When Peter Kopitz, a Thailand-based German investment banker, needed extra business skills, he opted for a reputable western University offering online degrees, rather than attend a “no-name” local college.

He later abandoned his online studies to do a full-time MBA in Chicago.

“The online courses I did with Phoenix University [in the US] were fine, but you can’t beat the experience of a real classroom and talking to and debating with actual professors,” says Mr Kopitz.

That in a nutshell is the position of online business education in Asia: tremendous potential demand, an unrelenting search for quality and, ultimately perhaps, a lingering preference for face-to-face learning.

Asia is the great whiteboard hope of online education, a pedagogic mechanism with a chequered history elsewhere.

Fifteen years or so ago, when many of today’s would-be MBAs were still finding their way around a Playstation, a lot of smart people thought distance learning, sexed up by the internet, was poised to leapfrog over many “old fashioned” business schools.

That didn’t happen, because it turned out that many students in North America and Europe felt uneasy with online learning and preferred the classroom. In 2003 only 2 per cent of college or post-graduate students in the US were pursuing online courses.

Several high-spending online undertakings, some backed by prestigious universities, shut down.

One of the first virtual colleges, Cardean University founded by Unext of Illinois, closed most of its degree offerings within a few years, despite having recruited faculty from Stanford and the London School of Economics.

Tellingly Cardean lives on in Asia under the name Educasia, which claims to sell online management courses to more than 1,000 executives a year out of offices in Seoul and Singapore.

Many of the early online offerings misfired because students found the experience dull and felt isolated. The online suppliers may also have been premature in assuming that a great swathe of business learners wasready to dump the traditional classroom. Asia, some experts argue, is different.

The sheer weight of demand excites many observers: less than 1 per cent of the 170,000 applicants to the respected Indian Institute of Management gets in. What do the others do?

Singapore-based U21Global, which offers online degrees from 18 universities in 10 countries, reckons there are currently at least 400,000 potential post-graduate business students in India and China.

“The west is ageing. The dynamic economies of Asia are still young. These people are desperate for an international-standard education, yet quality faculty is very hard to find. The solution is obvious,” says Mukesh Aghi, the chief executive of U21Global.

There are no reliable figures for online student numbers in Asia. Mr Aghi says his network saw a 200 per cent increase in takings last year and will do so again this year, with some 1,300 students from 52 countries studying MBAs.

Asian online agencies range from the Singapore-owned PurpleTrain – which sells Australian, US and UK online degrees – to Indian firms – such as NetVarsity and Online Varsity – that sell nitty-gritty management and technology courses.

New virtual colleges are noticeably active in China and South Korea.

While there may be little doubt that many Asians would like to acquire additional business skills, there remains a fierce debate about what exactly is in demand.

Chris Choi, the managing director of Educasia, says: “There’s hot talk about a massive need for MBA and executive education in India and China.

“In my view, it’s a bit early in those markets. Most entrepreneurs, especially in China, are still at the nuts and bolts stage of capitalism, the sophisticated strategic thinking will come later.”

The US appears to have overcome its initial hesitation over online education with 1.2m students, or 7 per cent of the total, taking a complete degree or similar online, according to a research and consultancy firm Eduventures.

Newer, technologically aware, colleges will inevitably challenge traditional colleges everywhere, but they are likely to find most growth with new clients such as working adults.

This means that “the market will on balance get larger and more diverse, with only minor shifts in position in terms of [educational) hierarchy”, says Eduventures’ senior research analyst Richard Garrett

Many of the most vibrant of the online institutions in Asia still offer only short, plain vanilla skill courses where a word of mouth reputation counts for much.

Customers looking for something more advanced remain fixated on venerable brand names.

“When every prospectus claims the same thing and every syllabus is identical, you must trust the name,” says Mr Kopitz.

Since the demand for letterheads that exude tradition and respect remains so strong in Asia – where trust in secondary institutions can be low – it is perhaps surprising that many of the big name colleges in the region and in the west appear somewhat half-hearted about offering online courses – where they offer them at all.

Many university planners appear convinced that despite the hype, online education remains the second choice of busy people who would much rather network with warm bodies, in a region where individual business relationships are probably even more important than in the west.

Ian Fenwick, the professor of marketing and development consultant at Sasin business school in Bangkok, begs to differ. “How old are these people?

“When professors try to stop students surfing the net in class they are betraying their age. The generations coming up prefer to communicate on net!”

He adds: “Over the next decade, the technology is going to advance and if the price is right, I can’t see what’s going to stop online education in a place like Asia.

“I suspect we will be amazed.”

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