1The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) is now pervasive in higher education. Computer-aided audio-visuals and the Internet have become the key elements in teaching as well as in studying. ICT relaxes the time-honored practices of space- time synchronization in teaching and learning. Instructors and learners do not need to get together in a given place at a given time. Such a relaxation of space-time synchronization has advanced even further to deliver a new breed of open universities, namely cyber-, digital- or virtual-universities. A virtual university is similar to a conventional on-campus college or university in that it has office buildings and faculty ; but it offers courses on-line. Students register for these on-line courses to earn a degree or diploma.
2We can observe both enthusiastic and cautionary statements on this new type of open university in the literature. Dibiase (2000) is convinced that “it is short sighted to ignore the potential of the Internet and other information technologies to enrich the quality and expand the reach of geography education” (p.134). He posits that geography educators have a moral obligation to serve distance learners because the distance learners are a qualitatively different, older population, with different educational needs from traditional on-campus students (p.130). Solem (2001) conducted a survey on the perceptions of Internet-based teaching in college geography in the United States and reported that geographers suggest in general that ICT can enhance faculty productivity, reduce operating costs, and improve student learning. Beyth- Marom et al (2003) posit that flexible learning is demanded (in time, place, and pace) nowadays, and virtual universities provide an answer to the flexibility issue. In institutions based on distance learning, studying is independent of time and place as textbooks replace face-to-face instruction. There also have been enormous research publications on the management and markets of virtual universities, and the application of ICT to university businesses and teaching, just a few of which include Hazemi & Hailes (2002), Orange & Hobbs (2000), Perraton (2000), Robins & Webster (2002), and Ryan et al (2000), as well as numerous academic journals like Social Science Computer Review.
3There are cautionary statements on virtual universities as well, although not as many as there are enthusiastic remarks. The literature reports failures of e-class experiments in a college of Minnesota, the United States (Lackie, 1998) as well as in the African Virtual University of Kenya (Amutavi & Oketch, 2003). Several studies also argue that some types of off-line interactions are necessary even the on-line teaching. Beyth-Marom et al. (2003), based upon their study on an open university of Israel, suggest distance students have to come to local study centers when they need additional support. Mendler et al. (2002), in an experiment on the interactive geography program taught partially over the Internet to students living in connectivity-poor regions of the world, recommend requiring distance students to spend the full initial term on campus.
4Some even go further. Kong (2001) points out a number of ‘myths’ or ‘overstated claims’ about virtual universities. One of the myths he criticizes is the claim of independent learning, saying that the e-class is a more learner-centered mode, and distance learners are more autonomous and independent. Kong maintains that “just because access to material can be more independent and flexibly achieved, does not necessarily mean that students are more autonomous and independent learners” (p.381). Tehranian (1996) too is skeptical about the virtue of virtual universities. To him, universities, most of all, teach students how to learn. This requires scientific socialization of a high order. A scholarly temperament, tolerance in practice, and humility in errors - these are the qualities that good universities nurture in their faculty and students. It is difficult to see how virtual universities by themselves can socialize the students in these ways (p.444). Tehranian goes on to say that one important university functions is social criticism and elite recruitment, so that “higher education faces a real threat of bifurcation into a system of conventional elite universities and an emerging system of virtual and ghetto universities tending to the needs of the masses. This calls for the development of an inquisitive mind and a moral sense of rights and obligations toward the community. Physical proximity and interaction are the sine qua non of this kind of education” (p.445).
5Given these pros and cons of distance education, this paper examines how virtual universities have performed in Korea. Fifteen virtual universities have been established in Korea since 2001. Distance education, by definition, is expected to be geography-free : teaching and learning can be done at any place. Casual observations on virtual universities, however, hint that geography still matters in distance education. The present study attempts to identify any clue of geography in the virtual universities and seeks an explanation why such a geography has emerged. While there has been an increasing number of studies on the application of ICT in geography classes in Korea (for instance, see Choi et al., 2003 ; and Lee and Choi, 2000), little attention has been given to the issue of geographic limits of virtual education. A study on the distribution of virtual university students by Kim (2002) has been the only research along this line. The findings of Kim’s study, however, were inconclusive because the study period covers only the first year of the history of virtual universities in Korea. Given the lack of relevant studies, it is hoped that the present investigation will enhance our understanding of the geography of virtual universities, and will produce policy implications for a better distance education.
