtual universities in the past decade, and much of their facilities and software is state-of-the-art. But observers say some of the online ventures have struggled to find as many students as expected, because the country already has plenty of traditional universities and a culture that reveres face-to-face education.
So Hanyang has begun a new strategy: to look beyond its borders to attract more students from around the globe. The country exports flat-screen TVs and cars, so why not export high-tech education as well?
"Our market will be in Southeast Asia, maybe Africa, maybe the United States," said Byung Tae Yoo, the university's vice president. The university has even changed its motto, painted with a world map on a wall of Mr. Yoo's office: "To the world, for the future."
The institution already has 12,000 students and offers 15 degree programs, including a master's degree in business. Tuition is about a third of the price of a traditional university here, and it primarily attracts working adults. So far only a few hundred foreign students are taking classes, most of them Koreans living abroad.
To attract more of a global audience, Hanyang will make some changes. First, it plans to deliver more of its courses in English rather than Korean, the language in which most are now taught. And faculty members are looking to deliver educational material to cellphones.
Hanyang isn't the only Korean education project hoping to make a splash worldwide. Such ambitions were on display at last week's "eLearning Week 2010" conference and trade show here, which drew some 1,000 participants from elementary and secondary schools as well as higher education. The event, organized by four government agencies, drew a sizable number of foreign attendees. Conference sessions were held primarily in English and simultaneously translated into Korean and Chinese.
In a keynote speech, Haeseok Oh, special adviser to the South Korean president for technology issues, said the country is promoting its IT and software sectors as global players, in an effort he dubbed "smart Korea." That blended with the conference theme of going beyond current learning technology to move to "smart learning."
Exactly what "smart learning" means was a point of debate throughout the conference, but clearly the country hopes to cash in on it.
"Korea is planning and is trying to make a big inroad into making money off of e-learning," said Ann K. Brooks, a professor of education at Texas State University who has spent 10 years working in Asia. "They've invested an enormous amount in hardware, and they're really good at it."
'It's Just a Struggle'
Can South Korea become a worldwide hub of "smart learning"? And can Hanyang Cyber University achieve its dream—which officials here state nonchalantly during interviews—of being the best online university in the world?
When I sat down with Se-Yeoung Chun, president of Korea Education & Research Information Service, to ask him about the biggest obstacle to those goals, he was quick to respond: the language barrier in foreign markets. Specifically, English.
"Korean people really hate English. It's just a struggle. It's like a demon, you know," he said with a laugh, as two of his colleagues laughed nervously at his frankness. "We cannot escape from the demon. We must fight with the demon."
Lately South Koreans have attacked the "demon" with technology, sometimes in ways that can seem over the top.
One example: The army of robots designed to teach English to schoolchildren. The South Korean government has committed almost $100-million to this project. I saw a demonstration earlier in the week, when I toured the Center for Intelligent Robotics, at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology.
They are clearly an engineering achievement. The roughly three-foot-tall robots can maneuver, recognize speech, and display facial gestures as they broadcast audio. But considering how nuanced and personal the best teaching is, the robots leave something to be desired.
Mr. Chun said many South Koreans try other high-tech approaches as well, signing up for teleconference learning with native English speakers in other countries.
The cyber universities have tried to tap into that market, too, offering "practical English" courses. They are making partnerships with foreign online universities, so that students in South Korea can try a course or two in English taught at an affiliate abroad.
Hanyang, for instance, formed a partnership two years ago with eCornell, which offers short online courses in several areas of business and management.
The first couple of hundred students in the program struggled to keep up with the English-language courses at Cornell University, and about half of them dropped out. But since then, Hanyang has worked harder to pick the right students and help them through, said Chris Proulx, chief executive of eCornell, in an e-mail interview. Last year 78 percent of the Hanyang students completed Cornell's online courses.
Hanyang is in talks with the University of Queensland, in Australia, in an effort to add more such partnership, according to officials at the eLearning Week conference.
Getting the Word Out
But why would students elsewhere in the world turn to a South Korean university for an online course?
The pitch is that institutions in South Korea can offer the best technology and teaching designs, said Yeonwook Im, a professor of technology at Hanyang.
Campus studios here have all the latest teaching equipment, such as large-screen electronic whiteboards that cost about $10,000 each. Most of the courses consist primarily of slickly produced video lectures; the Web interface developed by the university allows students to quickly skip to each major topic of each lecture and includes interactive exercises and online discussion boards.
The teaching model here assumes that students can get to high-speed connections. In South Korea, where the broadband infrastructure is among the best in the world, that's not a problem. But in developing counties, it's already proving a challenge, said Ms. Im.
Another challenge is getting the word out to new markets. The initial plan is to reach out to Korean-born students who have migrated to other countries and who already know the Hanyang name. Like many of the online universities in South Korea, Hanyang Cyber is affiliated with a well-known college here, Hanyang University. Their facilities are side by side, and they have the same president, although technically the two institutions are separate, each with its own faculty and administration.
But talking with students at Hanyang University suggests that the cyber version may have its work cut out for it. Several said they would never consider going to an online college, because they felt they'd be distracted by the format and would need traditional classes.
In fact, one of Hanyang Cyber's most successful strategies to keep students—most of whom are working adults—has been to increase the amount of nonvirtual activities, to help them feel more connected to the institution. The events include informal dinners with professors, optional lectures in a classroom on the campus, even a festival with sports events.
Chan Mo Joo, a senior at Hanyang University, expressed an attitude echoed by his classmates, and perhaps by online students as well. "I prefer to go to a normal school," he said.
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