MU Connect issue 4 (page 06 to 07)

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School of Open Learning coordinates and offers one-stop services for distance-learning and part-time programmes

On 1 September 2021, the day the University was renamed, the School of Open Learning (SOL) was set up. This was a clear signal that Hong Kong Metropolitan University would continue its mission of providing open education. As Dean Dr Li Kam-cheong vividly puts it, 'The University has been developing distance-learning and flexible programmes for over three decades. Open education is simply in our DNA.' In addition to helping students acquire academic and professional knowledge, good university education should also promote their whole-person development. With this in mind, the SOL not only offers well-rounded learning support, but also strives to enrich students' learning journey.

One-stop all-inclusive learning support

In the past, the vast majority of secondary school leavers were unable to attend university due to the limited places available. By offering a 'second chance to receive higher education', the University improved the prospects for many back in those days. While fewer people are missing out on university education nowadays, this 'second chance' is still relevant to many. Moreover, in a modern knowledge-based society, people from all walks of life need to keep learning in order to expand their knowledge and keep it up-to-date. The SOL's missions are to satisfy relevant social development needs as well as students' need for quality study journeys. It is exploring the development of innovative professional programmes, including programmes leading to multiple qualifications jointly offered with overseas institutions, as well as the emerging 'micro-credentials'. 'Working professionals don't necessarily have to spend a long time studying for an entire degree in order to acquire specific knowledge or skills,' explains Dr Li. 'Micro-courses lasting around 10 weeks or fewer serve their needs better.' Meanwhile, to provide students with well-suited academic counselling on a 24/7 basis, the SOL plans to introduce an artificial intelligence (AI)-supported smart system that provides advice and suggestions tailored to students' needs.

The SOL not only offers diverse distance-learning programmes for non-full time students, but also provides them with one-stop support. It continues to expand and enhance its range of student services, launching new initiatives such as student orientation, as well as organising workshops and seminars, and producing videos on academic writing and other study skills. The School also makes use of social media and instant messaging tools to communicate and interact with students. Considering the diverse needs among different types of students, it holds focus groups regularly to collect students' opinions and identify events that have a wide appeal. The School's student volunteer team, V-Power, for example, has gathered a group of like-minded students to participate in community services, such as visiting elderly homes and cleaning up hiking trails.

Flexible blended learning driven by high technology

When it comes to applying new technology in education, distance and open education have always been at the frontier of innovation. The modes of delivering distance education have undergone multiple stages of development, from relying on printed materials to making use of radio and television broadcast and multimedia, followed by interactive Internet platforms. The next stage, in Dr Li's opinion, will see distance education supported by AI. To meet the needs of modern-day metropolitan learners, HKMU has set its mind on developing 'agile-blended learning'. 'Blended learning', which refers to the blend of electronic and conventional delivery modes, has long been widely adopted. Meanwhile, 'agile learning', a concept derived from software development and training — emphasising speed, flexibility and teamwork — has been gaining popularity in the fields of education and training. Integrating the two pedagogical approaches organically, agile-blended learning can be summed up in four aspects: (1) flexibility, (2) autonomy, (3) collaboration and (4) technology mediation.

Internationally recognised academic research quality

The Institute for Research in Open and Innovative Education (IROPINE) under the SOL was established by Dr Li as far back as 2016. Besides conducting research, it organises the annual International Conference on Open and Innovative Education (ICOIE), which is not only one of the University's flagship events, but also widely acclaimed in academia. One only has to look to the increasing number of international academic journals publishing a special issue for the conference to be convinced of its academic standing. HKMU is already a leader in distance and part-time education in Asia, and the SOL is striving to earn the University a spot among the world's top open education providers.