6The rest of this paper contains five sections : Section II explains the data gathered and analyzed for this study ; Section III describes the history of distance education in Korea ; the geographical distribution patterns of distance learners are examined in Section IV ; and the survey data are analyzed in Section V. The conclusion of the study then follows.
7The data sets analyzed in this study are as follows : 1) the information on the age, sex, and geographical distribution of distance learners, provided by the central government and individual virtual universities, and 2) information on off-line meetings of students gathered by a survey conducted in May 2006.
8The data of university students were compiled from two sources : the information for the years between 2001 and 2003 was provided by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources and the Korea Education and Research Information Services ; and the information for the years of 2004 through 2006 was supplied by the virtual universities individually. In the introductory years of virtual universities, the central government made efforts to compile detailed information on distance education, so that the student enrollment data of all virtual universities is available for the years of 2001, 2002, and 2003. Since 2004, however, the government ceased to gather residential information. I had to request from each of the virtual universities the information on the geographical distribution of their students : i.e., the regional-, age-, and sex-breakdown of students for the years of 2004, 2005, and 2006. The requests were made during the spring of 2006. Some universities were reluctant to disclose their student enrollment data. Seven out of ten Seoul virtual universities and two of five local universities were cooperative and released the information about their students. The students of these nine universities account for more than half of the nationwide distance students.
9The second set of data examined in this study is on the practices of off-line meetings of the distance learners, compiled by a survey conducted during May 2006. The survey respondents were the students of a virtual university headquartered in Seoul. Questionnaires were distributed among the attendants of class meetings held in regional metropolises like Daejon, Jeonju, Gwangju, Daegu, and Busan. Students in Seoul were also included in the survey as a comparison group. The information gathered by the survey includes : the age, sex, home address, and occupation of each respondent ; the number of visits to the main campus and the purposes of the visits during the past six months ; the number of off-line meetings, the meeting places and types of activities performed during the meetings ; the meaning of off-line meetings for the respondents ; and the means of contacts with the instructors and class mates other than the local off-line meetings.
10In terms the residential location, 23 of the survey respondents are from Seoul, 39 from the vicinities of Seoul, and 146 from the rest of the country. Most of the respondents are either full-time employees (92.2 %), or part-time workers (2.3 %). The survey respondents were typically in their 30s (28.4 %) and 40s (59.8 %). About two-thirds of 208 survey respondents were males (61.0 %) and the remaining one-third were females (39.0 %). While there were no differences between the student groups from Seoul and local areas in terms of sex and employment status, the students from Seoul tended to be a little younger than those from local areas.
11Distance education in colleges and universities started in the early 1970s in Korea. A two-year public, open college, the Korean Air and Correspondence College, was established in 1972. The college was upgraded to an open university in 1991, and changed its name to Korea National Open University, its current name. In the early years, the open college used radio as the platform for teaching, then TV, and now a combination of radio, TV and the Internet.
12For decades, the government-run open university had been virtually the only way to earn bachelor’s degrees for those who were unable to attend the ordinary on-campus colleges and universities. Towards the end of 20th century, distance learning encountered a whole new momentum with the advancement of ICT. The feasibility of virtual universities was tested first in 1998, a ‘lifelong education law’ was passed in 1999, and then seven virtual universities and two junior colleges were inaugurated in 2001. As of 2006 there were fifteen four-year virtual universities and two two-year colleges in Korea.
Table 1: Virtual universities and colleges in Korea, 2001-2006
* One junior college was upgraded to a university in 2003.
Source: The Korea Education and Research Information Services (www.keris.or.kr).
13Private foundations, as opposed to the national open university mentioned above, run all of these 17 universities and colleges. Consortiums of on-campus universities and private firms run four of the virtual universities1. The remaining thirteen universities are either the annex institutes of private residence universities2, or new establishments of private educational foundations3. In general, the consortium universities are larger in terms of the number of students and facilities, the new establishments the smallest, and the annex universities are in between.
