Home > About the UGC > Publications > Major reports > Higher Education in Hong Kong - A Report by the University Grants Committee (Oct 1996) > Annex F - The implications of the IT revolution for higher education in Hong Kong

Annex F - The implications of the IT revolution for higher education in Hong Kong


During the past decade, a variety of technology-mediated learning environments have emerged, including stand-alone computer-assisted instruction applications; networked information resources; experimentation via new modes of communication (e.g. computer conferencing); and distance learning, offered primarily, though not exclusively, via television. More recently, and at an increasing pace, Internet-based applications such as email, gopher and WWW servers, have become widely available in our higher education institutions. They offer new possibilities in communication, collaboration, and delivery. In this annex we consider the opportunities, challenges and threats presented to higher education institutions in Hong Kong by the increasingly rapid pace of technological development and the emergence of the information age.

Nature of Higher Education Institutions

The aims of higher education are quite universal and will not change in essence as a result of the impact of the technological revolution and the availability of international connectivity via the Internet. To quote Professor Chodorow (1995) "Intellectual work is social work....and the university is a social institution. The Internet can enhance the society of the university and quicken its pace of discovery and invention, but the electronic environment cannot replace physical human society. We humans cannot thrive in a bodiless, frownless, smileless ecology, and our intellectual society cannot be complete without physical interaction."

We share this view, but the underlying issue is a real one. The Internet and the telecommunications revolution offer the prospect, not very far in the future, of replacing universities with international virtual campuses enabling students to have on-line access to the best teachers and scholars worldwide. Such institutions are already appearing, at least in embryonic form, and it does not require much imagination to see what the implications of such developments might be. For example, an advocate for the Globewide Network Academy (GNA) wrote recently: "Much of the reason for the existence of GNA lies in the belief that the traditional departmental structure of universities is reaching the end of its usefulness and that new organizational structures are needed if universities are to provide education for the masses of the world with the diminishing resources which are available to them." (Wang 19951)

This perception can be seen as both an opportunity and a threat to Hong Kong's higher education institutions. Hong Kong's excellent and rapidly improving telecommunications infrastructure provides the opportunity for Hong Kong's institutions to take a lead in the development of on-line courses and academic interactions, as well as widening access outside the traditional boundaries of a physical campus and the borders of Hong Kong. Recognising this, the University Grants Committee (UGC) has invested some HK$18 million over the three years in improvement to the Hong Kong Academic and Research Network (HARNET) and the technological support for the institutions' own library, information and communications networks, and has supported the institutions' efforts to establish and improve telecommunications links beyond Hong Kong's borders, particularly with the USA and China.

In this context the potential exists for opening up access to our HEIs for students and institutions in China. There is, however, the legitimate concern about whether, in providing such access, the institutions might neglect local students. Our view is that this would not be the case. Such developments could have positive spin-offs for the local student experience as well. Moreover the personal and social interactions, which occur among students and academic staff in a physical campus setting, cannot be wholly replaced by electronic communications, and local students are thus advantaged.

But can Hong Kong's institutions realistically expect to compete in this area with richer and more famous institutions in the West or elsewhere eg Japan and Australia? We believe so, but it will require the selective investment of resources in areas of excellence as these emerge within our institutions as well as flexibility and market-awareness on the institutions' part to respond quickly where the opportunities arise. The danger is that Hong Kong's institutions may fail to respond and thus become side-lined as developments proceed at a faster pace elsewhere.


Another opportunity presented by the telecommunications revolution is further widening of access to higher education and advanced learning for adults, non-traditional and second chance learners, and the disabled. Hong Kong, like developed societies elsewhere, is increasingly moving away from the traditional model whereby people complete their education and then devote themselves solely to work. Initiatives such as distance learning built around new technology offer one way of meeting the need for a more flexible system by allowing people to dip in and out of education and periodically update their knowledge.

Some work is already being done in this area by the UGC-funded institutions, their Schools of Continuing Education, the Open Learning Institute and others. However more can and should be done to tap the potential of new technology to facilitate access to higher education and professional training.

