Academics under threat from an electronic vision: BT research chief predicts birth of interactive computer university. Susan Watts reports

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The Independent Online
An electronic university with which people of all ages would communicate via remote links in a continuous learning process was envisaged yesterday.

This view of the future by British Telecom's leading visionary was presented to a group of leading academics - who were accused of being moribund.

Peter Cochrane, head of research at the company's laboratories at Martlesham in Suffolk, told them: 'The technology that is going to take you all out is already here.' He ran a demonstration of a computerised version of Gray's Anatomy for 21st century medical students, which combined video, text and speech to provide students with an interactive guide to the bones, tissue and nerves of the human body. Such technology would not only help teachers and students to cope with information overload, but would also enhance learning.

'Why bother with Gray's Anatomy when you can fly through the body, take a scalpel to it and learn rather than just read. I would far rather go inside an atom using virtual reality and feel the forces between its components and see the distances than watch a physics lecturer chalk up 10 to the minus 39 on the blackboard.'

He challenged Britain's higher education establishment to describe the key features of a turn-of-the century university. Would it have students, libraries, buildings and laboratories, he asked, hinting that in his view it would not.

Professor Cochrane said recent trips to universities had convinced him the education process must change. Teachers and students are drowning under a huge mass of information.

People are spending 80 per cent of their time finding information, 10 per cent putting it in order and only 5 per cent of their time making decisions. 'We have to find a way to reduce that 80 per cent, yet people can't work any harder or longer.'

The problem, he said, was that education has not changed since Archimedes' time. 'The only difference is that instead of scratching around in the soil, teachers now stand up and use a whiteboard.'

People were unaware of the power of technology already available, he said. 'By 2010, personal computers will be as powerful as you and I at storing and processing.' Professor Cochrane warned that unless they adopted the technologies on offer academics will not cope.

He predicted that libraries will disappear, certainly for the science and engineering disciplines young enough to have their entire history placed onto a bank of compact discs.

Arts subjects are a little more problematical - although one CD can now comfortably hold the contents of 2,000 fat books, and original texts and photographs can be stored similarly as digitised images.

He referred to a research project at Martlesham, known as 'experimenting with children', which he said has shown that the today's young people learn in a totally different way to their parents, using different skills and with different expectations. 'They cannot conceive of a world without video games, colour television and pocket calculators. They want good graphics, very good animation and instant gratification.'

He also said students were turning down places at Oxford and Cambridge in favour of offers from redbrick universities because they had better computing equipment.

He added: 'We were really fast off the mark with the concept of the Open University, but that has now stagnated because it has frozen in time as a format. The future is going to be interactive, faster and much more dynamic and challenging.'