Virtual University to Power Malaysia's Future

Malaysia is booming, and its capital of Kuala Lumpur -- site of the world's tallest building -- is the nerve center of an economic and technological transformation.

by / October 31, 1996
Malaysia is booming,
and its capital of
Kuala Lumpur &endash; site
of the world's tallest
building &endash; is the
nervecenter of an
economic and

and its capital of
Kuala Lumpur &endash; site
of the world's tallest
building &endash; is the
nervecenter of an
economic and


By Manon Anne Ress
Special to Government Technology

It is another hot and humid day in Kuala Lumpur, known simply as "KL" to its citizens. With a population of almost two million people, the city is always busy. A unique ethnic mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians are seen wearing traditional songkets (headscarfs) or Indian saris and eating one of many traditional dishes at street stalls.

But beneath the colorful scene of Malaysian customs lies a city in constant reformation. A booming economy is creating a rising middle class. Young Malays carrying cellular phones on their way to the mosque ride alongside Chinese Malaysian yuppies on the omnipresent "bas mini" &endash; small pink buses that travel too fast, regardless of their destination.

As the youngest capital in Southeast Asia, KL ranks as one of the most economically successful, just after its neighbor, Singapore. Hills and streets have disappeared and are quickly replaced with new glass buildings. The Pertonas Towers (the world's tallest building) stands as a proud symbol of Malaysian economic muscle.

But an economic transformation needs technology and above all, well-educated citizens. The shortage of educated personnel was a major concern for the government and the rapidly growing Malaysian private sector. In March 1996, for example, 65,000 applications were distributed for only 15,000 university openings, causing near riots at some locations.

And, while many Malaysians are educated overseas, it is at an enormous expense to the country. Now, however, the Malaysian government is seeking to build a new kind of university &endash; a university with no walls, but an open door to educational opportunity. Constructed around the latest information technology, it's to be a virtual school called the Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UTAR).

Vision 2020
The government began to address the lack of educational opportunities through regulatory reform, enabling the establishment of private universities, and instruction in English rather than exclusively Malay.

The new distance education program is part of "Vision 2020" &endash; a larger government effort outlined by Prime Minister Dato' Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad &endash; to turn Malaysia into a "fully developed" country on the leading edge of new technologies.

In the suburbs of KL, the government also hopes to build the MultiMedia Super Corridor &endash; a high-technology corridor focused on the development of multimedia. Within this corridor is being built an intelligent city &endash; Putrajaya &endash; with an information technology infrastructure supporting electronic government, electronic commerce, distance education and distributed care systems.

The development of UTAR is supported by Science Applications International Corp., the largest employee-owned research and engineering company in the world, under contract to Koperasi Usaha Bersatu Malaysia Berhad, one of Malaysia's largest commercial cooperatives.

Instead of spending enormous funds and time building and acquiring the facilities to house a campus, distance education is the fundamental approach, rather than an addition to traditional educational methods.

Unlike many other distance education institutions that specialize in continuing education, UTAR focuses on the acquisition of an initial degree (bachelors in business and computer sciences), acquired through a mix of live classroom broadcasts, learning on demand with prerecorded video presentations, and online software applications.

Based and assessed on competency more than on "seat-time," distance education offers the potential for more efficient delivery of services for a rapidly evolving Malaysian society. Instead of getting answers from traditional instructors, students have to learn how to find answers, and even more important, how to formulate essential questions.

"Cik Gu"
Even the most modern Malaysians refer to their teachers with admiration and affection. The word for teacher in Malay is cik gu, which is derived from the Sanskrit "guru." Within a distance education system, the instructor or facilitator of learning is only one component of a complex educational system made of content experts, media experts, coordinators, graphic designers, instructional designers and many others.

The Malaysian teachers who are being trained for UTAR's new distance education curriculum are eager to try new ways to reach their students as well as new ways to assess their learning. The traditional comprehensive testing at the end of long periods of study &endash; one paper, for example, that tests three years of course work &endash; leaves both students and teachers unsatisfied and exhausted.

For the educational program &endash; embodied in degree programs, courses and curricula &endash; UTAR relies on educational partners such as JTG Inc., a language and education corporation based in Alexandria, Va.; the International University Consortium (IUC), an organization of distance education institutions with 60 worldwide members headquartered in College Park, Md.; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. These partners will provide the initial courses and training with the understanding that the Malaysian institution will develop its own courses. Indeed, UTAR wants to have its own presence as an international provider of distance education courses.

