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Virtual campuses set to boost Australian colleges

SAY "virtual campus" and you could be forgiven for thinking it is just about distance learning

on the Internet, but in one Australian state this idea goes much further.

Technical and further education colleges (TAFE) in Victoria are being encouraged to make all their services available online.

Students across Australia will be able to access library resources electronically, enrol online or receive a lecture by e-mail. This should benefit those who study at the campus as well as distance learners, according to Rodney Spark, an official in Victoria's education, employment and training department.

The virtual campus strategy, launched three years ago, is part of the state government's drive to see TAFE colleges offer courses to students throughout the country.

Mr Spark said that colleges can use the virtual campus website to market courses in areas of particular expertise.

At the same time, he said, they could continue to provide their local communities with a broad range of courses by arranging for other colleges to offer online tuition.

This model can also help smaller regional institutions to remain financially viable.

Changing the system to offer supported online learning to all TAFE students has required not only a common technology platform across all colleges, but professional development for staff.

"We've said to teachers we don't expect them to suddenly understand how all this works and be confident and happy and calm about it," said Dr Deb Hull, a departmental project manager.

While the ultimate aim of the online initiative is for staff to create their own cyber content, she acknowledges that they will need support at first.

The second version of the system, released later this month, offers a learning environment designed from a teacher perspective, making it more user-friendly for staff.

t will allow online enrolments and give every student a password to enter the TAFE virtual campus and access information such as the library catalogue of every college in Victoria.

Although students may not be able to learn to become a builder online, Mr Spark said that those who spend a significant amount of time in a classroom could benefit from online support.

He believes that many students will more readily ask a teacher a question via e-mail than do so in class.

The virtual campus will also increase flexibility for students who may want face-to-face learning some of the time, but not two nights a week for an entire semester, Dr Hull suggests.

The online environment makes it easier for students to collaborate with their peers via e-mail or discussion groups.

Some 60 per cent are adult learners and work pressures or family commitments mean that they can attend colleges only for their classes.

Mr Spark said the TAFE sector will be better able to meet the training needs of employers through the virtual campus, allowing colleges to supply online learning directly to the workplace.

Victoria's initiative is part of a national drive that began in 1995 to make flexible vocational education and training available to all Australians.

The project aims to to help the nation become the global leader in applying new technology to the vocational, educational and training sector by 2004.

A framework devised by the state and federal governments and the Australian National Training Authority forms the basis for achieving its five stated goals.

The first of these is building a up a critical mass of well-trained and up-to-date VET staff who

can use flexible learning approaches to accelerate Australia's transition to the information-based economy.

The TAFE virtual campus can be visited at:

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