Figure 1 : The virtual universities and junior colleges in Korea, 2006
14Ten out of fifteen virtual universities have their headquarters in Seoul ; one in Suwon City which is about 30 kilometers south of Seoul ; and four others in local cities such as Busan, Gyungsan, and Iksan. In the year 2001, when virtual universities were opened for the first time in Korea, there were seven such universities and all were in Seoul. Eight new universities have been added since 2002 : three of them in Seoul, one in Suwon City, which is near the capital city, and only four in local cities. The earlier start and concentration of virtual universities in the capital city appears to be due the residence universities in Seoul having better infrastructure to spin off annex institutes when compared to their local counterparts ; the locational advantage of Seoul for forming a nationwide-consortium among patron universities and firms ; and Seoul and its vicinities having a far larger number of potential students than local areas. Consequently, the universities in Seoul are larger than local universities, in that the number of students registered in the former, as of 2006, is 4,421 on average, while the number of students registered for the latter is 1,790 on average.
- 4 From now on, this paper will focus on the universities for the simplicity of explanation. There hav (...)
15The virtual universities offer a variety of majors like the ordinary residence universities do. Social sciences account for the largest proportion, i.e., 57.5 % of the students registered. The majors like Law and business administration are most popular among other social science majors. Humanities such as foreign languages account for 15.9 % of students, natural sciences and engineering for 10.7 %, arts, physical education, and others for the remaining 15.9 %.
- 5 For instance, a university in Seoul offers the following majors : Digital media design, Continuing (...)
16Given this dominance of social sciences, the majors offered by the virtual universities tend to emphasize vocational education. The majors (and the name of departments thereof) are often very specific and narrowly defined, in order to cater to the needs of diverse vocational training and lifelong education. There is also a contrast between the virtual universities in Seoul and those in the local cities : the former tends to offer a greater variety of courses to their students, whereas the local virtual universities are focused more on specific majors to capture niche markets in higher education5.
17Previous studies have found that distance learners are different from traditional undergraduates. Distance learners have already come of age, and most of them are immersed in professions. They have well-defined goals and are highly motivated (Dibiase, 2000, Beyth- Marom et al, 2003). The students of Korean virtual universities are not much different from distance learners abroad. Korean distance learners are largely employed, either fulltime or part- time, whereas ordinary on-campus university students tend to be fulltime students. Distance students are quite older than fulltime students of ordinary residence universities. The former are comprised mainly of those in their 30s and older (see Table 2), whereas the majority of the latter are in their late teens and early 20s, as they tend to go to universities immediately after their high school education.
Table 2 : Age composition of the virtual university students
Source : Korea Education and Research Information Services, 2006, The White Paper of E-learning.
18The proportions of teenagers and those in their 20s were more substantial in the earlier years of distance education. This suggests that there were some high school graduates who saw the newly introduced virtual universities as an easy route to being a university student, through bypassing the high school qualifying examination. As the years went by, virtual universities have become more lifelong and vocational education institutions.
19In the early years, female students accounted for one third of the students. This proportion has increased gradually over time, where today there is greater balance between males and females (34.0 % in 2001, 35.7 % in 2002, 37.5 % in 2003, 40.6 % in 2004, 45.1 % in 2005, and 49.3 % in 2006).
20This section examines the geographic distribution of virtual university students for the years 2001 through 2006. The data of residential distribution of students were gathered both from the publications by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources and the Korea Education and Research Information Services, and from my personal contacts with the virtual university authorities (See the Section II for a detailed description of the data sets).
21Table 3 summarizes the regional distribution pattern of distance learners for the years 2001 to 2005. In the year 2001, when the virtual universities were introduced for the first time in Korea, Seoul accounted for almost a half of the entire students registered, and the Gyunggi Province surrounding Seoul accounted for one-third. The proportion of the Capital Region, that is Seoul and Gyunggi Province together, adds up to four-fifths, and the proportions of the other regions in the country only one-fifth. This dominance by the Capital Region has been maintained during the past five years, though by the year 2005 the proportion of the Capital Region declined slightly to 71.2 %. Seoul is responsible for the decline, with an 8 % decrease, from 46.3 % in 2001 to 38.3 % in 2005. The regions outside the Capital Region have increased their share from one fifth in 2001 to nearly one third by 2005.
Table 3 : Regional distribution of distance students, 2001-2005
1) The Capital Region includes the capital city of Seoul and surrounding areas such as Inchon Metropolitan City and Gyunggi Province.
2) Regional metropolises include Busan, Daegu, Daejon, Gwangju, and Ulsan.
