Campus plugged into heart of city life

September 29, 2000

The University of Queensland, the state's oldest and most elite, has revitalised a run-down city 40km west of Brisbane by establishing a novel 'wired' campus with state-of-the-art facilities. Geoff Maslen pays a visit

Its namesake is in Suffolk, but although Queensland's Ipswich was also once a major manufacturing town, the industries and coal mining have now all but disappeared. The city's 100,000 citizens had little say as the firms closed down, leaving thousands without jobs in an ageing community with more than a third of its families trying to survive on low incomes.

Yet today, Ipswich is livelier than it has been in years. The University of Queensland's decision to establish a A$50 million (Pounds 19 million) campus on a hillside not far from the city centre has generated optimism about a future in which information technology rather than coal and heavy industry will play a big part.

While cynics might point to the irony of a university using the buildings of a one-time centre for people with learning difficulties as its new base, not to mention those of an asylum for the criminally insane and a home for "wayward girls", a major refurbishment has created one of Australia's most unusual campuses. Unusual in that a 90-year-old, "sandstone" university in Brisbane with a reputation for high academic standards, for admitting only the brightest (and mostly privately schooled) students and for traditional attitudes to teaching and learning, has opted to do something completely different in Ipswich.

Here a team of enthusiastic academics is developing courses based on innovative uses of communications technology. They have adopted teaching techniques that are so novel and interesting - and apparently effective - that even conservative colleagues in Brisbane have begun using them for their classes.

Nan Bahr, a lecturer in UQ's Graduate School of Education, says: "In preparing the courses, we discussed the things we wanted to achieve with educational designers. The initial courses were developed before the campus opened, and the first people on deck were blown away by the way the technology was being used."

Another marked contrast between Ipswich and the parent campus in Brisbane is the low student-to-teacher ratio. In a deliberate move, those responsible for the design of the new buildings decided no room should seat more than 60. This is probably a contributing factor to the informal relationships between teachers and taught. It is one of the first comments a group of young students makes about the place when I stop to talk to them. "I love the friendly atmosphere and the small classes," says a girl called Rebecca. "I also take subjects in Brisbane, but they are much more formal and the classes are far bigger than here. Some of the lectures there have 300 students, whereas here we're in groups of only 20 or so."

Her friends chime in with observations about how helpful the teachers, librarians and technical support staff are, how they are able to work at home one or two days a week because the online courses reduce formal contact time while still allowing ready access to their lecturers.

"This was an opportunity for UQ to set up a network that used the technology in almost a boutique environment," Bahr says. "We are integrating the technology into teaching in new ways - and not just with online delivery of courses for students but also in how we interact with the community."

For far from living in an ivory tower, remote from ordinary people, staff at the Ipswich campus are involved in bringing the community to the campus and taking the university to the world outside. A community centre set up in April last year pursues collaborations between the university's researchers and students and Ipswich's citizens.

Director Bruce Muirhead says: "The centre is a hub for the generation of ideas, economic and community development programmes, collaborative research projects, consultancy services, interprofessional courses and training programmes - and the placement of students and faculty with skills and interests that match community needs."

Muirhead says that among its many activities, the centre runs an innovative, community-based after-hours programme for teenagers and a special scheme for improving the literacy of Aboriginal students through the internet. It also operates from a shopfront in the main street where staff offer help and advice to parents and school students who have literacy and numeracy difficulties.

"Right from the word go, staff have made it plain they want to be part of the Ipswich community," says the city's mayor, John Nugent. "They've involved themselves in everything from youth programmes right through to a whole heap of community functions. There's not much that happens around Ipswich that you don't see university representatives involved in."

In only its second year, the Ipswich campus has more than 1,000 students enrolled. Within three years, numbers are expected to rise to 5,000. The main fields of study include electronic commerce, information environments, business communication, contemporary studies, behavioural studies and education.

"Because of its historical links to the centres that looked after the mentally and physically disabled, Ipswich has a large population of people with disabilities," Bahr says. "The fact that there are also many government and community agencies to look after them made the city attractive to the university. It means we are able to place many of our students with the agencies so they can get practical experience while studying."

I am taken on a tour of the campus and shown the various teaching rooms where students sit at banks of computers or discuss current topics with their lecturer. Through a "judicious reduction in lecturing", Bahr says, students are being encouraged to rely on themselves for their learning.

In the library, where A$1 million has been spent building a new collection, the resources include 10,000 print items, more than 1,000 videos and a significant collection of electronic resources. These include newspapers on microfilm and the web, radio and television talk shows, and films. Then there are the dozens of PCs with access to online course materials, the UQ network, the internet, email and group and individual study areas.

Students can borrow from the 14 branches of the UQ library - which has the largest research collection in Queensland - or tap into any one of 250 databases and 6,000 e-journals. They also have round-the-clock access to the library website and to technical support staff, and they can log in from home, says coordinator Beth Crawter.

This is Australia's first "cybrary". It integrates information technology and traditional services to create a virtual library in a wired university. "The cybrary pushes out the boundaries of information-gathering and gives students new scope for synthesising and processing the materials they discover," Crawter says.

That the staff and students are new to a campus that itself is taking an entirely new direction has clearly generated a sense of excitement in being educational pioneers. With splendid facilities and advanced teaching techniques, it is easy to see why academics such as Bahr feel so enthusiastic about their work - even if it has its downside.

"Just because we've cut back on our lectures doesn't mean there's less to do," she says. "In a lecture theatre you can get away with answering students' questions on the spot, but with online courses you get inundated with emails that have to be answered. And often the email has a long explanation about why the student didn't understand some point, which you have to read before you get to the question."

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