Teachers as much as learners are reacting in very different ways to the challenge of electronic distance education. Mark Childs reports on a West Midlands business-campus project.
The Pounds 8.3 million Broadnet project is establishing a multimedia communication network between the University of Wolverhampton and small to medium-sized enterprises throughout the Black Country.
The network will be used to deliver an information service and computer-based courses. The project has had to cope with the fact that the university staff differ greatly in experience with information technology and readiness to become involved with production of interactive study materials.
Computer manufacturer ICL and the local cable television company Telewest Communications are helping to create the network, which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the West Midlands government office.
Students will access the university's courses through a television set and set-top box, or a PC equipped with either a cable modem or an asynchronous transfer mode network card.
The university's schools are working with the Interactive Communication Technologies Research Centre (ICTRC) to produce about 40 training modules by mid-year, on subjects such as environmental awareness, costing for quality, Spanish for business, and discrimination legislation. Based at the university's science park, the ICTRC is headed by Steve Molyneux, a well-known expert in the field.
Most of the packages are based on previously taught and validated courses. But the translation to a computer-based system, with its potential for interactivity and hypertext, has necessitated a rethink in their presentation. Although the more technical aspects of production are undertaken by the Broadnet production team, academic staff need to acquire concepts necessary for producing IT-based study packages. This raises the question of how the module authors, who have experience of creating teaching materials but not necessarily any previous knowledge of IT, are to cope with their part in the creation of IT-based teaching materials. The answer is: it depends.
It depends on each school's agenda regarding IT and its experience in the production of interactive teaching materials. It depends on how resources are managed within the project, and on the nature of the subject matter and how easily it adapts to interactive technology.
Many staff became involved because they saw an opportunity for personal development - the chance to acquire the skills of producing interactive and hypertext-based study materials, or at least to improve their awareness of the educational potential of interactive technology.
Schools within the university also see the opportunity of more fully exploiting existing markets and the potential of computer-based learning in creating new markets.
Some schools have no real idea of why they should be involved; either they have not got round to thinking about the need for involvement in Broadnet, or they have declined involvement.
At the other extreme, several schools have produced CD-Roms and are familiar with the demands of the technology and its potential. In the middle are groups that are excited by the idea of interactive materials and are keen to learn. These groups wish to obtain feedback from the first of their modules before progressing too much further with their later ones.
In schools where the staff have little familiarity with information technology, progress has been limited. These staff seem intimidated by the technology and uneasy about starting work on the materials.
Part of the problem is the initial cost involved. This is an almost textbook example of the centre-periphery model of institutional change, with much equipment and many IT-literate staff being located at the Wolverhampton Science Park, and the periphery bemoaning the lack of investment in their schools.
The argument for concentrating equipment and IT-literate staff at the centre is, of course, economies of scale. Then disadvantage as far as the schools are concerned, in particular those schools that see the Broadnet project as an opportunity to educate staff in the potential of IT, is that staff will have limited opportunity to get hands-on experience of using the technology.
During the early months of the project the wide range of prior experience and access to resources resulted in an equally wide variance in the rate of completion of the study modules. While some schools were struggling (or had refused) to begin work, others progressed rapidly.
Schools that had worked on IT-based study packages before and were familiar with the technology had nearly completed their assignments at a time when others had not yet started and did not feel the need to start. Those with limited experience but a commitment to involvement with IT fell between these extremes.
The groups that made least progress in the creation of the study modules were also those that had not yet considered the more long-term advantages of their involvement with IT. Convincing them of the importance of becoming involved was therefore difficult.
One way in which the Broadnet project has encouraged staff to participate is by making the entire process far more collaborative. Each staff member in the schools who is involved in the project has been put in touch with a specific programmer, who acts as adviser to and liaison between the staff member and the project team. Giving the people who are most uneasy about their involvement a specific person to contact and work with has overcome much of their initial resistance.
In addition, some schools have begun a programme in which staff with more experience of IT are put in touch with less experienced staff to pass on the skills they have learned. A researcher has been assigned to gather examples of best practices involved in creating modules.
There are plans for a series of workshops to disseminate the findings. Even in the midst of the information revolution, getting people talking to each other still seems to be the best way to achieve success.