3) The number of students per 10,000 young adults and middle-aged population for the year of 2005 was estimated based on the data provided by nine sample universities.
22The percentage figures of regional shares do not illustrate fully the salience of the Capital Region. Population is not evenly distributed. It is not surprising that the Capital Region has a large share of distance learners, because about one-half of Korean people live in the Capital Region. I standardized the number of students by the population size of each region, in order to see the geographic pattern more clearly. The lower half of Table 3 lists the number of distance learners per 10,000 young adults and middle-aged people, i.e., those in their 20s, 30s and 40s. These three age cohorts were taken as the base population because they are the main pool of distance learners (see also Table 2).
23The lower half of Table 3 highlights a stark contrast between the Capital Region and the rest of the country : the standardized number of distance students of Seoul is the largest ; the vicinities of Seoul the second largest ; and farther regions the least. The number of students of Seoul was four times those of the regional metropolises and provinces in 2001. Although the numbers of distance students per 10,000 middle age cohorts increased considerably in all of the regions, the preponderance of the Capital Region has been maintained during the past years. By 2005, the number of Seoul students was still three times larger than those of local areas.
24There appears to be several reasons for such a remarkable concentration of distance learners in the Capital Region. Seoul enjoys the advantage of having an early start, in that all of the virtual universities that opened early were located in Seoul. The strong concentration of distance learners in Seoul may also be a reflection of the overall disparity between the capital city and the rest of the country. Seoul is better off than elsewhere in almost every aspect, and the regional disparity has been one of the hottest issues in Korea for decades. In this regard, the concentration of distance learners in Seoul can be seen as an indication of a digital disparity.
25I now analyze the virtual universities headquartered in Seoul and in local cities separately, in order to see the geographical patterns in more detail. Table 4 illustrates the regional distribution of students registered in the six Seoul virtual universities that supplied their student statistics for this study, for the years 2002, 2004 and 2006. The year of 2002 is taken as the base year because the local universities were established first in that year.
26The distributional picture illustrated in Table 4 reflects the geography of virtual universities nationwide : i.e., the sheer dominance of the Capital Region. Secondly, the Table clearly shows a distance-decay from Seoul : the largest proportion of students is in Seoul, the second largest proportion is in the surrounding area, and there is a drastic decline of students in farther regions.
Table 4 : Regional distribution of distance students registered in Seoul universities, 2002, 2004, and 2006
Note : The regional units are the same as in Table 3.
Figure 2 : Regional distribution of distance students registered in Seoul universities, 2002, 2004, and 2006
- 6 Busan is the second largest metropolis of the nation, and located at the southeastern coast of the (...)
- 7 Iksan is a medium size city in the Southwest Region.
27Table 5 illustrates the regional distribution of students registered in the local virtual universities, for the years of 2002, 2004 and 2006. Two universities offered their student statistics : ‘B Digital University’ located in Busan6 and ‘W Digital University’ in Iksan7. Both B and W universities are relatively small, in that the number of students registered was 62 and 80 in 2002, and 1,828 and 2,638 in 2006, respectively.
28The distribution patterns of local university students are somewhat different from the monotonic distance-decay pattern of Seoul universities : a combination of distance-decay from their home region and a large cluster in the Capital Region.
Table 5 : Regional distribution of distance students registered in local universities, 2002, 2004, and 2006
* The home province of Busan includes Busan and Ulsan Metropolitan Cities and South Gyungsang Province. The home province of Iksan refers to North Cholla Province.
29At the starting year of 2002, W university in Iksan attracted students from all over the nation, as well as from the Capital Region in particular, due to the fact that the university offered unique majors such as ‘computer game software’ which other universities did not offer. Only 11.3 % of its students were from the home province and 18.6 % from other provinces, while 70.1 % were from the Capital Region. The distribution of students then changed considerably during the following four years, in that the shares of enrollment from the home province and the other provinces increased to 22.4 % and 41.1 % respectively, whereas the share of the Capital Region tumbled to 36.5 % by 2006. Such a drastic change appears in part due to the very small number of students in the base year of 2002. The W university started from a mere eighty students in the first year, with those students mainly enrolled in the major of computer gaming. As the university added other majors, it began to attract students more and more from its home region, as well as from regions other than the Capital Region. The share of ‘Other provinces’ was over 40 % in 2006. The W university has been successful in attracting students from all over the nation partly because the university offers many unique programs that the other universities do not offer, such as ‘yoga and meditation’, and ‘tea culture and management’.
