«Building brickwork and stained glass edifices is costly. Yet centres of excellence seem to demand them. Such centres are of limited use unless their product -- expertise -- can be distributed beyond their walls. Moving experts around the globe to solve problems is costly; moving the problems to experts is not always possible. Virtual institutions can cut the cost by enabling the expertise of a centre of excellence to be distributed more widely and, through telepresence, by enabling more problems to be moved to the experts.»
[N. Beard, 'Virtual Institutions', Personal Computer World, July 1994, p.428]

1. Introduction: Education in the Information Age

Education is entering a new era. The school, college, and university, as physical locations for the dissemination of knowledge and the support of learning, are a product of the now waning print culture, the 'Gutenberg galaxy'. There is, after all, nothing natural about the residential university; there is nothing natural about taking 18-year olds out of the world for three years into the cloistered halls of academia; there is nothing in the nature of history or physics or economics or whatever else, as disciplines, that determines that they can be neatly bounded and bundled up in three-year packages. Indeed, there is an almost perverse unnaturalness in believing that, once a residential course of study has been completed, one knows all that one needs to know about a discipline for a lifetime in work; and yet typically, although employment-based training may continue for some on (characteristically) an ad hoc basis, few adults ever think of 'education' or 'learning' as an open-ended process

Yet it was the purely physical restrictions on access to scholarly authority (whether medieval monk or Oxbridge professor) and to the written and printed word that necessitated the creation of bricks-and-mortar centres of learning: a subject expert could only ever be in one place at one time, and if you wanted to benefit from his knowledge and expertise you had no choice but to be where he or she was. In the (-- and it has become a clichéd expression --) constantly and rapidly changing world in which we now live, with new technologies relentlessly redefining the way we work and live, it may not merely be an anachronism to continue to embrace the model of the traditional residential university as the primary locus of learning -- it may arguably be an impediment to appropriate learning and ultimately a threat to growth, both economic and personal.[1]

The potential of telematics for the creation and maintenance of 'virtual institutions' is now well recognised (Beard, 1994; Rheingold, 1994). The confluence of microelectronics, computing and telecommunications that is enabling the emergence of divers kinds of 'virtual spaces' and the 'virtual communities' that inhabit them is beginning to persuade the tertiary and adult education sectors that there exist real opportunities for, and that there are substantial benefits to be accrued from, the construction of 'virtual universities' for open and flexible distance learning and vocational training.[2] If structured high quality learning materials are available online to whoever has access to a computer and modem, without constraints of time and place, then the traditional residential teaching university becomes -- from the students' perspective at least -- largely redundant. (This would then also enable universities to recapture their historical role as centers for research and for the 'pursuit of knowledge', as is exemplified in the UK for instance by residential research activities at the Milton Keynes campus of the Open University.) It was this conviction that last year inspired the European ERASMUS Inter-university Cooperation Programme (ICP) of which I am coordinator to create, in support of its transnational teaching and learning activities, the 'ICP OnLine', eventually porting the curricula and entire teaching framework to the Internet.

The idea of doing so was not in itself especially novel; indeed, for several reasons it was almost inevitable that we should move the ICP in this direction. Numerous 'virtual universities', 'virtual classrooms', 'electronic campuses', and other such provocatively named ventures, have emerged over the last two or three years in the US and Europe, for example, ranging from large-scale and often publicly-funded programmes embracing high-cost technologies such as interactive television (University of Maine, Berlitz European Projects' MTS, University College Dublin's 'Virtual Classroom', ...) to low budget Internet-based projects, differing in their specific aims, structures, organisation, and with correspondingly varying levels of ambitiousness and degrees of real achievement. (For a good example of a mid-cost but effective project, see the British Open University's 'Virtual Summer School'. A brief survey of others can be found here.) At the same time, the political and industrial climate is now nurturing further exploratory forays, in the aftermath of the European DELTA programme, into telematics-based distance learning (see, for instance, the EU White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness, and Employment, December 1993, the Bangemann group's recommendations on Europe and the Global Information Society, May 1994, the CCTA report Information Superhighways: Opportunities for public sector applications in the UK, May 1994, and the CEC COM(94) 347, Europe's Way to the Information Society, July 1994, especially with regard to distance learning/'tele-education'). Echoing the Delors White Paper with its stress on "life long learning for a changing society", the report from the Bangemann group, for example, seeks through Application Area Two to "promote distance learning centres providing courseware, training and tuition services tailored for SMEs, large companies and public administrations" as well as to "extend advanced distance learning techniques into schools and colleges."

Against that background, the present paper reports on our ERASMUS 'ICP OnLine' initiative to date, and looks ahead to future developments.

[1] There are, of course, some obvious benefits in attending the traditional residential university, not the least of which is social. As Acker (this volume), suggests, following Oldenburg's (1989) description of the city, deprived of the social opportunities offered by the university, "people remain lonely within their crowds. The only predictable consequence of technological advancement is that they will grow ever more apart from one another". We are not yet sure what the social experience of our distance learners will be, or how the social dimension supports the learning experience, though on the one hand we assume that they will 'in real life' continue to enjoy whatever extra-curricular social life they might have (and as have traditional distance learners) while, as members of an online learning community, discover the kind of community experience that Rheingold lauds in his Virtual Communities.[Back]

[2] Distance learning is, of course, not a new phenomenon. >From the 'commercial correspondence courses' in the 19th century to the 'Open Universities' of the late 20th century, the notion of solitary learning at a distance has become well established. Much of the growing appeal of telematics-based learning as a successor to the traditional correspondence course mode lies in the capacity for reaching, and responding to, learners more rapidly and, through the potential offered by videoconferencing, recreating the sense of presence inherent in face-to-face communication. [Back]