University of the world

IBM is widening access to tertiary education. Dorothy Walker reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you think you have a big project on your hands, spare a thought for IBM. The company is three years into what promises to be a century- long technological marathon to put the entire Vatican Library online.

Now the computer giant is using the same technology, plus a mix of Lotus Notes, ThinkPads, the Internet and the skills of numerous professors to produce Global Campus.

Last week IBM launched its vision of a system that will enable the world's universities to sell their skills and their degrees to a new and wider audience.

Addressing 150 European university representatives in Brussels, IBM's Geoffrey Robinson said: "These days, we are embarrassed by the richness of technologies that can be applied to education. So we have gone back to first principles, to see what we should be bringing to it."

The thinking behind Global Campus is that there is a vast untapped market waiting for academic institutions, if only they can sell to new kinds of student. Many would-be graduates live thousands of miles away in developing nations. Those closer to home may be mature-aged and have to juggle learning with full-time jobs. Even today's teenage undergraduates arrive on campus with different expectations, having grown up in the "DotCom", Internet- literate generation, although IBM's claim that students "don't value books, but only Internet connections" was thought by some academics to be a little far-fetched.

The proposition is that universities put courses and reference material online, in a way that helps remote students learn together. It also allows the universities to broaden their scope by selling courses to one another.

Lotus Notes software has been taken on an excursion out of the office into the classroom, and used to make LearningSpace, with which courses can be built and studied. It promises to pull together the syllabus, lectures and digital source material on a student's PC, and allow collaboration between students and tutors on the Web. Peter Rothstein, head of research and development at the Lotus Institute, says that the approach works best for subjects that involve teamwork or training, rather than just the acquisition of information. At the Cranfield School of Management in Bedford, executive part-timers use Lotus Notes to keep in touch with the school as they try to apply coursework in their companies.

The technology being used in the Vatican project has been packaged as Digital Library. Libraries and museums can scan, index and store text and images, which can be searched using Web browser-type software. The ability to search for images by colour and shape is promised next year.

Now the $64,000 question: how do the students afford the PCs? IBM has an answer for that one, too. It has a scheme to lease ThinkPad notebooks to universities. The machines are then leased to students, with an option to buy when they graduate. This frees the university to buy more computersn