30The B university in Busan has taken a quite different route compared to W university during the past five years : 82.3 % of the students were from the home province and only 14.5 % were from the Capital Region during the base year of 2002. This strong distance-decay in the early years has been moderated considerably in that the share of students from the home province has declined to a half (47.7 %) by 2006 and that the share of the Capital Region has increased to one third (37.7 %) during the four-year period. Again, such a drastic change of percentage figures is partly due to the very small number of students in the base year of 2002 : there were 62 students only at the first year of the university.
Figure 3 : Regional distribution of distance students of W university in Iksan, 2002, 2004, and 2006
Figure 4 : Regional distribution of distance students of B University in Busan, 2002, 2004, and 2006
31In brief, now both W and B universities show a more or less similar pattern of student distribution : a combination of a gradual decrease of students from their home province and an outlying cluster in the Capital Region. Such a distribution pattern can be taken as an indication that there is a geography in action in distance education.
32While most distance education is performed on-line, there are occasional off-line gatherings such as the ceremonies of university entrance and commencement, course orientations, practices, and meetings of student bodies. It is mandatory to attend course-related face-to-face meetings like practicums, whereas other gatherings are on a voluntary-basis. The off-line meetings can potentially be a significant hindrance against distance-free practice of on- line education, particularly for the students that are a far distance from the gathering places and for those employed.
33Off-line gatherings can be grouped into two types in terms of the meeting places : the main campus meetings such as the ceremonies of university entrance and commencement, and the local meetings like labs, end-of-semester meetings, and occasional gatherings of student groups. The local gatherings are generally held in the central city of provinces. The university authority dispatches its faculty members to administer and proctor those local meetings.
34The virtual universities appear to consider the local meetings as a means of serving their students on one hand, and a means of extending the university hinterlands beyond the local area on the other. A number of universities not only dispatch their instructors and personnel to local gatherings, but also run local office, or what they call ‘regional study centers’ or ‘regional campuses’. Half of the virtual universities in Seoul run local study centers, and three out of five local universities maintain offices in Seoul (Table 6). It is very interesting to observe that these outreach programs, both in term of running regional study centers and branch offices and dispatching university personnel, have become a major means to overcome the geographical friction in distance education.
Table 6 : Regional study centers and offices of the virtual universities
* Liaison offices in Seoul.
35A questionnaire survey was conducted during May 2006 to evaluate the meaning of off-line meetings for the distance learners. The survey respondents were the students of a virtual university headquartered in Seoul (See a detailed description of the survey in Section II of this paper). The survey revealed that the students visited their Seoul campus less than once per semester on average, for participating in the entrance ceremony or other administrative businesses. The students from Seoul visited the Seoul campus 0.35 times, those from the vicinities of the capital city 0.54 times, and those living in distant local areas 0.21 times during the past six-month period. One can see here a hint of distance-decay in terms of physical visits to the main campus.
- 8 This way of counting has a bias, because it counts the attentive students only.
36Regarding local meetings other than the campus visits, the survey found that the students attended 1.3 times on average during the past six months : about 0.9 times for the required class meetings and 0.4 times for other voluntary gatherings. If class meetings are counted, the attendance would add up to more than two times per semester, which translates to two to three trips made by each student8. The survey found no differences in the number of trips among the student groups from various regions, perhaps because the local meetings are held in the places that are not as distant from students’ home. There were no differences between the students from regional metropolises when compared to those from smaller cities and counties. The survey also failed to observe differences of meeting frequencies among gender and age groups.
37The number of campus visits and attendance of local meetings together add up to at least three times per semester, which is not an insignificant number considering the fact that the majority of distance learners are employed and have difficulty arranging extra time for the off-line meetings. Most of the survey respondents, however, evaluated the meetings to be important for them : 78.3 % of the respondents from Seoul considered the off-line meetings important, 69.2 % of the respondents from the Capital Region, 53.8 % from the Middle regions, and 34.2 % from the remaining regions of the country. Here one can again see a hint of distance-decay from Seoul : there are more students in Seoul than there are those in local areas who consider the off-line meetings meaningful.
