Selling education to foreigners is one of New Zealand's fastest growing service industries.
Last year the country earned $440 million from overseas students and the outlook this year is $540 million. The government wants to triple education exports to $1.5 billion in the next 10 years. Associate education minister (tertiary) Steve Maharey can see some of those earnings coming from the emerging online education market.
The internet is real-time, customisable, personalisable, multimedia, and it's available 24 hours a day. It offers huge economies of scale that could potentially bring the world's finest teachers right to a desktop at a fraction of traditional costs. The key is the teacher/student relationship which is maintained through email, groupware, web-based forums and video.
Exporting education, or rather, getting overseas students to study in New Zealand is not new. The number of overseas students studying here averages about 30,000 year, of which about 80% are from Asia. Trade New Zealand offices in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Taipei, Hamburg, Seoul and Tokyo have education centres promoting New Zealand as a high quality education provider.
The non-profit Asia 2000 Foundation holds seminars aimed at educational organisations interested in selling their services to lucrative Asian markets. Asia 2000 business manager Sara McLauchlan says international education in New Zealand is a growth industry with education and tourism organisations working together to reach a target of $1 billion in foreign exchange earnings by 2005.
In 1998 the education industry formed the Education New Zealand Trust to drive the education exports. The trust's goals are to promote New Zealand education, coordinate programmes, assist New Zealand institutions and publish directories for international students. More than 270 institutions are members, including universities, teaching colleges, polytechnics, secondary schools and private training providers.
Selling our education services online is new. Massey University has a small off-shore programme catering to about 500 students, mainly New Zealanders living overseas, and its school of aviation delivers courses to Indonesia and Singapore. It has built relationships with overseas institutions which deliver the practical part of the training. Massey University extramural head Tom Prebble says five university colleges are looking at programmes and the capability to offer them to an international market.
"This year about 200 of some 1300 extramural papers would have a significant element of online support but only about 30 of them would be web-delivered. To offer more we have to make sure programmes are properly supported by an online suite of services." These services fall into three categories: delivery of materials, communication and administrative services.
Prebble says communications is a major factor and online delivery of material less important. "We already have a big resource of printed material we deliver to people at the beginning of the course. If we try and put all that into digital form we're not achieving a lot; the exception being illustrations - For example, a paper on plant diseases has photos of diseased plants; it is much cheaper to provide this via a website than sending photos out to every student.
"Communicating with the student is more important. The sorts of things we are focused on are email, discussion groups, internet chat, good systems for file attachments and downloads - it shouldn't make any difference to a student where they are."
Administrative support is also important says Prebble. Students should be able to do things such as register online, connect to the library, and check credit balances. Already University of Waikato management school's new portal gives students access to exam results and timetables and allows them to buy personalised course readings. It would be well suited for online education.
Other New Zealand tertiary providers are working with global virtual universities. The University of Auckland is part of Universitas 21, a conglomerate of 18 institutions in 10 countries. Auckland University of Technology has joined The Global University Alliance, nine universities offering online courses to Asian students and targeting China in particular. By March the Global University Alliance will offer 99 courses, three from AUT, covering web and internet skills and health research. Courses will cost $10,000 a year.
Online education also provides a huge opportunity for private companies. The big sectors on the internet are travel, medicine and education, says venture capitalist Jenny Morel, head of No 8 Ventures.
No 8 Ventures has taken a 45% stake in www.english-to-go.com, a New Zealand website which provides teachers with instant lesson plans and resources.
The site was launched in November 1998 with $4000 by Aucklander John Eyles and three other ex-teachers. It focuses on English as a second language and until recently was providing all its lessons for free, but now charges $US20 for six months' access to its archives.
That sounds cheap but Eyles says the market opportunity is huge - 44 million children in Brazil study English, while China has five times that number.
So far English To Go has about 1000 subscribers with more than 100,000 lessons downloaded each week by teachers in 90 countries - mainly Japan, the US and South America. Lessons are created by a team which operates from home offices in New Zealand, Japan, Australia, the UK, US, Canada and South Africa. One of the major appeals of the site is that lessons use news stories from Reuters for topicality and timeliness.
Another success story is educational publisher Wendy Pye, who in 1998 launched the website www.galaxykids.co.nz aimed at three- to seven-year-olds. The site has courses designed to improve reading, maths and language skills. Galaxy Kids aims to provide three-and-a-half hours of formal instruction per week. A parallel programme, Sunshine Online, is offered to five- to 12-year-olds through www.sunshine.co.nz. The software for the site has been developed by, and for, Wendy Pye, who has contracts with overseas parties in Australia and the UK.