He's only three months into the job, but a passion for education is what led Nick Hutton to his role as CEO of U21 Global, an educational institution focusing on graduate studies that operates on a 100 per cent online environment. Hutton spent much of his childhood in North Africa, where his father headed the English Department at Ethiopia's University of Addis Ababa.
"I've been closely associated with education for a long time," says Hutton. "My father was ousted from his position once or twice because there was a change in government, but he was out there running the university's English Department for over 35 years.""
Hutton held various roles IT and telecommunications for the last 26 years, before taking on his current position.
"I'm not a 'techy'," admits Hutton. "But I've learnt how to 'marry' certain existing technologies in order to grow the business."
Growth would be an apt word to describe U21 Global's business. The entity started out with about 700 students in 2001, and currently has about 5,000 students spread across 65 countries. U21 Global counts 17 universities across the world as its partners, including the National University of Singapore, University of Virginia, University of Melbourne and the University of Nottingham.
Contrary to popular belief that the latest technologies are needed to ensure a high level of online interactivity, U21 Global today functions on "pretty standard applications", according to Hutton.
"We use PeopleSoft very extensively and also WebCT. It's a series of standard applications that we've put together and developed over the years to create a platform within which a student comes online and does his MBA," says Hutton.
Hutton stresses an important aspect of U21 Global's approach to IT is focussing on the minimum requirements needed to function.
"We continually focus on what we call the "lowest common denominator"," says Hutton. "Not many people today have a 56K dial-up modem, but there are still places in the world where Internet bandwidth is limited. We want to make sure students in those places are not left out, so we start at that [lowest] point and of course, we go up."
Open to new tech
Hutton is quick to emphasize that adopting the "lowest common denominator" approach does not mean overlooking newer technologies, such as Telepresence, in the institution's IT roadmap for the future.
"It [adopting newer technologies] is not [ruled] out. It is essential to keep up with the types of technologies we can employ to better enhance the learning experience," says Hutton. "We have an interesting struggle--on one hand, there are lots of exciting technologies out there, particularly pertaining to video, that we are able to employ, but the challenge lies in finding the right balance, taking into account newer technologies and bandwidth limitations."
He remains optimistic that this balance can be achieved. "It's not too long into the future that the current 13 MB high definition video stream, through lots of different algorithms, gets its bandwidth requirement dramatically reduced.
"Imagine a situation where you've got a low bandwidth video stream being available in high quality to multiple devices," says Hutton. "This high quality video can then be streamed onto a number of different devices, such as PDAs, laptops or television sets. This fits in nicely with our objective of assisting mobile executives achieve their MBA, and the future that such technologies hold for us is really very exciting."
Pocket of time
Elaborating more on how U21 Global's concept makes life easier for the graduate degree seeker, Hutton said, "A busy executive faces a great challenge in balancing work, life and leisure time. They may be working 12 to 15 hour days, travelling quite extensively. How on earth would they be able to do an MBA the traditional way? What we are able to provide is the ability for the executive to go online and do the subject and the class whenever they want to.
"The idea is to utilize pockets of time to catch up on their work," says Hutton. "For example, those 30 minutes of waiting time at the airport before boarding a plane. The student can open up their laptops and do 30 minutes of research, download a case study or email the professor facilitator in charge of their course."
Hutton also claims the online platform offers companies the benefit of holding on to their valuable human resource capital, while getting their employees upgrade themselves at the same time.
"There is a massive skills shortage across Asia Pacific and the Middle East," says Hutton. "Delivering graduate education in a way that enables the executives to continue working is valuable to companies."
Hutton admits the idea of a purely online university is hard to fathom for some, despite the Internet's widespread use today.
"People relate to online learning as computer-based training, they cannot believe that you can transport and transpose what you have in a face-to-face environment into an online model," says Hutton. "But ours is an asynchronous model, and the interactivity is there." Besides e-mail, there are also "live" chat rooms and discussion boards, where students can share experiences.
Pointing out a unique aspect about the Asia Pacific region, Hutton said, "We've discovered, particularly in North Asia, that students in a physical class are typically not very interactive."
This lack of interaction does not hold true if the class is a virtual one, though. "What we've found in the online environment is the exact reverse," says Hutton. "Students from the more inhibited cultures report feeling more at home when they go online, and are very interactive there, in that virtual space."
Fairfax Business Media