We know technology is making the world a smaller place, but we don't always see many examples of how this can benefit the poorer sections of society. Many of them don't have computers, let alone the capacity to log on to the Net. However, just once in a while, we see an example of how technology can help achieve things which were otherwise impossible.
One such development is an Internet resource called Merlin, which is effectively a virtual learning centre. Pioneered by staff at the University of Hull, it can provide effective distance learning for many groups across the world. And it's being viewed by further education as a potential model for distance learning courses in subjects like modern languages.
Students entering the Merlin website are made to feel they are part of a group: there is a "Who's Who", showing which of their colleagues are working online - whether in Hull or Helsinki. Within Merlin, students can communicate via their mailbox, which works like a group email system, or via the exchange, a form of group conferencing which students are encouraged to use for discussions with their classmates and tutors. Last year, the European Knowledge Media Association recognised its contribution by awarding it a European Academic Software Award .
What is exciting is the diversity of materials and groups on Merlin. It can be used by local students who need a distance learning component to their course. Health professionals are particularly keen on the system - working patterns mean staff are not always able to attend at a particular time, or may find it hard to concentrate on a lecture which comes at the end of a shift. Also, a good lecture from a medical expert deserves wider currency than just the group of people in one room at one time. Merlin has made this possible.
A doctor at Hull Royal Infirmary prepares a lecture which she plans to deliver live to her students. However, the information it contains may also be useful to staff from hospitals in Scarborough and Grimsby who cannot attend. She could, of course, video the lecture and let them play the tape, but there would be few opportunities for discussion. Instead, she uses Merlin templates with a PowerPoint presentation which is interspersed with tasks, has links to relevant websites and online discussion, so it ceases to be a passive experience.
Even better, these materials can then be transmitted to doctors in Uganda, who are linked to Hull as part of a World Health Organisation project. Thanks to technology, one doctor can make her knowledge and expertise available to all these audiences in an interactive format.
One of Merlin's main attractions is the tutor templates, which have been created by the education specialists, not the technical staff. They have been developed so that tutors can just adapt their materials and paste them straight into the document.
The Transport and General Workers' Union, for instance, has been developing further education materials on trade tnion history. Originally, just a printed document, it is now an electronic resource with links to websites about the Tolpuddle Martyrs and other key figures.
At present, Merlin provides access to text and audio and, later, there will also be video. "Staff often start by being text-orientated but soon find themselves using the audio," says Debra Marsh, head of the Merlin Development Unit.
Disabled students will also benefit. Some may find it difficult or inconvenient to come to the main site but, since the university network is also found in halls of residence and contains many of the core materials they need for degree courses, they can carry on working at a time and place to suit themselves.
Sarah Jayne Davies provides assessment and guidance on technology for disabled students at Hull University. She welcomes the Merlin initiative:
"Students with disabilities can study independently using their own computers. The use of email and online forums means students can also keep in touch with each other or with staff regardless of disability or location."
Merlin Development Unit 01482 466186 www.hull.ac.ukmerlin