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Distance learning comes closer

Study environments can now be created to order. Len Adams imagines the different lives of two students of the future The On-Campus Student. Bill Smith is a second-year full-time student at Greenridge College in the south east of England. He is following the business studies programme with modules in French and German.

He is sitting down at a terminal in the college information centre and has joined a large number of other students who are already there. He enters his identification and password and selects the Weekly Programme option from the menu. He is immediately presented with details of his programme for the following week. He scans through it.

Bill sees that at 9am on Monday he has a lecture on business strategies in VideoLecture Three given by Sir John Harvey-Jones. Although he will be one of 4,500 students across the country to watch the live video broadcast he knows that it is an opportunity that he should not miss.

The 10am tutorial is with the usual 15 other students in his seminar group that is led by the specialist business tutor. It is a discussion of the Harvey-Jones lecture. He also notes that the 9am session is marked "preparatory work needed" and asks him to watch a preparatory video and to search for information on three related topics that he will need to bring to the tutorial. He knows that eight hours every week is allocated to personal and group research and knows it is a requirement that he checks his programme in advance for assignments.

Bill decides to watch the video immediately and brings up the video index in a window on his screen. He puts on his headphones and clicks on the video title.

The video runs in a window on the screen for 10 minutes and he requests a summary of the video as a printout which will go to the system printer in the centre. He knows that the system automatically credits him with a course credit for the viewing of the video.

He decides to access the electronic reference library to obtain information on the three related topics and extracts sections of text as files that he stores away for later study. He finds most of the information from the electronic library containing all of the broadsheet newspapers for the last five years.

He knows that following the seminar he will be required to carry on the discussion for the remainder of the week through computer conferencing (CC) with students in other parts of the country using Nellie, the National Learning Network that he uses to link into a group of ten students, each one in a different institution.

Bill has made a number of different friends this way and is going across to Bedford next week on a date with Joan who is in his CC group. He has chatted with Joan several times using e-mail and finally last week on a personal video conference from his terminal.

He is restricted to 10 minutes a week on personal calls and knows that although there is no charge, his credit allocation is fairly small. If it runs out he will have to wait until next term for his new allocation. He is glad that he had the opportunity very early in his course to be able to get to grips with the technology at the college as he knows it is leading him towards a working life in a technological world.

The Home Student. Jean Sharp is a student at the same college. She is disabled and thought that she would not be able to get on to her chosen secretarial and word-processing course because it required full-time college attendance. Although she is mobile, it is difficult to get into the college more than once a week.

She was delighted to find that the college offered an alternative option to full time attendance using the "teleworking" concept of working from home for most of the course, using cable television programmes to receive lectures live from the college with a computer link to her tutor from home.

Jean finds the touch-tone telephone information system provided by the college particularly useful. When she wanted to find out about the course in the first place she was able to access the full course information including qualifications needed, start dates etc. Now she can keep track of college events in the same way. It is useful also that the College Cable Channel contains details of events, course changes etc through its teletext service. She does attend for one day a week on Wednesdays.

It is Friday afternoon and, like Bill Smith she is keen to see her programme for the next week. She switches on her computer and selects the "Connect to College Network" option on the menu. Her computer connects to the data channel on Cable TV and links her to the college network. She appreciates the fact that she does not have to use a telephone line to connect in as it would be extremely expensive.

She enters her ID and password and goes straight into her e-mail. She has three items of mail. The first is from her friend Jane who is also disabled and working from home. She wants to know if she has managed to complete the homework set last week that is due in on Monday.

The lectures are broadcast via cable TV and she always makes a point of recording all of the programmes. Some of the programmes are interactive and through the video-telephone link to the college via cable she can take part in the discussion and question-and-answer sessions. Jean is extremely pleased to follow a course that meets her needs and circumstances.

Much of what is described above is possible now. In the new world of incorporation, an accelerating appreciation of customer needs runs in parallel with advancing technology. The first signs of the campus of the future are already in evidence at several leading-edge colleges.

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