14th March 2003 at 00:00
Like Utopia and a new Wembley Stadium, a virtual learning environment (VLE), is easier to imagine than to bring into being. The technology's no problem, it's persuading staff and students to embrace the opportunities e-learning offers. That's the task facing Jane Sisk, head of content development at South Birmingham College. And she won this award because she has already made an impressive start.

A VLE isn't as scarily sci-fi as it sounds. It's simply a web-based system to extend students-tutor contact beyond the walls of lecture hall, lab or workshop. When a student logs on, he's taken to a customised home page.

From here he can exchange email with his tutor, submit essays, assess his progress by multiple-choice tests and collaborate with classmates in a dedicated chatroom or forum. The home page will also allow the student to access learning resources his tutor has put online.

This is the point at which most tutors decide they simply don't have the time, expertise or inclination to fiddle around creating online materials.

Jane has an answer: she will do the hard work for them.

All a tutor in the college has to do is explain what an exercise aims to achieve and Jane will turn the ideas into XML. It sounds a demanding workload for one person, but Jane has the support of five content developers. That wouldn't be possible if JIST, keen advocates of VLEs, weren't picking up the tab. Ms Sisk is no slouch when it comes to pitching for extra funding.

The immediate beneficiaries of all this work are the students at South Birmingham College, but for Jane this is only the first, albeit crucial, phase in a process that could revolutionise education. The courseware she and her team create conforms to internationally agreed protocols and is tagged so that any teacher, anywhere could use it. It's an utopian ambition, but it's a challenge Jane enjoys. Pity they didn't put her in charge of Wembley.

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