Move over Disneyland, education has the news. Stella Hughes reports on the futurist ambitions of France's learning theme park.
Over the past few years a site near Poitiers has been steadily accumulating what appear from the nearby motorway to be giant children's toys - a collection of cubes, balls, arches and cylinders, rising out of the ground at odd angles.
Increasingly, passing motorists have now heard of or visited Futuroscope, a high-tech leisure park whose theme is "the moving image" and which quietly makes money while Disneyland Paris piles up resounding losses.
What far fewer people know is that Futuroscope has from the outset combined theme-park entertainment with education and training on a single site. Ambitious plans are now afoot to turn it into a nerve centre for multimedia research, development and services.
A stone's throw from school outings and families queuing for the Magic Carpet, where film is projected under the audience's feet, students stroll into what looks like a space station which has taken a nosedive - the futuristic premises of ENSMA, a leading engineering grande ecole.
Next to it, building is under way for a number of relocated university research laboratories, part of a plan to move the University of Poitiers' engineering sciences teaching and research to the site.
Down the road is France's national distance learning centre, CNED, which is gradually integrating multimedia resources and methods into the courses it provides for its 350,000 students.
So far, some 2,000 students, academics and researchers are based at Futuroscope. That number is set to expand considerably, but for now, the first students to live on the spot are pioneers, surrounded by building sites, with no public transport into Poitiers in the evening or on Sundays. Some 50 businesses are also located on the site, ranging from multinationals to dozens of small firms with just five to ten staff. Futuroscope itself employs 1,500 people and says the park has generated 15,000 jobs in the area.
Firms and schools on the site are linked to the Teleport, a multiservice exchange providing access to ISDN, corporate data networks and the packet switched public data network. The Teleport handles a growing volume of image transmission.
Just beyond all these futuristic constructions, rolling cornfields and old stone farmhouses provide a startling contrast. The concept of an advanced technology park set in France's rural heartland has been vigorously promoted by Rene Monory, president of the French Senate, president of the Vienne departement county council and former education minister under Jacques Chirac in 1986-88.
Sceptics say the park will not develop because the lack of business and industry and the low level of population in the county mean there is no springboard for a Multimedia Valley. Monory replies by asking why rural communities should be left out of the communications technology revolution. The county was the first to equip all its schools and local government offices with computers and now plans to build information highways out to the villages.
"It is wrong to cultivate excellence in an intellectual desert . . . the whole population must be linked to the centre of excellence," he argues. The county council has a joint project with CNED to set up an electronic campus.
Alongside high speed ATM networks at Futuroscope, on the university campus and at the university teaching hospital, the council will reach out into the countryside with microwave links.
"We should start experimental transmissions by the end of the year and are now working on interactivity. Villagers receiving services on their television have to be given ways to respond," says Michel Caud, chief county planning officer.
Ironically, a French law giving cable companies a monopoly in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants means that the county council will be providing a network to villages which cannot be supplied to Poitiers itself. Back at Futuroscope, CNED's idea of an electronic campus involves "federating" the various providers of distance learning. Initially, the network would provide information on all the different distance learning courses available in France and across Europe.
In a second stage, the electronic campus could give access to the courses themselves. CNED and the county council have applied for state funding for the scheme, under a national programme for the development of information highways.
There are eight CNED institutes scattered across France, each with a specialised range of courses. CNED set up its multimedia department at Futuroscope in 1988. Its building houses CNED headquarters, the broadcasting department and education research centre.
Last year, CNED set up a research unit to study the development and application of new technologies for distance learning. "Our task is to produce or adapt multimedia material, work on the social and cultural issues, facilitate access", says the unit's director Martine Vidal.
"There is no consistent study of uses for each new technology. Each one is added on, they pile up on top of each other and are not at all integrated as a specific part of a whole," she says. "There is also tremendous external pressure: if you don't use the Internet or CD-Roms, you're no good . . . but they may actually not be suitable".
The unit studies the feasibility of using a new technology for teaching a given subject at a given level - CNED runs courses from primary level to post-masters. Feasibility is assessed in broad terms, taking in "technological, social, cultural and pedagogical factors", says Vidal. A key aim is to rationalise the use of multimedia.
Another priority of the unit is to identify and overcome problems of student access. "Over three-quarters of CNED students are adults. We have to work on improving their individual equipment and access to shared facilities," explains Vidal.
