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Distance learning: Something wiki this way comes

Online technology is roaring ahead, helping to create a global electronic classroom.

The news this year that a number of American universities had taken their distance-learning programmes into Second Life, the virtual online world, might appal traditionalists; but technological evolution is a vital part of remote learning, and always has been.

While campus-based students attend lectures and seminars, distance learners are taught by constantly evolving methods. And the pace of change shows no signs of slacking.

What began with print-based courses in 1858, with the University of London External Programme, has moved through stages of radio instruction, audio-visual teaching and conferencing, and CD-based learning. Now providers such as the University of London, the Open University and the University of Leicester are embracing all the possibilities of the online world: podcasts, blogs, wikis and all.

"It's a very exciting time," says Niall Sclater, the director of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Programme at the Open University. The VLE is, put simply, an electronic classroom: a website through which providers can manage the learning experience for students, and allows students to access a host of resources while communicating with tutors and students. "We're helping students to get to know each other better, and their tutors too, by using blogs, online forums and wikis," Sclater says. "Tutors might keep blogs to inform their tutor groups of what's going on. Students are also using blogs for learning journals. Another group of students gathered their findings on a wiki, a website where people can contribute, comment and change things. They said they didn't see how the project could have been run without the wiki."

The VLE can incorporate versions of social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, which can help to mitigate the comparatively high drop-out rates suffered by distance-learning providers.

"This is a big departure for the Open University," says Sclater, who is co-ordinating a £5m project to develop the VLE. "We've been primarily an institute that's sent out text and relied on the occasional face-to-face interaction. With the internet, we've got all sorts of ways to institute change."

Distance-learning providers are clearly working on mobility. "We have a project where we are looking at what can be done to help distance learners through mobile phones," says Professor Jonathan Kydd, Dean of the University of London External Programme. "Reminding students of deadlines and exam dates in a friendly way via text is a way of giving them the sense that they're part of the learning community." As capacity increases, it will be possible to download assignments and submit essays using mobile phones.

Universities are also finding ways to strengthen the academic experience. "What's going to be interesting is remote students being able to access all the resources that campus-based students can," says Kydd. "Access to libraries no longer means having access to the building itself."

Indeed, the number of books and journals that are available online has increased hugely in the past five years. "We're sending out less print," says David Christmas, director of business administration at the University of Leicester. "We're simply referring students to our sophisticated electronic libraries."

But this is all irrelevant if issues of accessibility are not overcome – a real concern in developing countries and remote areas. "There are real-world problems," Christmas says, "and there are still issues with bandwidth and speed."

This is where the most exciting developments are. The OU is working with Intel on an offline facility that could offer online functions and updates when an internet connection is available. Whole courses could be provided on a USB "pen" drive, which is inserted into any computer or laptop. With the recent development of the $100 laptop, it's hard not to see the educational potential on offer.

There are other developments: wireless LCD screens, where difficult words can be touched for an instant definition; ePortfolios, where students can exhibit work and create CVs; synchronous whiteboards (if I draw on my whiteboard, it appears on yours), and so on.

But it's not all technological madness. "One of the most amazing technologies ever invented is reading from paper," Sclater says. "It's a key way to learn, and it's not gone away." Phew!