Table 7 : Importance of off-line meetings
Note : 1) The figure in the parenthesis is the number of responses.
2) Regions are delineated by the distance from Seoul : Middle regions include the regions next to the Capital Region such as Gangwon, N.Chungchong, and S.Chungchong Provinces, and Daejon Metropolitan City ; Southern regions refer to the southernmost areas such as the Provinces of N.Gyungsang, S.Gyungsang, N.Cholla, S.Cholla and Jeju, and the Metropolitan Cities of Busan, Daegu, and Gwangju.
38This paper examined the geography of ‘virtual universities’ in Korea. It focused on the residential distribution of distance learners, and the meaning of off-line meetings of the virtual universities. The study examined the data released by the government agencies of education and the virtual university authorities, and the data gathered by a survey on the students of a virtual university located in Seoul.
39The new experiment of distance education utilizing ICT, namely virtual universities, has been successful at least in numbers : the number of virtual universities has been doubled and the number of students has increased more than four times since 2001. One can think of several reasons for such success. Korea has an environment favorable to a new type of open university. The penetration rates of the Internet and computer are quite high throughout the nation. In addition, the government has not required distance learners to take the high school qualifying examination : it is mandatory to take the examination for entering the ordinary, on- campus universities and colleges. This policy measure has opened wide the gate of virtual universities, especially for those who completed their high school education a long time ago. For these older people, it would be very hard to earn a high score on the examination.
40The study finds that the distance learners in Korea are not much different from the distance learners abroad, in that the majority are middle-aged employees. There were many younger students attending the virtual universities during the earlier years, but their proportion has declined, indicating that virtual universities have become an institute for lifelong education rather than for educating young high school graduates. The virtual universities differentiate themselves from the ordinary on-campus universities by focusing on vocational training.
41Distance learning, by definition, is expected to be geography-free. This study, however, reveals that geography matters in distance education. Seoul, the capital city, outweighs other regions in terms of the number of virtual universities and their students. The uneven distribution of population can be one of the reasons for such a geographic concentration of universities and students. But the study finds that the number of distance learners of the capital city and its vicinity is much larger than that of local areas even if the regional numbers of students are standardized by their respective population sizes. The dominance of Seoul (and the Capital Region thereof) then can be a reflection of a disparity between the capital city and other regions. Korea has suffered from spatial disparity for decades. While the entire nation is well harnessed with ICT hardware, a gap is still there between regions in exploiting the new technology. The dominance of Seoul can then be an indication of a digital disparity, if not a ‘digital divide.’
42Still another explanation for the concentration of distance learners can be that the principle of distance-decay is in action, even with supposedly distance-free virtual education. The study revealed that the number of distance learners is largest in Seoul, and it then decreases as we go farther from the capital city. The study found a similar pattern of distance decay for the local virtual universities too : the number of students decreased rapidly from the home region to surrounding areas. The distance-decay pattern is partly due to the practices of off-line meetings. Lectures are offered on-line, and tests are given on-line too. There are, however, certain components of the on-line courses that can be performed better off-line. Students, too, like face-to-face contacts with their instructors and classmates. In addition, there are other occasions, such as the entrance ceremony, commencement, and course orientations that generate personal trips for students. Human beings are social creatures after all ! The survey reveals a pattern of distance-decay in terms of the attendance of off-line meetings, as well as the magnitude of importance of the off-line meetings. The virtual universities respond to this tendency of social gathering by implementing outreach programs such as running local study centers and branch offices, and dispatching their personnel and instructors to the local off-line gatherings. The survey found that the outreach programs become an important means to extend the hinterland of virtual universities over the nation.
43In sum, the geography of distance education appears to be a combination of three factors : the overall distribution of population, the spatial structure of the nation, and the ruling of distance-decay. The finding suggests that future research and policy on virtual universities needs to pay more attention to the role of geography. This study confirmed the decades-long problem of spatial disparity in Korea even in the field of distance education. Future policy measures should break the vicious circle of digital disparity among regions.
44Distance university education in Korea is still in its early stage. At the time of this study it had been only five years since the new system of university education was introduced. There appears to be a lot more studies that need to be done, including in relation to the role of off-line meetings and trip making behavior for the distance learning, in order to enhance the educational quality of virtual universities.