All for one and one for all
Multi-storey mud huts, English country houses and architectural curiosities are zipping round at the speed of light to the soothing tones of Tom Baker, the fourth Dr Who, beneath the feet of unwitting pedestrians in Scotland's largest city. They emanate from a box in the heart of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing, a box roughly the same size and shape as the Tardis. But this is not time-travel. It is further education.
In the autumn of 1995, the principals of Glasgow's FE colleges met to discuss the possibility of sharing resources via a computer network. They reached an agreement, technical expertise was sought, local and European funding was won and, by the end of last year, the Pounds 2 million embryonic Glasgow Telecolleges Network (GTN) had been created.
GTN now allows students enrolled at one of the 10 geographically dispersed colleges to drop into any of the others in the evening, open their files and work on their assignments. But there is much more to it than that.
The White Paper Connecting the Learning Society outlines a vision of schools throughout the country able to communicate via the information superhighway, not just with each other but with colleges, universities, libraries, museums and art galleries.
At present, though, I find the information superhighway, in the form of the Internet, is a thoroughly unsatisfactory learning environment. It is slow, unwieldy, chaotic and constantly changing. You might, if you are fortunate, occasionally find precisely what you are looking for. You will always find, and be forced to sift through, prodigious quantities of irrelevant drivel. And you can forget trying to do much after mid-afternoon. When the United States is awake, travelling the superhighway is like crawling along a single-track road in fog.
A good learning environment should be tighter, faster, more controlled and better structured. It should possess the Internet's power, its scope for distance learning and the benefits for disadvantaged and special needs learners. It should support video-conferencing and intelligent access to the Web, with links to relevant sites. And it should allow learners to move at their own pace and, to some extent, take their own paths through the materials.
"Our system is designed to provide the kind of tightly focused but flexible learning experience the Government envisages,'' says Professor Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow College of Building and Printing and chair of the GTN executive group. "In fact, the White Paper recognises GTN as a good model for their vision of a National Grid for Learning."
But hardware is only half the story. A high-speed broadband network can transmit good quality video images, the spoken word and music, and can deliver a satisfying interactive experience to demanding users weaned on sophisticated computer games. But it can't do these things as soon as the cardboard boxes are unpacked and the system is wired up. Work is needed from college staff to adapt their courses for the medium. In fact, an enormous amount of effort is required, with staffing and running costs around Pounds 500,000 a year.
But the beauty of linking colleges is that it transforms a project which is otherwise impossible in any sensible timescale - in-house development of interactive, multimedia learning packages for every course - into one that is demanding but achievable. "There is no longer any need for each department in every college to develop its own teaching materials," explains senior lecturer Helen McNamara, demonstrating a portion of a package she is creating in collaboration with the BBC in London.
In this package, a full-colour close-up of goats shifts smoothly to a skyline of multistorey buildings and zooms in on one, while Tom Baker's voice-over explains that some of these mud-built, Yemeni skyscrapers have lasted for 500 years.
"A package like this one," says Mrs McNamara, "will be used by students at various colleges, taking any one of a range of courses - architectural conservation, design, building materials, technology and so on."
The role of the FE colleges is changing rapidly, Professor Wilson explains. They are taking their services out to the community, instead of waiting for people to come to them. So GTN terminals will be located not just in colleges, libraries and museums, but also in shopping centres.
"Industry, too, will benefit. Many small and medium-sized enterprises are on a treadmill - they have to keep working flat-out to stay in business. But they also need to train their staff in modern technology, new regulations and working practices. GTN can cut that Gordian knot by delivering training to the workplace.
"At a recent meeting in a football stadium, 2,000 business people came to hear what we could do for them. This is the University for Industry in action.
"Not so long ago," Professor Wilson says, "each of Glasgow's colleges was in competition with all the others. The idea of co-operating seemed strange at first, but now I think we can all see the tre-mendous potential of working together."
Tactics Trends 98: Glasgow Telecolleges Network - Blueprint for a Learning City, a seminar led by Professor Wilson, will be held on November 5 at 12.30pm