4. Beyond the 'Gutenberg galaxy': Looking to the Future

4.1. The Community Learning Resource Centre

Based on the experience of running the 'ICP ONLINE' pilot, a consortium comprising the ERASMUS ICP-UK-1429, Open for Business for the Open University of The Netherlands, Question Mark Computing, TeleTraining, Easynet/Cyberia (the UK-based Internet café group), and Birmingham City Council Libraries and Leisure Service department, among others, is now preparing a proposal for the generalisation of the scheme to create a generic framework for a 'virtual university' as a conduit for independent course providers to deliver high-quality interactive multimedia training programmes to all EU citizens either through Community Learning Resource Centres (CLRCs), or in company-based training rooms, or from home.

Delivery of courseware would be via a mix of CMC media, including the World Wide Web, Timbuktu Pro, ISDN and Internet-based video-conferencing with shared whiteboards, and FirstClass conferencing. Monitored online self-assessment for rapid feedback together with submission and assessment of coursework via electronic mail would form the hub of the student evaluation process; creditation is expected to be given by the participating universities, other course providers, and by professional bodies.

The CLRCs (including the first demonstration sites for the project), as the physical nodes and access points to the proposed 'virtual university', are planned to be:

  • Adult Education Centres
  • Company training rooms
  • Internet cafés
  • Special schools for students with learning or physical disabilities
  • Public libraries
  • Prisons
  • Selected homes

Stressing the importance of low-cost public access, the 'virtual university' would continue to be Internet-based, though we now envisage (i) a strong shift away from purely text-based towards multimedia learning materials, and (ii) as an additional facility offered to the CLRC-based user, a 'virtual tutorial room' admitting up to four users at a time (e.g., 4 students, student and tutor, student and industrial mentor, ...; see also footnote 4). Video-conferencing software running over the Internet, such as CU-SeeMe (already tested), would underpin the 'virtual tutorial'.

4.2. Video-conferencing

With the prospect of the addition, in late Spring 1995, of student video-conferencing in the 'virtual tutorial room', we are moving closer to real meetings of minds across national and linguistic borders. In addition, Université Pierre et Marie Curie and Kingston University are currently experimenting with ISDN-based video-linking using France Telecom's VisioAmphi system; the first synchronous 'tele-lecture' between the two sites is scheduled for early Summer 1995, with its extension to other sites later in the year.

4.3. Enhancing the student experience

That telecommunications and computing technologies enable the creation of a 'virtual university' is not in itself a justification of its use or demonstration of its effectiveness. The most common objection raised against the concept of 'virtual mobility' in the context of our ERASMUS programme, for example, is that it falls far short of the experience of physically immersing oneself in the language and culture of another country. A virtual croissant and café crème just don't taste the same as the real thing, a virtual rose can never smell as sweet. While this is true (and remain true pending the arrival of fully immersive virtual reality!), we believe that there may for the participating student be great benefit in the vicarious electronic experience as a hypermedia resource complementary to the home institution courses in European languages and culture. Among our plans for future developments, we will expect to address in greater depth the issue of enhancing the student's learning experience.

Among the numerous parameters along which successful learning may be measured, three emerge as particularly significant:

  • NEGOTIATED LEARNING: the extent to which the learner is able to customise his/her personal learning regime to perceived and agreed training needs. Residential college and university courses, under the constraint of needing to address mass audiences, mirror the mass-production mode characteristic of the first industrial age and may consequently fail the individual learner; freed from the residential constraint, telematics-based programmes can support the 'mass-customisation' of learning through pick-and-mix learning-on-demand.
  • PARTICIPATORY LEARNING: the extent to which the learner is enabled to participate actively in the learning process. The university lecture is, for example, a paradigmatically passive non-participatory activity; simple 'page-turning' multimedia may provide the learner with some degree of engagement in the learning process, but may still be 'inter-passive' rather than properly interactive; high-quality multimedia should involve the learner in active task-based problem-solving.
  • EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING: the extent to which the learning content is embedded in the 'context-of-doing' (cf. Lave, 1988; substantially the same point is discussed in Gay & Lentini's paper, this volume). Effective learning of a complex and content-rich cognitive skill takes place most effectively through its rehearsal in an environment that, as closely as possible, simulates the real-world environment in which that skill would be put into practical use (hence, for example, flight simulators for trainee pilots). Multimedia and virtual reality can model such environments.

The project plans to address these three parameters by seeking to provide:

  • CUSTOMISED LEARNING-ON-DEMAND: a genuinely modularised learning regime allowing the user, after the model of US tertiary education programmes, to select on demand and (on successful completion) be accredited for just those modules that meet his/her perceived learning and training needs.
  • a MULTIMEDIA INTERACTIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: the provision of learning materials that will actively engage the learner through problem-solving, immediate feedback, and graded progression through the programme
  • SIMULATION AND VISUALISATION: multimedia display techniques combining graphic, textual, audio and video material can be used in the presentation of 'visualisations' (flat screen 2-D renderings) of, and simulations of, complex real-world problems. 3-D modelling software such as Virtus WalkThrough or SuperScape enables the creation of 'virtual virtual realities' in which the learner is empowered not merely to observe simulated real-world problems but to actively participate in their solution.

Creating the ideal student environment is a massive and costly task. The consortium is this year submitting a proposal for funding, under the European Framework IV programme, of a Telematics in Education and Training project which, over the three years of funding, would enable us to study and, we hope, implement the above measures.