In the first phase, starting in July 1997, students will be enrolled in a "pre-university" year of study, a foundation year that will prepare them for programs in business and computer sciences at UTAR. The core courses will include methodology courses, computer literacy, intensive English, Malaysian studies, economics, mathematics and sciences.

Most courses will be taught at a distance but the students will be required to take workshops on independent learning skills. The first few months of study will be crucial for the new students.

With UTAR, students will have the opportunity to be trained in basic core courses and in independent learning skills necessary to fully benefit from all the different formats of UTAR courses, in half the time of traditional pre-university programs, and UTAR intends to accommodate every student who passes the first-year courses.

One of the most important aspects of this mode of education is that in learning how to use the UTAR program, the students will be learning very useful skills in information technology.

The second essential component of the project is the technical implementation of the communications, applications, networks and databases necessary to operate the virtual university.

Eventually, the program will deliver most, if not all, services directly to the student's home. However, in the beginning, there will be much use of remote study centers, which will provide access to computer terminals, high-speed digital lines, videoconferencing equipment, technical support, academic advising and interaction with other students. This last element, "a place to hang out," is important for students who will not attend lectures or have a campus to socialize with colleagues. The learning centers will also make the program more accessible to students who do have the requisite computer, video and telecommunications equipment necessary to the curriculum.

Virtual Reality
In a country where many people never saw an old computer but already own a PC with multimedia capabilities, the obstacles are not the resistance of believers of old technologies but the enormous demand and high expectations of a young population. The public, teachers and students are extremely enthusiastic but they remain somewhat realistic.

If UTAR is well supported by the political power, it will educate a new generation of Malaysian students that is computer literate, proficient in English and in tune with today's international business practices. However, training of UTAR staff has to start with the teaming of local resources with foreign experts. Cross-cultural training and understanding have to take place to ensure that this country in transition reaches its goals.

UTAR has ambitions to become an ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations) provider of education. Other countries in ASEAN are already looking at adding the virtual university concept to their own educational systems.

It is important to appreciate the ambitious scope of this new effort. UTAR is committed to deliver courses using ISDN videoconferencing, Internet technology, and new information technologies that are still widely experimental. Malaysia is seeking to implement new delivery mechanisms that have yet to be widely deployed, even in the United States. And UTAR is seeking to acquire the technology to create its own homegrown courses. John Strain, associate director of the IUC marveled at the speed of the proposed deployment of the UTAR curriculum, and noted that "They need new courses fast, and we need to learn from them about the latest educational modes of delivery."

Manon Anne Ress is a distance education consultant with a Ph.D. from Princeton University. She just returned from Malaysia where she worked on UTAR. She lives in Arlington, Va., and can be reached via the Internet at < >.


Malaysia at a Glance
Total area: 329,750 sq. km.

Comparative area: slightly larger than New Mexico. Land boundaries: Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand.

Capital: Kuala Lumpur.

Population: 19,723, 587 (July 1995 est.).

GDP: $60 billion.

GDP components: services 42.2 percent; industry 42 percent, of which 30.1 percent is manufacturing; agriculture 15.8 percent.

Ethnic divisions: Malay and other indigenous 59 percent, Chinese 32 percent, Indian 9 percent.

Languages: Malay (official), English, Chinese dialects, Tamil.

Literacy: Age 15 and over can read and write (1990 est.).

Sources: and The Economist Pocket World in Figures 1996.


UTAR Preliminary Technology Inventory

The overall architectural design of the system infrastructure called UTARNET will be developed in phases that started in July of 1996. UTAR will have a central site in KL, and high-speed dedicated digital lines to remote centers. Students will be able to use home dial-in connections, or access the network from learning centers. Also included are:

10-Base-T LANs
100-Base-T or FDDI LANs (Server/Host Farms)
TCP/IP as Primary/Sole OSI Layer 3/4 Protocols
OSPF Routing
SNMP Network Management (all components SNMP manageable)
ISDN BRI/H.320 Videoconferencing (out-of-band)
ATM (future -- WAN implementation first)
Address Translation Firewalls to Internet
Intranet Applications
USENET Newsgroup Access
WWW Servers (internal and external)
DNS Name Servers (internal and external)
SMTP-Based E-Mail