Seven hilltop castles in Umbria are the nerve centres of a virtual university which will begin delivering courses this autumn to students across the globe. About 100 postgraduates will take a course on global management, with lecturers of four nationalities. Other courses on business in Japan and leadership and creativity are planned for 1997/98. The main academic advisor to the project is the University of California Los Angeles.
The online institution is called Universitas Ubiques Studiorum, in correct Latin. "I originally wanted to call it 'Ubiquitas'," explained Umberto Sulpasso, the Italian economist and former UCLA professor who has worked for two years to make UUS a reality. "I thought it gave a better sense of ubiquitousness. But the purists won in the end."
Dr Sulpasso has shuttled regularly across the Atlantic, negotiating the academic input from UCLA and the European business school at Fontainebleau, persuading the mayors of Umbrian towns to offer rooms in their castles, obtaining support from the Italian telecommunications company and from various institutional and private backers. He also struck an academic-financial deal with the Indian government.
"We decided on Umbria because it is a lovely place, of course. But also because of its medieval heritage which is a reminder of when students travelled constantly all over Europe from one teacher to another. Each castle will house one of the university departments. The headquarters will be in the castle of Gualdo Tadino, built in the 13th century by Frederick II and recently restored. The other towns are Spoleto, Gubbio, Orvieto, Narni, Perugia and Assisi."
Dr Sulpasso said that in theory UUS could have had no headquarters at all, being completely electronic. "But we felt we needed some kind of concrete foundation, an anchor in a real, concrete place." The 40 operators who will run the institution's communications network were trained for six months at Gualdo Tadino.
"We will have each academic, each student, sitting at their own computer and operating through the Umbria set-up," Dr Sulpasso explains. "For the first course, on global management, we have decided to gather the academics in New Delhi. They will communicate, through Gualdo Tadino, to students anywhere in the world. There will be 12 lecturers from UCLA, four from Indian universities and two Italians."
Dr Sulpasso explained that normally each course will be led by one university which will provide at least 50 per cent of the lecturers. "We are starting in the field of management, and the first year will be a running-in period. But we are already planning to broaden out to fields like architecture, communications, social sciences and medicine. And we have received great support and enthusiasm from the people at UCLA."
"Several of us at UCLA are working very closely with the Universitas Ubiques to establish a curriculum and develop the enormous potential of distance learning," said Jeff Cole, head of UCLA's Institute of Communications. "I am a strong supporter of the project." Also involved at UCLA are the Centre for Digital Innovation, headed by Masa Ashur Abdullah, the Board of Technology Policy, directed by Archie Kleingartner, and Gayle Byoch, UCLA's assistant vice chancellor for research.
Dr Sulpasso claims little will be lost of direct student-teacher contact. "A student asks a question and gets an answer. Both question and answer are communicated to the other students in that course. It will be a virtual classroom, with about 20 students online at any one time."
Dr Sulpasso himself will be president of UUS, and there will be an administrative chairman and an academic senate chaired by UCLA's Archie Kleingartner. Umberto Sulpasso can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org