5. Concluding remarks: risks and opportunities

The market for open and flexible distance education in general is vast, as is witnessed by the emergence worldwide of numerous distance learning universities and colleges in the past 25 years (the British Open University, the French Centre National de l'Enseignement à Distance, the Open University of the Netherlands, the Canadian Open University, the Japanese University of the Air, ...), by the huge growth in the number of learners studying by distance mode, and in the establishment of such networks as the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, the European Open University Network project, Saturn, EuroPace, Janus, and EuroStep. The size of the potential market (i.e., number of potential learners) for specifically telematics-based distance learning can be gauged from the growth in numbers of Internet users (currently estimated at between 25 and 30 million worldwide) and concomitant increase in the number of access providers in Europe (around 50 in the UK, for example).

With a population-to-host computer ratio of 101 for Finland, 372 for the UK, 543 for Germany, and 801 for France (figures published in Wired, UK edition, April 1995, p.34), and with the rapid penetration of cable into European homes (96% of homes in the Netherlands, for example, are cabled), the infrastructure for online learning is already in place.

Our belief that the mode of access to the proposed 'Virtual Campus' should be through the World Wide Web was likewise in part based on the growth of WWW traffic in 1993 (in, that is, the 12 months following the launch of the Mosaic browser) by a phenomenal 443,931%. Although we propose to undertake, as part of a forthcoming extensive user needs analysis, a more rigorous survey of the market, our confidence in a broad and expansive learner base for the European virtual university has been reinforced by surveys conducted (in 1994) by MacWorld magazine of its readers and by Inteco of 11,500 European cable subscribers and computer owners which clearly indicated that learning-on-demand is a high priority for subscribers to telematic services (BBSs, Internet, AOL, CompuServe, ...).

Finally, however, we clearly recognise that however feasible in principle, in practice there will be problems, in a multicultural and multilingual Europe, of acceptance and cultural adjustment. Most of such problems are obvious, and need not be rehearsed here. The cross-cultural problems are potentially, perhaps, the most interesting and ultimately the most daunting. Teichman (1994, p.66), for example, highlights misunderstandings between American and German high school students in the course of a teleconference between their respective schools:

The fact that one set of American cards of self-introduction was made on pieces of cardboard ripped by hand from old folders no longer needed, had very amateur photographs and were written in pencil in what would be classified in Germany as poor handwriting led to the incensed interpretation by the German recipients that the American partner pupils obviously were not really interested in the project and had not taken care to produce high quality results. In other words, they interpreted the appearance of the American artefacts by reference to their own cultural standards of the importance of neat external form and orderly appearance and the economic possibilities of their school to provide quality, new cardboard and photographic equipment and expertise.

Clearly, having access to the appropriate technology is only the beginning of the project. The major issues are not technological but social.