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Cyber-learning makes Highlands less remote;World of Work

The university evolving in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is a different kind of animal to the University for Industry, although people confuse them because they both rely on a heavy investment in information and communications technology.

In the last two years an area larger than Belgium, some 10,000 square miles stretching from Shetland in the far north to Argyll in the south, the western isles to Elgin in the east, has been cabled up in a high-speed, wide-band digital network.

Some pound;10m has been spent on linking 13 colleges and research institutions by cable and in the case of Shetland and the Western Isles by microwave links. The total cost of the university is pound;93million from a variety of grant funding sources.

The lack of a university in the region has traditionally led to the best and the brightest students leaving to study elsewhere and invariably not returning to the area. Research indicates that most graduates take their first job relatively close to the university where they graduated.

Like the University for Industry, the Highlands version is avoiding the template of a single-campus university or a series of satellite campuses. Instead, a new kind of university is being created, based on a network of further education colleges and research centres.

These colleges will be part of a network of state-of-the-art learning centres linked by a high-speed communications. It is not a virtual university as such because studying will be supported by teachers on the network's campuses and in local community centres. The plan is that courses will be focused on the particular needs of rural and remote communities. Four "virtual" research schools are being created to cover the following areas: Language, Culture and Heritage; Natural System Sciences; Sustainable Rural Development; and Learning Environments and Technology.

Professor Brian Duffield, the chief executive of the university, believes that its success will depend on the people who can advise, guide, help and explain both the support and delivery technologies involved and the learning materials available.

"These key individuals are the new kind of teacher, the enabler, the facilitator, the so-called 'guide by the side' rather than the traditional 'sage on the stage', '' he says.

"This break with the past - a move away from academic staff, once preoccupied with teaching and acting as 'purveyors of knowledge', to professionals working within a new learning paradigm as 'facilitators of learning' - has been born out of the ICT revolution but provides a modelfor all educational institutions.

"The UHI constitutes a prototype university for the 21st century and provides a model for the development of educational opportunities in all remote areas - it uses modern technology to overcome the obstacles of distance and time whilst, at the same time, utilising the existing knowledge, skills and cultural achievements of individuals, organisations and communities in its region to ensure the quality, relevance and accessibility of educational opportunities."

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