Quality Assurance and Productivity

The assurance of the quality of part-time programmes and short courses offered by non-traditional means can be problematic. Where these are provided within the ambit of respected and established higher education institutions, there can be a reasonable level of assurance for potential students. However increasingly such programmes are being offered in Hong Kong by overseas institutions, some of which are of uncertain reputation. The Government has recently moved to introduce some measure of control over these activities through the Non-Local Higher and Professional Education (Regulation) Bill, although, given the inevitable limitations on the applicability of legislation outside the constitutional boundaries of Hong Kong, the principle of "buyer beware" must still obtain. To help potential students navigate through the often murky waters of different course offerings the Hong Kong Council of Academic Accreditation also offers an advisory service.

The problems posed by any eventual "virtual campuses" established on an international scale are likely to be much greater. "If campuses become electronic metaphors housed in multiple institutions, who sets the standards? Who grants the degree? What kind of degree?"2 These are legitimate concerns that will need to be addressed. Nevertheless the application of information technology would appear to offer opportunities to revamp cost structures and gain efficiencies, without sacrificing educational quality.

Electronic storage of, and networked access to, library resources is one obvious area where much has been done, but more could be achieved. However the opportunities for leveraging expensive faculty time through the imaginative application of appropriate new technologies to teaching and learning should not be overlooked.

There has been an expectation in all areas of corporate activity, not just higher education, that the advent of information technology would improve productivity and achieve cost savings. This has yet to be borne out in practice, however. Just as the paperless office is still largely a pipedream, so too are the paperless classroom and, to some extent, the virtual library. Moreover the application of information and telecommunications technology in the higher education setting requires considerable initial input of staff time and effort to be effective.

Research and Publication

The Internet/WWW provides a huge repository of information for reference and research. It is however enormously difficult to trace specific references and documents, and the existing search engines are still relatively blunt instruments. No doubt these problems will be overcome with time, but there will remain difficulties with regard to citing electronic sources, which may not be available for reference in future, and to verifying the authenticity and originality of such work.

The Internet also offers the possibility of an alternative to traditional academic publishing, through the development of electronic journals and mailing lists, some of which are already available. However, given the difficulties of citation and verification, the status of such publications is likely to remain uncertain for some time to come.


Discussion and deliberation on these issues is probably most advanced in the USA. We have therefore sought to learn from the American experience. To conclude we quote just two recent commentaries by Kenneth Green and Steven Gilbert, both active participants in electronic fora on these and related issues:

"The real long-term academic benefit of IT will be that it brings to pedagogy and the curriculum - additional resources that enhance the instructional tools used by faculty and the learning experience of students. Ample evidence documents the benefits on the learning experience. Technology provides access to image data bases (satellite photos of the cosmos or the California coastline); statistical data bases (such as Census data) that students can use for class projects, remote libraries (which supplement resources available from campus facilities), and more."3

"Clearly technology has brought both enhanced productivity and reduced costs to some parts of higher education. Like many corporations, campuses routinely and effectively use technology in many administrative areas. As in the corporate domain, computers have improved productivity related to a wide range of data management and transaction processing activities: personnel files, course schedules, library catalogs, budgets and accounts receivable, student transcripts and admissions information. Moreover, in some parts of the faculty domain, technology has truly helped to increase productivity and reduce operating costs. Indeed, a generation of faculty has come into academic positions with little or no secretarial assistance from their departments or institutions: they have a computer to prepare their own class materials, course syllabi, conference papers, grant proposals, manuscripts, and other documents. As of yet, however, relatively few would claim - even after a dozen years into the "micro" revolution - any real gains in instructional productivity. In that realm, as ever, we're still left with the "promise" of technology."4

A fuller version of this annex, including a bibliography, is available in http://www.ust.hk/~webseng/ugc [obsolete link].

UGC Secretariat
October 1996

1 Joseph Wang 1995
2 The Editors. (1993, April). Distance education. On the Horizon. 1(4), pp.5-6
3 "Will information technology improve academic productivity?" (SHEEO newsletter 1995)
4 "Content, Communications, Productivity, and the Role of Information Technology in Higher Education" (AAHESGIT archives <http://www.ido.gmu.edu/aahe/green.html>) [obsolete Link]

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