No need to travel on the open road to First Class learning

February 26, 1999

Get a life, virtually speaking. Hazel Burke explores the sociable side of a virtual campus

Bill is a student. It is 10pm on a Saturday night. Where is he? Let us guess. He is checked in at the Log Inn. Or seeing who is in the Common Room, or even the Library, at this time of night. Any tips about the latest assignment or gossip about last year's summer school? Welcome to the world of FirstClass, the Open University's computer-mediated communication system.

Bill Curran is in his second year of an Open University science degree. Now, instead of socialising down the pub, he is crouched in front of a glowing computer screen. A glass of wine or two have been consumed, so the messages going out may be a little blurred. Apparently there's plenty of other OU folk out there, on line, communicating through the virtual campus, supporting each other in thought if not in person. All that is needed is a computer, modem, and telephone line.

Bill, a mature student, has been surprised at the interactive communication involved in an OU course. It is now possible for OU students to seek support and advice even if they are miles away from a terrestrial campus. Do you have commitments which prevent regular attendance at tutorials? Simply switch on a computer and log on. Cyberspace is being utilised by the OU alongside traditional study materials.

The OU's implementation of SoftArc's FirstClass system offers navigation round a virtual campus. On screen the map points out the Coffee Bar and the Lecture Theatre, the Business School and the Common Room. It is possible to bump into tutors on line, and to take part in open conferencing. There is even a private chat facility. Through electronic communication, students can join staff and visitors to discuss issues of academic and general interest.

However, it is still a social environment, where normal rules are in force. Communicating in an antisocial manner is not acceptable. A sense of humour helps, though. With little time to meet students in the flesh, Bill has developed a jokey line in online chat which brought results.

When he mislaid an assignment paper, for example, a fellow student emailed a copy without delay. Saved again.

For most OU students, enrolling at university is the start of a huge learning curve. Popping into the Log Inn now and again can provide additional social, as well as academic, support. The Students Union may be more virtual than real but it provides that vital social and personal contact which is as much part of being a student as are the essays and examinations. Pass another glass of wine and check the email!

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