The French have far fewer computers in their homes than the British. CNED's hundreds of teachers, their level of communications equipment and skills, also have to be taken into account.
France's text-only Minitel service is still the main backbone of CNED communications. Students communicate with each other and with teachers, do exercises and send them for correction or have "tutorials" on Minitel. Access to a Minitel poses few problems and France Telecom provides the basic model free of charge. It is a slow and increasingly outdated technology.
CNED has begun to venture into new technology, broadcasting live interactive training programmes to schools and other locations where adult students gather for a group session. There are permanent arrangements with 500 schools for their premises to be used in this way.
The live programmes go out from the CNED studio at Futuroscope via optic fibre cables to the Teleport. They are transmitted by satellite to sites in France and other francophone nations. Students can ask questions by telephone, fax or Minitel.
This system is used for CNED's own courses and is also available to outside organisations which want an interactive session organised at a set time on a one-off basis. CNED is a public-sector education institution, but covers 70 per cent of its costs by selling courses and services.
School students studying rare languages can now download lessons onto a school computer and send back their homework. CNED can help schools purchase and set up a satellite dish. Part of CNED's mandate is to provide courses in subjects where there are not enough pupils for a school class. It is also developing educational CD-Roms to a specific remit: they have to be fundamentally different from commercial products and significantly cheaper. CNED fine arts tutor Claude Husson has just produced a CD-Rom on Racine's play Berenice.
Together with a CNED mathematics tutor, he developed a simplified software language, Elsa K Process, to make the highly interactive CD-Rom easy to use. The aim is to overcome teenage prejudices about a compulsory baccalaureat classic. Hamlet and Molire's Don Juan are to follow.
"We used video recordings of the rehearsals of Daniel Mesguich's production of Berenice to show how the written word is transformed into theatrical language," Husson says. Users piece together Act IV, scene 5 from fragments.
Students link Mesguich's original rehearsal notes and script annotations to the relevant part of a rehearsal and then watch him discussing the same point with the actors. They can play a series of games constructing images, click on key words in one exchange to jump to a similar word in another exchange, record their own rendering of an alexandrine and finally earn the right to edit the complete scene.
"Adolescents are at what Lacan called the mirror stage, piecing together their own identity. So when they put Berenice together, they are piecing together their own image," Husson says. The local education authorities in Poitiers and Lille are now going to monitor the response of students to the Berenice CD-Rom in local lycees. This month CNED holds the first summer school to bring together distance teachers and school and university teachers on the use of new technologies. "We want to discuss questions of real need, of specific use . . . how a CD-Rom works in such and such a course," says Vidal, "and not dazzle each other with high tech."
"An encyclopaedia on CD-Rom is a useful teaching tool in the classroom, integrated by the teacher into a lesson, but the individual user does not necessarily need one, and can find the same information at the local library for free."
One summer school will not answer all the outstanding questions on how best to make use of multimedia teaching tools. The real problem, says Vidal, is that no one works on the issue full-time.
The thinking may well be prodded on a little when France's national training centre for education administrators, school heads and education inspectors relocates at Futuroscope. They represent an ideal group of education policymakers and policy enactors to be won over. The county council is putting in more than F3.5 million (Pounds 441,000) to secure the Ecole Superieure de Formation des Cadres de l'Education Nationale - a sum being matched by the regional council. Each year, more than 3,000 people attend its training courses, run by a permanent staff of 50 academics, CNED teachers and senior civil servants from the education ministry.
By the time the centre moves into its new premises in 1997, Futuroscope should be plugged into the latest communications technology. Student accommodation built on the site is connected to the fibre optic cable network.
Engineering students can download course work on to computers and video recorders in their rooms, and send back work for marking.
The Futuroscope conference centre is also expanding and introducing more technology. Conference participants should soon be able to go back to their hotel rooms in the evening and watch video recordings of the workshops they were unable to attend during the day.
The national equivalent of the Joint Academic Network (Janet), Renater, has approached the county council to make it available on the high-speed ATM network. The council also wants to attract industrial research and development
"We can already offer exceptional communications facilities on and out of the park, which even a start-up firm employing three people can use," Caud says.
One hope is that Futuroscope, the "European park of the moving image", will host a centre for state of the art image research and development. The park has begun producing its own films, but still shows a number of US and Japanese productions.