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Wiring up the virtual campus

Through its Knowledge Media Institute, the OU leads the way in distance learning technology. Stephen Pritchard reports
THE FUTURE of education is electronic. At the click of a button students will have access to a vast network that delivers scholarly texts, ancient manuscripts and the knowledge of the brightest academics, wherever they are in the world.

In leading research labs, educationists and computer experts are building prototype systems and software that will radically change the way students are taught. Such is the growth of technology that what is in the labs now will be on our desks or in our homes in just a few years.

In the UK it is surprising to find this vision of an electronic university being built in a portable building in Milton Keynes. Both the location and the building give clues to the direction of the Knowledge Media Institute, which is at the forefront of educational technology.

KMI is at Milton Keynes because it is part of the Open University. The OU has many years' experience of distance learning techniques. Distance and open learning are the areas that are likely to benefit first from the new educational potential of computing.

The portable building is there because KMI has only been up and running since December. The idea of research in this area is not new - the OU has been working on technology and education since its inception - but it was distributed among the university's many faculties and research groups.

The idea behind KMI is to create a "lab" environment, where collaboration is easy and researchers can feed off the exchange of ideas. KMI is designed with plenty of open space - to provide temporary desks for academics from elsewhere in the Open University and to host the ever-increasing number of visitors attracted by KMI's material on the Internet. Certainly, KMI is far removed from the rarefied atmosphere often associated with academic research. The most obvious parallel is with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's media lab.

The institute's senior figures take a hands-on approach to their work. When KMI was created, the OU lacked a suitable building with the lab environment, so its founders, Marc Eisenstadt and Tom Vincent, drove to Terrapin, the portable buildings firm located near Milton Keynes, and selected one.

This attitude extends to more than just buildings. Professor Eisenstadt confesses to being a technology addict. But the need to test facilities students can use to access KMI's materials is at the heart of the OU's goal of ensuring access to education is as broad as possible.

Much of KMI's work originates from research into teaching students with disabilities. One example is the Virtual Microscope, developed by Professor Vincent's team. It was originally intended for physically disabled students, but the concept has spread. Using a computer screen and mouse, students select the slides of their choice and can view them under magnification. Samples can be rotated or filtered as with a conventional microscope. A large screen makes the system easy to use for anyone with eyesight problems, but the design also makes the materials accessible to remote students without the need for a microscope.

Distance learning is also the core of the KMI Stadium. Stadium is designed as a meeting place for large groups of students. What sets it apart from other Internet teaching sites is its interactivity - students can witness an animated presentation and give live feedback. Buttons on the screen can be used to pose questions, give applause or even boo and hiss at an unsatisfactory

speaker. Stadium's technology means that if 30 students out of an audience of 3,000 applaud, everyone will hear less noise than if 300 respond enthusiastically.

Stadium and KMI's other projects rely on creating just enough interactivity to make the material more interesting without placing undue demands on a student's computer. For this reason, more time has been spent on realistic sound than video, for example.

So far, Stadium's talks are based around the formal lecture, which, Professor Eisenstadt concedes, goes rather against the grain of the OU's policy to avoid chalk-and-talk teaching.

However, the same technology can be applied to any mass event. Another KMI project under way is an interactive version of an earth sciences field trip to a quarry. This could take place in Stadium. "We can have a master earth scientist who leads students into the subject, then lets them try it themselves," explains Professor Eisenstadt.

At the other end of the scale, KMI is working on intelligent software that gathers information. Clearly, much of this research has potential applications in the commercial world as well as in teaching.

One example is Luigi. The idea is simple. Someone wishing to organise a meeting sends out possible times to colleagues by e-mail. A computer compiles the responses and circulates an optimum time to participants. Luigi works regardless of its users' computers, and will soon accept fax or phone responses.

KMI has used the same technology for a lift manufacturer, which previously spent weeks calculating constraints for a new elevator design. The process now takes a computer about one-and-a-half minutes.

Professor Eisenstadt sees huge potential for such systems in compiling the knowledge held within a business, which he describes as a firm's "intellectual capital". "If you can understand what a company knows, you're into some very interesting territory," he says.

By the same token, intelligent software can help a limited number of tutors handle queries from a large number of students. A programme could, for example, scan questions, combine similar ones, and forward them to the relevant academic.

Technology of this kind, which makes it easier and more cost-effective to teach large courses of students distributed over a wide area, is ultimately what KMI and the Open University is all about.

o Readers can visit KMI's Internet site at http://kmi.open. ac.uk/nnn