The knowledge gap between us and the US could be solved if our universities provided online short courses

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Some 300,000 jobs were created in the US last month, according to the US Department of Labor. Many were in computing, management and engineering. Often when an American IT company expands, the benefits are felt in Britain, where many major players have their European HQs. So we should all see the Network+ appointments growing fatter within the next six months.

That's the good news. The bad news is that a lot of the new jobs being created involve things like second-generation Web applications, Web projects that require mainframe integration, or Web-driven call centres - all areas where Britain suffers a shortage of qualified IT professionals.

As a result, US companies will have to bring their own people over, despite the fact that we are cheaper, have a better sense of humour and don't insist on crazy stock options as much as our Silicon Valley counterparts. Recently I watched with much irritation when a US company using the latest Simware's Salvo to enhance a legacy mainframe application had to go back to the States, after two months of fruitless head-hunting, to get a team together for a project based, of all places, in Reading, the unofficial capital of the UK software industry. This knowledge gap could easily be solved if our universities provided decent online short courses to help British IT staff keep up with the latest "bleeding edge" skills.

Not long ago I needed to learn quickly about setting up a digital TV production studio that will work with an existing Internet database-driven publishing system. When I was in New York last summer I filled a lot of my knowledge gaps via short online courses from UCLA (http://www.unex.ucla.edu/ On_line.htm). Back in the UK, however, I looked on the Net for similar short online courses from University College London or Imperial College's Computing Department covering my interest area. Well, guess what? Some of the technical departments don't even have updated Web pages for their existing traditional courses, never mind putting the courses themselves online.

A quick scroll through UCL's offerings revealed a bunch of interesting products such as a Digital Systems course, but it was very definitely attendance-based and required my body to be present at seminars. Every day at work we somehow manage to resolve a number of complex issues via e-mail, so I refuse to believe that we couldn't learn online about, say, CAD development. Not to mention that my frantic workload means that attending courses in person these days is out of the question.

However, the fact that I am busy doesn't mean that I have less pressure to learn. Indeed, more knowledge is always required, as we will always need to know details about new solutions, new publishing products, new hardware. I would be prepared to pay a significant sum to have that knowledge delivered to my laptop via the Web or in the form of e-mailed course materials. This would allow me to study in the only remaining free time, which starts around midnight.

American universities long ago worked out that there is a method to Microsoft madness, and understand the economy of ever-increasing returns. Online educational courses are like Internet Explorer: you produce it once, and then distribute the hell out of it for no increase in cost using the Internet. That is how some software companies got very fat very quickly, and the universities took notice. Those that were first with the right products, such as UCLA with its online technical short courses, are laughing all the way to their digital bank. Every course has a fee of around $500, so with a worldwide audience to draw upon we're talking a nice little earner here.

One would think that UK universities were perfectly positioned to take advantage of the Internet, but it seems that when it comes to cheap global distribution of educational products they are going to sit it out, seemingly content to watch Americans grab the global online education market for themselves. This strange reluctance is even more surprising, bearing in mind the Government's recent decision to make students pay thousands of pounds for their undergraduate degrees. Well, faced with such a charge and the prospect of lifelong penury while trying to pay off the debts, a significant number of smart, technically minded students (if not all), will no doubt vote with their feet and enrol in a good online computing degree from MIT or UCLA for roughly the same amount of money.

The fees for American online courses are much lower than their off-line equivalents, as they can serve more people many times over and also distribute materials electronically instead of costly printed textbooks. Faced with international competition, our universities will have to think about making money in some way other than from students and their already squeezed parents. Providing short, specialised online courses in computing, engineering and management would be a good start. Then we can brush up on our skills and apply for all these nice new jobs created by American companies in Slough or Reading.

Meanwhile, if you or your children want to study online, you will need a second telephone line at home, a stable, durable and low-maintenance machine (the majority of US schools use Apple Macs for these reasons) and a bit of time around midnight. Mail me at eva@never.com with your online educational progress, or good courses you have found. Feedback, as always, will be posted on www.never.com/eva

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