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Pioneer on-line learning wins cash

The first English colleges have been given the funding to pioneer electronic learning on the information superhighway. The partnership of 25 further education, sixth-form and agricultural colleges in the North-East has been given Pounds 400,000 backing from the Government's competitiveness fund.

It is hoped all the institutions will be on-line by April 1996, giving students and staff access to the most up-to-date information through the computer system.

Though universities are already connected to the superhighway through superJanet, the FE sector in England has lagged behind - to the dismay of the body charged with promoting information technology in the two sectors, which believes the Further Education Funding Council should set aside money to put the sector on an even footing.

"My worry is that colleges in England are going to be left behind," said Peter Shuker, principal of Darlington college of technology, which is managing the project, and chair of the National Association for Information Technology in Further and Higher Education.

In March, the Welsh funding council recognised the contribution which the superhighway would make to the sector with a Pounds 3 million grant to enable all its FE colleges to buy the necessary equipment for connection to the network already in place in higher education.

Though the Scottish Office is not yet providing funds to its FE colleges to join the superhighway, a spokesman said the issue was under discussion and being given serious consideration.

John Andrews, chief executive of the Further and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, said: "The green light for the FE superhighway marks the beginning of an era where regardless of where you live it will be possible to access the most up-to-date education and training opportunities in a wide range of subjects."

However, any decision by the FEFC on the subject seems to be some time away. A spokesman said the council was considering the issue but its Higginson committee would not report until the end of the year and it would then consult colleges.

Mr Shuker said: "The primary reason for this is the quality of the information we can make available to students. What we are talking about here is giving students and staff access to material which is 'virtually alive' from literally thousands of information providers all over the world.

"At present the main sources of information for students is either through lecturers who find it increasingly difficult to keep up with change, through books, and through CD-Roms which are becoming quickly outdated.

"We will be setting up training courses in our colleges for staff to encourage students to use the facility.

"It will have a major impact on our curriculum: staff will have to design a programme for each student which makes them learn partly on the superhighway and partly from tutorials."

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