Cornwall switches on to higher education

Cornwall is the poorest county in Britain and, until recently, didn't even have a university. But that has changed, and the new institution is a pioneer of hi-tech and online learning. Lucy Hodges reports
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What do you normally associate with Cornwall? Cream teas, the sea, palm trees and Daphne du Maurier. You probably don't think of worthy, high-tech things like the innovative use of information technology and a ground-breaking virtual learning environment. But all these happening in and around the seaside town of Falmouth.

Over the past few years an extraordinary educational project has been under way in Cornwall, which is one of the few counties in the United Kingdom not to have had a university, and one of the poorest areas of Britain. A new university has sprung up on the hillside above Falmouth, a gleaming building of granite, wood, glass and concrete topped by a sedum roof. Called the Tremough campus of the Combined Universities in Cornwall, it is fighting the brain-drain that has meant young people had to leave the county if they wanted to get a degree - and often never returned.

"This is a fantastic success story for the county," says Professor Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor of Exeter University, one of the partners in the venture. "It has stemmed the drift of 18-year-olds out of Cornwall. The economic impact will be phenomenal."

Although collaborations are one of the new trends in higher education, this partnership between Exeter and University College Falmouth, with further education colleges and the University of Plymouth is thought to involve more institutions, and more institutions of different types, than any other.

It is conceived on a "hub and spokes" model, with different institutions offering different kinds of courses in different places.

There are two hubs: the Tremough campus and the "health spa" at the Royal Cornwall Hospital. And it is a big advantage that the planners of the venture have started from scratch without the baggage that a lot of older universities carry around with them.

Although the Tremough campus has been built and equipped with £70m of money from the European Union, the regional development agency and the Higher Education Funding Council, it is having to manage with small numbers of staff. So it is thinking the previously unthinkable and branching out in new areas.

"We had to come up with ideas," says Nathan Prisk, the head of IT. "We started with some early pilots four or five years ago. We only had a handful of IT staff , so what we took on had to be easily manageable."

The campus did a deal with Cisco, the global IT giant, and put in place one of the most up-to-date educational networks outside a leading research university. As a result it claims to be one of the first universities in the country to deploy full Voice Over Internet Protocol, (VOIP) a hot new innovation in the IT world. This means it is using the internet routinely as a way of making telephone calls, bypassing the conventional phone companies and getting free phone calls. There are 1,200 VOIP telephones in total and all students have phones in their rooms.

The network covers not only telephones but also CCTV and door-access. "We were the first university to run a completely converged network for voice data, television and security," says Prisk, breathlessly.

Opting for a new way of doing things was not easy. Anne George, the director of academic services at University College Falmouth, remembers that at the time it felt high-risk. "There were other models out there," she says. "It's a risk because you don't know if the new technology is going to work and whether others will follow."

In the event, it has been a success and others are trailing along in the wake of the Cornish experiment. "Everyone now aspires to Voice Over Internet Protocol," she says.

The other area in which Tremough has been brainstorming is in the way that students learn. That is important given the nature of the Combined Universities in Cornwall, with students studying in colleges all over the county and accessing their work remotely. The campus provides big clusters of computers like other universities but students can also take out their laptops and use them all over campus, where wireless access is available.

Next year, the campus will be experimenting with podcasting and vodcasting (video podcasting, for use with the new Apple video iPods and similar devices). The bigger lecture theatres are equipped with multiple cameras which means that lectures can be recorded and made available for students to download.

The university is serious about putting students in charge of their own learning, and believes that universities have to become more flexible and provide undergraduates with access to their education when they demand it. In other words, students can learn when they want. They don't have to drag themselves out of bed for a 9am lecture. Instead they can simply download a podcast. "It's listening to what students want," says Anne George.

Next year also the learning resources centre - the library to you and me - will be open 24 hours a day so that night owls can study at night and sleep during the day if they wish.

With its emphasis on creative subjects - art, media and design - University College Falmouth has a high number of students who are dyslexic. They, in particular, can benefit from watching lectures via podcasts that can be re-run several times to ensure that lessons are learnt.

Such items will be made available on the virtual learning environment, which students access to get information about their courses and to chat to one another. Some courses have already moved more of their work online than others. Students on journalism courses, for example, have a system for keeping in touch with each another online during their six-month industry placements.

The virtual learning environment will be developed further so that, over the coming months, more information goes on line - assignments, marking, lecture notes, booklists, and so on. Students can interact more easily this way as part of their preparation for a lecture, according to John Butcher, the director of learning and teaching at University College, Falmouth. "It enables them to draw on one another's different experiences," he says.

One of the features that students really appreciate is the forum, set up to put students in touch with each another before they arrive on campus - and to continue that conversation when they are actually resident in Cornwall (see box).

Introduced in 2005, it enables students to bond with University College, Falmouth between the time that they are offered a place and the moment that they arrive on campus. That is often a five-month period or longer, during which students have a lot of concerns and questions. A number drop out. The hope is that the forum will prevent a haemorrhage in entrants and ease the induction for freshers. The signs are that it is working.

In future, University College, Falmouth is hoping to add to its new technology by looking at the possibility of giving students the chance to vote during lectures and seminars. In the same way as television viewers press the red button on their Sky handset, they would press a button in the lecture theatre to tell their teachers what they think about a burning issue on the course.

The Tremough campus is still expanding. Phase two is currently being built - including a photography resource-centre, more teaching accommodation and an expansion of the media centre, to be ready in the 2007 academic year. After that, there will be a phase three. All of it will help Cornwall to slough off its cream-tea image and Falmouth to become an intellectual hub of the South-west.

Click with new friends

Without the forum that University College, Falmouth set up to enable new students to chat to one another before arriving on campus, Claire Hughes, 23, might never have turned up. She had a place to study broadcasting but then she received a letter from the college about her student loan. "They had made a mistake," she explains. "They said I would receive a loan of only £850."

This threw her into despair because she knew it meant she couldn't afford to come. But she had already made friends on the on-line forum and told her new on-line friends about the letter. "I got really upset and said I wasn't coming to Falmouth," she says. "They told me to phone the college and sort things out so I did, and everything was fine."

For prospective students like Claire, who might be shy and unassertive, the forum is a godsend. She learnt about it from her mentor, a second-year student.

She logged on and met Bryher Davies, 20, who is now in her first few weeks of a photography degree,. "I started talking to her on the web and we have never stopped," says Bryher. "I wanted to find out about the course, what the people were like and what Falmouth was like."

Claire explains: "I knew I was going to meet Bryher when I got there and that made it so much easier to settle in."

The forum enables the freshers to form a little community before they arrive. Each student who logs on can attach a picture of themselves. Bryher, with her trademark yellow, blue and pink hair, was instantly recognisable when she arrived. "I have been walking around and people say, 'Ah, you are Bryher'," she says.