Keys to the wired valley

April 7, 1995

Ealing has shed its defunct comedy heritage for ahigh-tech learning revolution, Simon Targett reports.

Walk from South Ealing tube station and you pass a row of antique shops, a garage which has been selling Morgan sports cars since the roaring twenties, side roads whose names record Disraeli's elevation to the earldom of Beaconsfield, and a moss-covered cattle trough sprouting daffodils as a memorial to a scion of the Walpole family. All this speaks of yesterday.

So it is all the more surprising that an ultra-modern multimedia educational revolution is taking place here, just opposite the defunct film studios of Ealing comedy fame.

The Learning Resources Centre is a gathering of interconnected buildings on the Ealing campus of Thames Valley University. The name makes it sound like an avant garde library. And indeed, there are the shelves, the books, the CD-Roms and videos, the reading rooms, the catalogues and the computer terminals with voice-mail.

But the LRC is more than merely an upmarket bibliotheque. As the man behind the venture, vice chancellor Mike Fitzgerald, puts it: "It's not just a library. It's a whole philosophy in concrete. It's a complete institutional strategy."

TVU is a place where experimentation is rife, and where students clearly come first. According to poet Roger McGough, an honorary professor, it is "not an ivory tower cut off from its roots, but a place not afraid to get mud on its boots". The LRC is, as the prospectus phrases it, "a physical manifestation of TVU's aim to be a student-driven teaching and learning institution".

Dr Fitzgerald likes the idea of students being the gatekeepers of education, "taking responsibility for their own learning and getting away from the idea of being taught".

At the same time, he dislikes the idea of students being forced to work without guidance and support - what administrators call the FOFO factor (short for "****off and find out"). That is because he thinks that "education is a fundamentally social process".

Dr Fitzgerald's answer is the LRC. A careful balance of a holy trinity of concepts - knowledge, power and pedagogy - it owes something to his reading of Foucault and something to his "own peculiar mix of resource-based learning" which he experienced as a student at Cambridge and as an academic at the Open University.

Once upon a time, TVU students took classes in a variety of locations dotted around the town: pubs, church halls, nearby houses. Now they take them in sound-proofed, glass-fronted chambers which lead off the open-plan reading rooms which house the multimedia shelving.

All this improves access to the resources, breaking down the artificial boundary between learning and teaching. It also significantly assists time-pressed students forced by circumstances to squeeze full-time study and part-time work into one day. TVU has over 60 per cent part-time students, and the rest are what Dr Fitzgerald calls "non-full-time" students because they have to do menial jobs to pay their way through full-time courses.

Dr Fitzgerald points out that there is now "no reason to leave the place", given the refurbished students' union (formerly Ealing Girls Grammar School) across a narrow walkway and the fact that the LRC is open seven days a week.

The accessibility and physical layout of the LRC means student empowerment.

So does the proximity of teaching facilities to a high-tech, multimedia environment, which is intended to form the electronic hub of the university.

But here, Dr Fitzgerald is careful to stress that the learning is technology-guided rather than technology-driven - a fine distinction which points to the danger of multimedia initiatives where "there is plenty of information but no knowledge and no learning".

In the foyer is a video monitor (there are others elsewhere) which carries public messages, as well as a computerised, do-it-yourself book-borrowing terminal. Through the passageways, free internal telephones are available for contacting academics and administrators. In the reading and tutorial rooms there are IBM-compatibles, Apple Macs, VCRs and CD players for the students' personal use.

Most innovatively, there is a media shop, where students can use expensive and technically advanced gadgetry to produce multimedia presentations of course assignments. They can borrow camcorders and voice-operated recorders. There is binding equipment, and plush video and sound recording suites.

Free tuition is offered, and students only pay for consumables such as disks, which can be purchased from a special diskette dispenser.

Altogether the LRC, which opened last October, dominates 40 per cent of the campus buildings. At TVU's other campus in Slough, the building work has begun on another, this time purpose-built, learning resources centre.

Costing Pounds 3 million, and supported by HEFCE and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, it has been designed by the chic architect Sir Richard Rogers, and is expected to take its first students early next year.

Eventually, the LRC concept is going to be extended to embrace the whole university. So does that mean that TVU could be renamed LRC? Dr Fitzgerald throws back a laugh which does not seem entirely to rule it out.

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