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The construction boom in "virtual classrooms" is leading universities to find new partners and competitors in the corporate world

The sleek towers and domed halls of Singapore's Temasek Polytechnic offer the services students dream of - state-of-the-art libraries and data bases, easy course registration, tutorials, study guides, financial advice for tuition and more - all without hours or energy wasted waiting in line. If seeing is believing, why not wander over to the students' centre for a quick visit? A few keystrokes on the Internet and you are there.

Welcome to the world of online education. Students around the globe can enrol in classes like Temasek's, which cover everything from engineering to tourism and even an introduction to Japanese Katakana characters. Time and distance are no longer an obstacle to learning, as students download specially designed courses according to their own schedules, with tutorials and extra materials available via e-mail, CD-roms and electronic libraries open around the clock. Exams, papers and even private consultations with professors or other students are all done within the comfort of home.

In the last year, virtual classrooms of all shapes and sizes have been under construction around the world, offering very real solutions for universities and training institutes threatened by dwindling public resources and students needing more flexible course materials and schedules to compete in today's job market. Mexico's Monterey Institute of Technology, for example, is developing online courses and importing them from universities north of the border. Even the World Bank is getting involved with plans for a virtual university in Africa. And while it is natural to find traditional distance education providers such as UK Open University breaking into this new field, prestigious brand-name schools are also investing. Duke University of the United States has proudly opened its "Global Executive MBA" to a hand-picked class of mostly international businesspeople with tuition at $85,000.

This new distance education is a far cry from the lowly correspondence courses of the past, seen as a "second-chance" for those who couldn't make it in or have access to regular educational channels. It also represents not just another learning opportunity but a promising new market for telecommunications and computer corporations, wing to provide the "piping" - satellite systems, computer platforms for administration or "smart cards" offering access to electronic libraries - to deliver services far and wide. From Germany to Malaysia, telecommunications and computer giants are negotiating "wiring" costs with public and private learning institutions, now seen as new partners for computer companies like Microsoft and Apple.

Consider the case of Western Governors University (WGU) formed in 1997 by a group of governors from the western United States. Convinced that education was failing to meet the needs of employers and students alike, they created a virtual university which distributes services (courses) developed by associated universities and corporate training programmes. The real surprise lies in its National Advisory Board, a powerful mix of state representatives and business leaders from companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sun Microsystems, IBM and above all AT&T, (one of the world's largest telecommunications companies), which has donated more than $750,000. With backing like this, the governors are broadening their horizons, moving beyond the local market by brokering co-operative agreements with overseas "suppliers" - universities and telecom companies - in Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and China.

"Globalization is a term that gets used a lot, but just like trade and commerce, education is becoming more and more integrated across national borders," says Reidar Roll of the non-profit International Council for Distance Education (ICDE), which includes learning institutes and corporations in more than 130 countries. …