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High tech leap into the future

There are three well-known facts about the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA): Sir Paul McCartney is its lead patron; it is a Fame school for the arts and entertainment industry; and the beautiful building in which it is housed was once Sir Paul's old school.

What's not so well known is that LIPA is pushing back the boundaries of information technology in education and could well provide a blueprint for the school of the future. It's a world where computer networks, the Internet and remote learning are becoming a routine part of a student's life, where on-line access is cheap and plentiful and where the boundaries between home and school no longer exist.

LIPA opened its doors to its first students (aged 18 plus) in January 1996. The degree and diploma courses cover a range of subject areas, including dance, drama, music, design, sound technology, management and production. Non-degree courses run by LIPA also cater for school-age children. As you walk around LIPA, the whole building is humming with activity - from the 500-seat auditorium to the warrens of recording studios, practice rooms, lecture theatres and rehearsal rooms.

LIPA has around 370 students, 262 from the UK (20 per cent of these are from Merseyside), and the rest are from overseas, including mainland Europe, Japan, Iceland and the United States.

Students get access to high-tech equipment including video-editing suites and a graphic design studio, as well as to LIPA's sophisticated computer network. The network was set up by IT manager Mike Barker, and is composed of over 150 AST PCs.

Many people associate the Apple Macintosh computer with the creative industries such as music, so why no Macs? Mike Barker says: "We have a few in the recording studios, but I decided against using different types of computers because there are still problems when trying to mix them together."

There are around 200 software programs for staff and students to choose from, and each student gets 50 megabytes of storage space on the network (roughly equivalent to 50 floppy discs). This can be used for storing projects or assignments, which may include sound files, video clips and MIDI files (Musical Instrument Digital Interface files are like electronic music scores to operate synthesisers and other instruments).

Students can access their work files on any computer around the building by simply using their personal password to log on to a machine. It is also possible to access the computer network from a home PC: Ken O'Donoghue, head of learning resources, says: "It makes little difference whether the student is here or at home."

LIPA's telephone network was installed by the Telewest cable company and local calls (including those to the Internet) are free.

Ken O'Donoghue adds that e-mail is the most common form of communication: "E-mail is a very convenient way of making contact, although it does not replace physical contact."

LIPA students also have to word-process all of their essays. "Some people get worried about students simply lifting chunks of text and putting it into a word-processed essay," says Mike Barker, "but it is no different from copying out words by hand. We haven't had any problems with this." Many students also use IT for designing, creating and editing.

All this assumes that students are IT proficient. Ken O'Donoghue says: "We thought that students would be computer-literate when they arrived here, but that wasn't the case. Most were at novice level. We hope that future tranches of students will come equipped with more skills." For this reason, all LIPA students have 12 hours of IT teaching in their first term.However, Mike Barker adds: "Many of the students may not have been IT-literate, but they weren't afraid of using computers either." LIPA's staff also receive IT training.

The Internet holds out the exciting prospect of distance learning. LIPA already has a busy site on the Internet, which contains general information, course details, examples of work, and an interactive "tour" around the building. Visitors can send e-mails to course tutors for further information. LIPA students also get space on the Web site; one student used it to advertise his skills by displaying a stage set he had created.

Both Mike Barker and Ken O'Donoghue are keen to develop the Internet for on-line learning. In a prototype on-line course entitled "Funk Assignment", music tutor Tim Pike uses video clips and sound to demonstrate various guitar techniques on a PC. The Web page provides a MIDI file to work on.

It doesn't take a massive leap of the imagination to see how students from almost anywhere in the world could log on to the Net and participate in a tutorial with the aid of video-conferencing, e-mail and file transfer.This is what LIPA eventually hopes to do, and the institute is looking for European funding to make on-line courses a reality.

Another idea is to produce multimedia courses on CD-Roms and the Internet.The discs would contain large files like sound

and video (which can take a long time to download from the Internet), and the rest of the course material could be on the Net.

Mark Featherstone-Witty, LIPA's chief executive, is fond of quoting Machiavelli' s The Prince: "The innovator makes enemies of all who prosper under the old order and only lukewarm support is forthcoming for those who prosper under the new. Their support is lukewarm . . . partly because men are generally incredulous, never trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience." With two-thirds of school teachers still not using IT today, these words are entirely fitting.

LIPA's experience has shown that IT can play a positive role in education,and that when students are given wide access to computers, IT simply becomes another tool for learning. And that's one more fact well worth remembering about this remarkable educationa l institution.

LIPA Web site:

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