[3/17/97: see now the web site]
The world's first virtual campus has flickered into life in Catalonia, north-eastern Spain. The Open University of Catalonia (OUC) combines multimedia applications, electronic mail, videos and tapes with the more traditional pen and paper, to allow people to take a distance degree. Using new technologies to improve the quality of distance education is nothing new. Canada's Tele- Universite in Quebec and Mexico's Item Seis, for example, are already experimenting with sending students pre-recorded classes via satellite. The Catalan project, however, is the first teaching institution to be entirely built around communications technology.
The first intake of 200 students are taking degrees in either business studies or educational psychology. In the years to come, law, engineering, English, Catalan and statistics will be added to the prospectus; and by the year 2000, student numbers will have reached 11,000. This new brand of cyber student will use a personal computer, a modem and the telephone line as essential study tools. Although basic course materials still arrive on paper in the post, the students, scattered throughout the region, will hand in essays, receive corrections and communicate with lecturers and other students via electronic mail. Students also have access to the Internet, a virtual library and a virtual cafeteria to lessen feelings of isolation. Study meetings held twice a semester will provide face-to-face contact, but otherwise students, most of whom hold down full-time jobs, will study at home, setting their own timetables. Every big Catalan city will soon have an OUC resource centre, linked up by fibre optic cable. Here students may gather to take part in live videoconferences and debates. At the heart of the web, in a well-heeled district of Barcelona, the university headquarters oversee the day-to-day running of this futuristic institution.
The OUC has been set up in a record 12 months on the initiative of the Catalan regional government. Between working frantically to meet their deadlines, OUC staff readily admit their project is highly experimental. 'We are an institution that re-invents itself on a daily basis,' says Francesc Noguera, head of information systems. As a new way of delivering education calls for new vehicles, conventional study methods will be supplemented by multimedia modules. Leading academics have been commissioned to provide the academic content and the OUC team is converting this raw material into interactive multimedia packages. For Carles Gay, head of multimedia publishing, the newness of what they are doing means problems are more often conceptual than technical - 'how do we go about producing something which is a multimedia material rather than a book, but which still has educational value?' he asks. Multimedia will also fulfil less academic functions, such as keeping students in touch with university life. A calendar interface containing information on upcoming lectures, videoconferences and cultural and sporting events is the first programme off the production line. Multimedia interfaces act as the students' main window into the university, and are seen as key elements.
Given that the student profile is diverse, the OUC team is at pains to ensure interfaces are as user-friendly as possible. Rich Lang, Interface designer at the OUC says: 'Students don't care that this building is full of networks, circuits and expensive machinery. They want to know what happens when they pop on the computer.' While most students will communicate via the public telephone system, a pilot group of 15 will start off this year using ISDN, a more advanced technology which will allow them to transmit data and images at much higher speeds. As ISDN exchanges and accessories become more widely available in Spain, more students are expected to switch to lSDN. Telefonica, Spain's main telecoms operator, has been closely involved. It has agreed to charge students the local rate for Open University calls so that people distant from the centre will not have to pay more. This is the first time Telefonica has moved away from the principle of charging calls according to distance, a measure of the importance it attaches to this project. For Telefonica, the UOC is a chance to put its lSDN technology into practice on a 1arge scale - allowing it to simultaneously iron-out technical problems and reach an attractive user-group.
'With several thousand students and professors using this technology, within a few years people will be used to working in this environment,' says Josep Maria Canals, director of Telefonica Barcelona. The people at the OUC are convinced their idea is a blueprint for the future. As training needs diversify and telecommunications help to break down the barriers of distance, the role of new technologies in education looks set to grow. 'What now seems the project of a single university could become a valid alternative for all universities,' says UOC vice-rector Francesc Pedro.