Peter Deussen wants to place south-west Germany at the hub of a global virtual university. John Davies probes the project's strengths.
Peter Deussen is a man with a vision. A professor in the University of Karlsruhe's Institut fur Logik, Komplexitat und Deduktionssysteme, he speaks with enthusiasm of the project he is heading - the building of a virtual university that, he hopes, will be accessible across the world. Three other universities in southwest Germany - Freiburg, Heidelberg and Mannheim - are involved in the plan.
"We want to introduce IT and multimedia techniques for teaching on a virtual campus based in Germany," Deussen said in June when he spoke at a conference on new media and information technology in higher education at Nottingham Trent University.
The project may, he admitted, have some way to go before it becomes reality. It was refused federal funding in June, and finance remains a problem despite promises from the state of Baden-Wurttemberg and a number of German and international companies. But Deussen is confident of finding the support he needs. Before tackling the world, the commission that Deussen heads in Baden-Wurttemberg is putting in some practice with ViKar, a "virtual association" of colleges in the Karlsruhe area which will pilot various ways of using the available technology. Soon these institutions - which include a technical college, a college of education, a centre for art and technology and a conservatoire - will share multimedia and distance learning courses. Four kinds of course are under development at the moment: an introduction to information and telecommunications technology; art, culture and technology; information systems; and maths for non-mathematicians. "We will be able to partition courses into 'Lego elements' which can be put together as they fit different students," said Deussen.
Deussen says the global virtual university project is intended to boost Germany's worldwide academic standing. Publicity documents for the international tele-university spell it out: keeping pace with "market leaders" in the United States is paramount. After referring to "the increasing number of institutions of higher education competing for international students by employing global marketing strategies and customer-oriented educational services, often to the disadvantage of German universities", the prospectus for the international tele-university (ITU) specifically identifies the Internet-based Western Governors University set up in the US in 1996 as a rival to be emulated. As Deussen put it, "In Hong Kong, it's completely usual that students get lectures from MIT. We will have to compete."
It is for this reason that although the ITU "will be producing courses from the best parts of our (German) universities", the language of instruction will be English. Students will eventually have to set foot in Germany. After a "virtual phase", learning from their own homes, they will complete their courses with a "presence phase" at one of the German universities. As ITU's web site puts it, "This two-tiered procedure will reduce costs for the students and at the same time give them the opportunity to spend part of their studies at a 'real' university in Germany and to get to know their host country."
Deussen's Nottingham audience seemed to be divided between those who saw him as a visionary - or at least someone who was doing his bit to ensure that Europe stayed "competitive with America" - and those with a more sceptical attitude. As one put it, "Multimedia is very expensive. The cost curve is much steeper than you think, and I'm not sure how much of a market there is out there."
"Perhaps I am a little naive," Deussen said. "But without naivety you will never start a new idea."