Is it time for a University of Cyberspace?

The internet has given us the power to create a global university - but there are still important issues to be resolved.
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Academics have been chatting to each other across the world by e-mail for so long that they take it for granted. But it is only in the last few years that students have got in on the act. But like everything to do with new technology, the pace of change is frenetic. Where once it was only Open University students who chatted to their tutors, or to each other, online, it looks like being much more common in the future.

Academics have been chatting to each other across the world by e-mail for so long that they take it for granted. But it is only in the last few years that students have got in on the act. But like everything to do with new technology, the pace of change is frenetic. Where once it was only Open University students who chatted to their tutors, or to each other, online, it looks like being much more common in the future.

Last February, David Blunkett sought bids from universities to launch an e-university next year, which would offer virtual distance learning on a global basis. Interest is real enough among some of the UK's élite institutions, but there are apparently more questions still to be resolved than answers found. Who, in a consortium, for instance, would award degrees? Who would monitor quality? And would students be as willing to pay fees for a "virtual" experience from across the globe as they would for learning on a real campus?

So the big hitter - which could compete with American universities such as Phoenix and the Virtual University of California, which are up and running, albeit with variable success - may be temporarily on hold. But other, smaller players are not holding back.

It is already possible to take courses at every level, from basic skills to postgraduate degrees, through distance learning with at least some electronic contact between teachers and taught. The OU remains a world leader in the field of higher education, but further education is also very active. Newham College in east London has taken the lead, with six others around the country who are developing Collegenet. With the support of computer giant ICL and international consultants Arthur Andersen, Collegenet is intended to provide tailor-made training through a virtual learning network for medium and small businesses.

"We have had help from the European Social Fund as well as business to meet a very particular need," says Diane Gowland, the project's director. "Our clients are the ones who may not have the skills or the hardware and software they need to expand and succeed. We can help them with all that and then customise the training they need."

At the other end of the country, St Helens College, near Liverpool, is developing online learning in co-operation with local industry and education. The latest development is a bespoke Virtual Campus, intended to promote participation - and made possible by the latest digital technology. Students can enrol online and gain access to a taster course while their payment is being processed. Students and staff keep in touch through a personal messaging system, and there is online tutorial support as students work through their courses. There is an online library and a gateway to internet links to material supplied by tutors.

The Virtual Campus expands the opportunities available to individual students, says Marianne Green of St Helens College. Learning is no longer location specific; anyone, anywhere can follow the same programme. Programmes can be personalised, materials are kept constantly up to date, individuals can work at their own pace and courses are fully supported by e-tutors wherever the students happen to be. And, most importantly, there are financial and time savings for them too.

The Scarman Centre at Leicester University has found a highly regarded niche providing traditional distance-learning courses in the area of policing, crime and punishment. Its courses are based on a traditional mixture of study guides, course books, essays and dissertations. But the centre is not ignoring innovation. "New approaches are investigated and new methods of teaching constantly appraised," says the director, Dr Martin Gill.

Lawrence Herbert, of the National Extension College, which has years of experience in putting together traditional distance-learning packages, says that their approach is cautious. "We are working on plans to introduce online tutoring, but innovations like that are not without their problems. At the moment we all understand the boundaries between students, tutors and the college. E-mail will speed everything up and maybe disrupt the balance. You can't expect tutors to be available 24 hours a day."

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