Technology can help people to communicate even when they are seated around the same table, says Clive Holtham.
City University's centre for virtual work, commerce and learning, which opens next week, places little emphasis on virtual and remote learning. At first sight, this seems paradoxical.
The project is one of the Department for Education and Employment's centres of excellence for information technology, set up to improve IT skills in the local economy through collaboration with business.
Adult learners use the open learning centre supported by Bull UK. This is geared to teamworking and learning. Groups can work around workstations, each with a phone and wired for audio.
A virtual centre, with ISDN videoconferencing, Lotus Domino and WebCT for remote-course delivery, is particularly used by students on the continuing education department's MSc module in advanced technologies - a "training the trainers" course.
The outreach centre has two portable local area networks used by the business school to take facilities to where learners are based. These networks are supported by IBM, which has provided two notebook servers and 28 notebook clients. The main software is Groupsystems, from Ventana UK, which was developed at the University of Arizona to support face-to-face meetings.
Delegates can input ideas from their laptops, and the software provides sophisticated tools for prioritising issues and taking votes. For certain meetings, it is possible to achieve in half a day what might take two days.
This is because of the parallelism involved, compared with classic serial meetings in which one person speaks at a time. It is also possible to gauge the extent of agreement quickly.
At the start of an editorial meeting to finalise a publication with ten chapters, team members were asked to allocate a time budget per chapter. They put almost all their priority on chapters nine and ten. Those familiar with meetings will know the tendency to take any manner of comment on the early items, running out of time for the important later items.
With this software the teacher becomes a group facilitator. With adult and degree-course learners, the most advanced students in a group tend to use the facilities to speed up their progress.
We are using the system for MBAs, undergraduate courses and executive education. It has been used by the continuing education department at a large event for 50 trainers and change agents studying advanced technology in learning. The system is effective for larger virtual groupwork.
We have developed a "50-minute business plan" in which sub-groups of two or three are delegated specific elements of a 13-stage plan. The sub-groups' views are collated electronically and assessed by the whole group.
The system is excellent for real-time student feedback. An important aspect of an electronically supported meeting or lecture is the oral discussion that can take place at any time during the proceedings. Many things can be done more simply by oral discussion around a flip chart than through the technology.
We are developing this technology to support work on subject reviews and teaching quality assessment. A bonus is that staff meetings become self-documented, and the structure, logic and conclusions can be emailed to missing members within a few minutes of the end of meeting, or exported to a Lotus Notes database for asynchronous teamworking.
This electronic-meeting technology will be extended to computer rooms, in effect retro-fitting many of them as "interactive classrooms". We do not regard it as any kind of paradox that a centre concerned with virtuality has put much effort into physical facilities.
Remote and distributed facilities are becoming as important on face-to-face as distance courses. Many learners still need human contact, but they want it to be structured to their needs. We need to re-think our "computer laboratories" for groupwork and as interactive classrooms. We need to reach out, perhaps taking the LAN with us to suit our student and corporate customers.
Clive Holtham is Bull Information Systems professor of information management, City University Business School.