Italian distance learning is proving popular in places such as Sardinia and is growing fast. Paul Bompard looks at what's being offered.
The past couple of years have seen a flowering of online higher education projects in Italy. Not all have taken off as quickly or on as grand a scale as initial announcements suggested, but a number are already very promising.
Higher education distance courses were pioneered in Italy from 1992-93 by Nettuno, a national consortium of state universities, a number of private companies and the state television authority, RAI.
Initially, lectures were transmitted at night on television, then on a special satellite channel, and more recently via a mixed system of satellite broadcasts, internet, CD-Roms and videocassettes. Today Nettuno involves 38 universities and offers both degree courses and professional training to people already working. About 10,000 students are enrolled in degree courses, while the number in training programmes varies from one year to the next.
"We have shown that thanks to the internet, television has become an effective educational medium," said Maria Amata Garito. "This 'mixed model' has proved very successful."
The most active university in the Nettuno programme is Politecnico di Torino, which offers six different three-year engineering degrees and a three-year architecture "diploma" that from next year should also acquire degree status. The courses run by Politecnico di Torino have more than 1,500 students from all over the country and make up about half of those offered by Nettuno.
"We cater mainly for people over 30 who work full time or to younger students who are unable to reach an important university," explained Matteo Sonza Reorda, the computer scientist who is technical and logistics director of the programme.
"Many of our students, for instance, are in Sardinia. We've seen enrolments grow by 20-30 per cent a year. We find there is a great need for personal contact, by telephone, email or face-to-face, so that students are supported by tutoring and feel there is a specific human being they can communicate with. In fact we have set up a centre in Sardinia to look after our students and hold exams."
One of the most ambitious projects is Italian Culture on the Net (Icon). Based on a consortium of more than 20 Italian universities, Icon offers a degree course in various aspects of Italian culture to overseas students and foreigners in Italy. The courses will be structured with the same credits system and two to three-year degrees as Italian universities, and will be recognised as degrees.
"So far we are only giving language courses," said Marco Santagata, the project's director. "In March 2002 the first real course begins for the southern hemisphere, followed in September 2002 with the first northern hemisphere course."
Politecnico di Milano has just launched its own, three-year online degree course in computer engineering, independently of the Nettuno network. The courses are taught by the faculty of engineering. The management and logistics have been entrusted to Somedia, an offshoot of one of Italy's major newspaper and magazine publishers. Now in its first year, there are 190 students who periodically go to Como, just outside Milan, for exams and guidance.
In addition to degree courses, there is a growing variety of online services and courses being offered by many universities and institutions. One example is the University of Milan, which has set up a "virtual campus" that allows students to consult books and publications and to communicate with one another and with teachers.
Another is a course in restoration techniques, offered to restoration students and professionals eager to learn the latest techniques
. Hardly a month passes before another ambitious online programme is presented.