Computers in the crofts

A Millennium Commission grant is bringing the launch of the world's firston-line university nearer. Dick Louden reports on progress towards the pioneering University of the Highlands and Islands.

The University of the Highlands and Is-lands is to become reality, more than a century after it was first conceived. The Millennium Commission will contribute Pounds 33.4 million for the futuristic Scotttish project, which in time may generate investment of more than Pounds 100 million. An application for Pounds 9.4 million from Europe has yet to be made.

The "virtual university" - a collaboration between colleges, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise and local authorities - will be a high-technology dispersed campus linking eight colleges and three research institutions from Shetland to Skye and from Thurso to Perth through an advanced digital network.

This will be one of the world's first fully on-line universities, enabling students hundreds of miles apart to take part in live seminars and tutorials together, to see lesson materials drawn on screen and to download virtual libraries.

The grand design is for funding for capital projects at the 11 sites and for investment in state-of-the-art technology for 5,000 full-time students, a third of them working from home.

Some of the technological foundations are already in place. Students in Orkney can communicate through video-conferencing and e-mail. Computer links connect Lews Castle College in Stornoway with the island of Barra. From Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye, Gaelic is available on-line across the world. Perth College has an outreach centre in Kinross, through which students can liaise directly with tutors on the main campus.

The college network has anticipated the university for some time. Perth College is adept at fundraising, as Millennium Commission grants must be matched by finance raised elsewhere.

Depute principal Ray Harris says: "We have been around local enterprise companies and local authorities with some success. We also received a grant of Pounds 2 million from the Gannochy Trust towards our new study centre, which houses resource and library facilities plus our IT open-access centre. We have the promise of a donation to enable us to establish a second outreach centre. "

Perth College, with a catchment area of 20,000 square miles, has set up a small PC-based access centre in the village of Glenlyon and has developed high-tech links with 10 secondary schools.

But how will technology offer students scattered over enormous distances a flexible learning experience with guaranteed quality? Perth offers a likely model in its Kinross outreach. Stewart Duncan, the college's director of curriculum, says: "All you need is a PC, a telephone line and a modem. By pressing a connect button at your terminal you are through to a tutor in our open-access centre. You can also e-mail material to your tutor, who will return it in the same way."

Tutor Bill Haig can support many students at a time because of the special software installed in the system. "More than one student can be working on the same file," he explains. "In addition, I can bring up as many as 16 student PCs together on my screen, with the capability to take over control of any of them."

Such systems, when introduced across the new university's sites and outreach centres, should offer responsive IT support. Video-conferencing will add the visual and audio dimensions, enabling lessons and group tutorials to be screened live.

Students will also be able to download libraries. Mr Duncan says: "We are storing and cataloguing our own library resources on the Internet. We are downloading materials from the Internet and cataloguing them for students. "

The hub of the complex technological operation will be in Inverness. Electronic communications between sites will be routed through the network centre.

Patrick Dark, the university's IT co-ordination manager, is directing the expenditure of Pounds 6.5 million on the development of video-conferencing across all the sites. "In the process, we shall be installing in the largest colleges - Inverness, Perth, Thurso and Moray College in Elgin - video-conferencing with the same high-quality resolution as television. "

"We are going for a bridge like the one which Heriot-Watt University already possesses," says Mr Dark. "This connects up to 12 sites simultaneously. "

He sees it as logical that each of UHI's core administrative functions should be centred in one location. "The library resources catalogue should be held on one site. While students will register at a college, all the registration details and student records should be kept at a single location," he says.

Though it will be years before the University of the Highlands and Islands is accorded full degree-awarding status, the first degree course, a BSc in rural development, has already started, with Lews Castle as the lead campus and Aberdeen University as the validating body.

Across the university network, the immediate priorities will be staff development and infrastructure. No college has more ambitious capital plans than Inverness, which intends to construct multimedia learning facilities, business and staff development centres, residential places, a creche and a "shopping mall" where students can seek information and guidance.

The colleges are concerned about the level of public expectation which the Millennium Commission funding has generated. "We have to walk before we run," says Perth's Ray Harris. "We are still evaluating the best ways of using IT as a support mechanism for paper-based activities. Nor are we yet at the stage of having computers in crofts."

Maybe so, but the University of the Highlands and Islands is on the move and the crofters know their day will come.

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