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Modems are the medium

Problems abound for colleges and others keen to develop their online outreach.

Expecting subject specialist lecturers to integrate and teach the software and medium-related skills and cope with the technical trouble-shooting could explain why some teachers shy away from distance learning using these methods. The overworked superhighway analogy can be put to use once more. We don't generally ask a history lecturer to teach how to read a timetable or how to catch a bus to college, far less how to be a bus engineer. Learners enrol on a course and either turn up ready to engage with the content or we advise them on where and how they can acquire the requisite skills. Online need be no different.

Some institutions give students access to their establishment's network for the course duration, and while this can make it easier for the lecturers to answer system-related queries, it throws up an ideological question as well as an organisational problem. Educationally we are moving away from the time when all students had to use the college environment; we encourage community, work and home-based learning, and we endorse virtual learning. Is this not somewhat at odds with insisting that only the college's network can be the vehicle for courses?

Administratively, what do we do with these students when the course is over? By remaining on the network, over time, these online alumni and their messages will clog it up. The alternative is to expect them to start again with, or return to, a commercial provider, and a new e-mail address, thus isolating them from their fellow students. With the growth of the Internet, and online service provision, more and more potential students will already have a dial-up connection, and may prefer to use that for their course, rather than take on an additional one.

To take full advantage of the increasing number and range of courses available online, a learner first of all has to become comfortable with the medium, and that has many stages; the technical bit, the software module, the medium itself and then, and only then, the course content.

The first is probably the most confusing, and can be full of references to exciting concepts like hardware handshaking (which always sounds like a freemason's meeting in a nuts and bolts shop). Everyone should be entitled to as much technical help as they require to get through this potentially damaging stage, and I'm speaking self-esteem here, not viruses.

Having made a successful connection, a yearning online learner needs to become a confident participant in the online world of e-mail, file transfer or whatever. Finding your way around the software is an initial requirement, followed by being able to read or send messages, to reply appropriately and to be assured that the medium is one within which you can communicate well. Only when these skills are in place is it worthwhile enrolling on an online course in programming or medieval history or such.

In the long term it makes more sense for people to sign up with whichever online provider suits them best, and for colleges to organise their networks accordingly. We might, in future, see colleges offering that medieval history online course with an entry requirement of having successfully completed E-mail for Advanced Users, or the A-Z of ftp.

I'm currently running a virtual evening class based on getting the most out of the FirstClass system, where students are experimenting with pasting graphics files into their messages and transferring files in a group situation. Having learnt the disappointment of receiving files they cannot read, protocols are being developed to avoid generating that feeling in others.

Once the course is completed, they hope to be more sophisticated users of the system. In future, perhaps college departments will target online-ready learners such as these.

Virtual evening class details from vec@cali.co.uk.

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