2. Origins of the ERASMUS 'ICP OnLine'

The European Community-funded ERASMUS programme was launched in 1987 to foster links between universities in different EU member states, pre-eminentlty to enable students to spend periods of study in other European universities. The links are formalised in Inter-University Cooperation Programmes (ICPs) which group university departments together in subject area-specific networks; the four types of activity for which ICPs may apply for funding are Student Mobility, Teaching Staff Mobility, Joint Curriculum Development, and Intensive Programmes. First funded three years ago for Student Mobility and Joint Curriculum Development programmes in the area of Informatics/Artificial Intelligence, ERASMUS ICP-UK-1429/11 now comprises Kingston University (UK), Università degli Studi di Milano (Italy), Université Pierre et Marie Curie/Paris VI (France), Espoo-Vantaa Institute of Technology (Finland), Wilhelms Westfälishe-Universität (Germany), Université Montpellier II (France), South Bank University (UK), Universität Leipzig (Germany), and the University of Limerick (Ireland), with the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (Spain) expected to join in September 1995.

After two years of disappointingly low mobility (an optional rather than necessary part of the home courses), the ICP partners observed that, in the light of the very few students we are able to move annually in the Student Mobility programme, even an ad hoc cost-benefit analysis clearly showed a disproportion between the considerable time and effort invested in developing the curricula and teaching materials and the meagre benefit accruing to the partner institutions and their students as a whole.

In the third year, the decision was therefore taken to enable and support 'virtual mobility' by porting the programme to the Internet, and building it into the students' home institution taught course. Yet since the programme could now in principle be made accessible to anyone with access to the Internet, whether or not a member of any one of the partner universities, we were further led to the notion of a truly public access distance education no longer tied to the traditional residential university. The principal criteria underscoring and guiding the direction of our initiative were:

  • COST OF IMPLEMENTATION: it should be implementable at minimal cost. We were constrained by a tight budget -- an ERASMUS grant of 9,600 ECUs (i.e., around UKL7200 or US $12000) awarded for the academic year 1993-4 to fund the administration of both the Student Mobility and the Curriculum Development programme, and which precludes the purchase of kit, software, books, and other durables, as well as staff costs. The relatively 'low-tech' option of the Internet/World Wide Web was therefore an obvious choice.
  • COST OF ACCESS: consistent with the aim of extending the opportunity for 'virtual mobility' to many more than the few students who would normally be able to physically move to a host institution, it should allow low cost public access to the programme. Effectively anyone with a computer and a modem, wherever they are physically located, should be enabled to participate. This meant that, at least in the short term, we should avoid high-cost high-tech media such as video-conferencing or interactive television.
  • SCALABILITY/VALUE-ADDED STUDENT PARTICIPATION: it should enable the portfolio of training materials and learning resources to be expanded at minimal cost to include new partners and increased student 'virtual mobility'.
  • FLEXIBILITY: releasing learning from the time and space constraints of the physical lecture or workshop enables learners to work at their own pace and with just those resources that the s/he needs rather than those that the structured nature of the traditional lecture course imposes. This flexibility then further supports distance learning in continuing education.
  • REUSABILITY: there should be no unnecessary 'reinventing the wheel'. It should wherever possible, for reasons of sheer commonsense as well as of cost of development, seek to use resources that are already out there in the public thoroughfares of CyberSpace in a cost-efficient customization of the student learning environment.
  • QUALITY ASSURANCE AND CONTROL: subject experts -- for example, from residential universities or from professional societies -- would be responsible for examination procedures and for conformity with national and international standards
  • CREDIT-WORTHINESS and ACCREDITATION: Potential candidates for such validation bodies are the traditional residential universities and the professional societies (such as the Royal Society of Arts, British Computer Society, British Psychological Society, and so forth). In a many ways the latter option would mark a novel return to the old methods of validating one's professional competence
Two further advantages we perceived in porting the programme to the Internet were that:
  • the teaching and resource materials may be updated, extended or otherwise modified regularly at minimal cost since only a single electronic copy -- rather than multiple paper copies -- need be changed, and
  • while the ICP co-ordinator would remain responsible for ensuring the global coherence of the programme, the distributed nature of the resource ensures that individual institutions would be able to add further materials reflecting their native expertise (e.g., linguistic engineering from Münster, logic programming from Milan, formal methods from Leipzig, expert systems from Paris, neural networks from Limerick, ...).

A prototype version of the ERASMUS ICP 'ICP OnLine' was launched in the Summer of 1994. The World Wide Web (WWW), in providing the simplest and most user-friendly access to the Internet through browsers such as Mosaic and Netscape has been adopted as the student interface to the 'ICP OnLine', with its entry point via an ERASMUS 'home page' on a server located at Kingston University. The primary objective of the project is to support 'virtual student mobility' such as to extend the linguistic and cultural benefits of mobility from the tens of students in an institution who can move physically to the potentially many hundreds of students who, with access to the Internet, can participate as 'virtual movers'.

Resources to facilitate the 'virtual mobility' of email-linked transnational student teams include an experimental WWW 'shopfront' to the 'ICP OnLine', with links to a description of the ERASMUS project itself and of the ICP, to partner institution WWW home pages, to profiles of the participating universities and the cities in which they are located, links to syllabi, courseware, bibliographies, research reports, project guidelines, CVs of staff, cultural resources and relevant 'social' USENET newsgroups, and pointers to European language resources, including electronic newspapers, journals, books, and dictionaries.[3] To help 'virtually mobile' students orient themselves within the 'ICP OnLine' as well as to navigate their way around the labyrinths of CyberSpace, the ICP commissioned, as an expense under the Curriculum Development Programme, the production of an ERASMUS Student Guide to the Internet. Although the electronic copy of the Guide is not yet 'on-line', paper versions are being issued to students this year.

[3] At the present time, English remains the lingua franca of the ICP, not through choice but through necessity. With most academic publishing being in English, non-English speaking students throughout Europe are obliged to acquire a competence in the language, while native speakers of English -- especially when students of technology -- have little incentive to learn other languages. We hope to address this issue over time, however, and are already starting to publish materials in more than one language. [Back]