All of Scotland's main college and university sites have been linked by a videoconferencing network - the largest of its kind in the world. The pioneering system will link lecturers and students across the country.
Teaching hospitals and research institutes are also linked to the network. This week's launch included a graphic demonstration of minimal access surgery in Dundee. Medical students across the country are now able to see operations as they take place without having to be present in the operating theatre.
What makes this possible is Scotland's high-speed Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), backed by Pounds 1 million from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which already connect the higher education institutions.
Many videoconference technologies are less reliable, with jerky pictures and time lags during conversations, which is an obstacle in particular to following complex medical procedures.
The MAN-based system, however, has near-television quality pictures and CD-quality sound. It also switches between sites so smoothly that normal conversation can be taken for granted.
With the videoconferencing system, students no longer need to rush across town for a lecture at a different site and lecturers need not travel to remote campuses. The network also means that subject experts can now hold lectures or tutorials for students from several different institutions at the same time.
Academics need no specialist expertise to operate the videoconferencing equipment. Unlike ISDN systems, which incur telephone charges, the MAN network is free.
Staff in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paisley universities are collaborating on developing teaching materials in remote sensing, a subject that is part of a range of courses, including physics, engineering, geography and environmental sciences.
Iain Maclaren, lecturer in electronic engineering and physics at Paisley, said: "Videoconferencing is a vital aspect of our project management. It blurs the fact of our physical separation and enables us to work closely and respond to problems almost as quickly as a group in one location."
The system also enables lecturers to transmit work for students and automatically log the results. "We can see how long it takes them to complete, which pages they spend a lot of time on," Dr Maclaren said.
Scotland also has access to videoconferencing in the rest of the world through an ISDN gateway link at Edinburgh University. "You can have mixed conferences," said Jean Ritchie, national coordinator of SHEFC's Use of MANs initiative. "When somebody comes in from an ISDN link, it's a bit clunky and a bit slow, but they can still take part."
John Sizer, chief executive of SHEFC, said: "The development of our competitive advantage in technology-assisted teaching and learning will also enable students worldwide to benefit from a high-quality Scottish education."
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