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Distance learning comes closer

Mike Prestage watches the way one college is using its cable television channel for lectures. Students on a computer literacy and information course at Blackburn College receive their lectures via the college's own cable television channel and then communicate with their tutors using the e-mail system on computers provided for the purpose.

There are only a dozen on the Royal College of Arts course and a similar number on a National Examining Board supervisory management introduction course using a similar technique. But for the college, it points the way forward. And though the bulk of the college's 23,000 students still receive their education in classrooms, information technology will have an impact on all of them in some way or another.

Blackburn, more than most, has grasped the new technology nettle. The Lancashire college provides both higher and further education and has around 600 students taking A-levels. It means a wide range of provision from adult evening classes to masters degrees.

Len Adam, an assistant principal at the college responsible for IT and the campus television station, has a Pounds 500,000-a-year budget. In 1987, the college introduced the first of its three computer networks. The broad band network is capable of transferring data, video or audio. Video and audio from satellite can be distributed to any point in the college.

But the system is too slow for data and though it was state of the art in the late 1980s, it has now been superseded and there is a second, fibre network in the college. This is divided to provide for staff and students.

For staff, the system provides management systems, including college accounts and student registration, and an e-mail facility that has improved communications efficiency. More than 350 staff members are logged on and using the system for communicating, keeping their diary and tapping into reference works. As Mr Adam explained the benefits, messages arrived warning of deadlines for reports and times of meetings.

A one-way bridge ensures that staff can enter the student system but not vice versa. This was done for security reasons and followed an incident some years ago when computer students accessed private areas.

If using the system for keeping a diary of appointments seems mundane, the technology also plugs into the information superhighway. The electronic reference library boasts 42 CD Roms. Everything from a road map of the United States to four years-worth of Times newspapers can be called up.

The college is also on line to Campus 2000, British Telecom's electronic information service for schools. Among the services provided are facilities for e-mail between subscribers and computer conferencing facilities. There is also scope to access from anywhere in the college the Minitel data system in France. Recently a link has been put in using the Integrated Services Digital Network which includes dedicated lines to Salford University to access the Joint Academic Network (JANET).

Mr Adams said: "The opportunities these systems open up are endless. The information that is available and the communications we can make across the world would be beyond the wildest dreams of people in college even a few years ago. For example, we could send e-mail from here to US vice-president Al Gore, who is a major advocate for the superhighway."

Mr Adams has just received a 36-page document from the European Commission in Brussels outlining future bids for telematics. Replies would again be through Internet. "The benefits for us must be enormous. We are able to deal direct with the key people in the EC using the system."

But the computer systems are only as good as the people using them. Mr Adam admitted: "I am trying to get staff involved in all this. It is a gradual development as staff realise the uses this can have for them. We do staff development sessions to explain the potential."

The college's computers are powerful enough to access graphics and short-sound recordings through the World-Wide Web. This has been described as like "all the multimedia, hypertext CD Roms in the world rolled into one". Each "page" of information contains links to further pages. Bringing up a map might lead to a tourist guide of the area or a recording of its folk songs.

Some students use an e-mail facility within their faculty while others who need it are given access to systems. Mr Adam said: "We give them what they need. General information goes to all, while more specific material is limited to a faculty or even an individual."

Staff are able to use the technology to check how often the student network is being used and how many of the 750 terminals are switched on at any time.

Some departments are already using computer-based training widely as part of their teaching strategy. In particular, the business and management faculty and modern languages faculty.

Using the Learning, Education and Research Network (LEARN) students are encouraged to enrol for a Go For IT course to learn core skills in IT. Their progress is monitored and testing is done automatically by computer and the results relayed back to their tutor. More than 700 students did the course last year.

The skills they learn help the student put together their National Record of Achievement on disc using software produced by the college - a package that is sold, along with other programs developed by the college, through the Open Campus Enterprises marketing arm.

They might not realise it but students going into higher education are also given a head start by the computer system. More than 80,000 courses are on disc and, during clearing, the list of courses available is updated every night.

The campus television station broadcasts six hours a day five days a week and, in addition, the college is received in 5,000 homes which subscribe to cable in the Blackburn area. By the middle of next year it is hoped that figure will have risen to 100,000.

The potential of providing courses through cable television is already being explored. A pilot course was completed in English In Context for 50 Asian women who had cultural difficulties in attending the college.

Mr Adam said: "We are probably one of two colleges nationally at this stage in developing IT. Some are approaching the level we have reached. Others are a long way behind. Most of what we do is by conventional classroom teaching, but more and more we are moving into flexible learning and the use of computers and new technology."

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