The University for Industry will be delivered in Wales by a bilingual distance learning network specifically tailored to Welsh needs, according to Eurfron Gwynne Jones, chair of Digital College Wales.
The new lifelong learning network will be introduced to the public at a conference in Cardiff next week. Dr Gwynne Jones (above left), a former BBC director of education, carried out a feasibility study in the mid-1990s for the Welsh language television channel S4C, which led to the founding of DCW.
The organisation has expanded into a partnership between S4C Digital, BBC Digital and further and higher education institutions, with funding coming from public and private sources. The Welsh Office and the European Community are helping to fund the project. Dr Gwynne Jones said that further and higher education institutions would benefit from increased enrolment on courses accessed through the new network.
The proposal is wholly dependent on new technology, much of which is not yet in place. Dr Gwynne Jones said: "We cannot do everything we want just yet - digital technology is not yet sophisticated enough - and we will have to wait until the first decade of the next millennium."
But she insists that the concept is fully developed. Even if the television-computer hybrids through which learning will be delivered are not yet available, they soon will be and within three or four years the college will be offering its full service.
She said that the delay in full implementation is entirely technological and no delay is expected in providing educational materials. These will come from the existing further and higher education communities and from the broadcasters' own resources, subject to quality assurance regimes.
According to Dr Gwynne Jones, the network will open up substantial archives of educational footage, currently held by the BBC and others, some of which has never been transmitted.
Students will experience a seamless on-screen interactive mix of learning materials delivered by digital television broadcast, CD-Rom and online. They will be able to interact in a number of ways with the programmes using a device similar to a conventional infrared remote control.
Viewers of digital television could be lured into the college's courses by web-style interactive advertisements. People booking Spanish holidays, for example, could be offered the chance to enrol there and then for a Spanish language course.
For two-way communication the college will use traditional telephone lines, ISDN or perhaps wireless connections. However one problem which will have to be overcome, difficult because of the remoteness of many Welsh towns and villages, is to provide high bandwidth links, particularly to the proposed community access points in schools, libraries and community centres.
With the news that both the S4C and BBC digital services will be available on satellite, Dr Gwynne Jones believes the transmission footprint will make the service accessible to many of the 500,000 Welsh speakers who live outside Wales. Many of them will welcome the availability of Welsh language materials, she said.
The crucial difference between the new college and the Open University, she explained, is that Digital College Wales will provide only access to courses and will not originate them themselves.
Pilot studies and a desktop demonstration have taken place at Pontypridd Further Education College. The learning package demonstrated was based on video footage shot at Panasonic's Cardiff unit.
The University of Wales, Bangor has been involved through its own work on a research database for Wales, and there has also been input from the adult education department at Swansea and from the University of Glamorgan.
Exeter University is also involved, through its regional partnership in the management of change in education with the Welsh Development Agency.
Access to Digital College Wales will be much wider than is needed for University for Industry, Dr Gwynne Jones said. The UFI is targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) employing 50 or fewer.
Although enterprises of this size account for more than 90 per cent of industry in Wales, the digital college will also be available in homes, supermarkets, pubs, cafes, and other venues thought suitable for breaking down barriers to re-entry or first-time access to learning.