Small change for Italy online

November 10, 2000

The millennium year will be remembered as the period in which Italian universities took to online teaching with gusto.

As the academic year began in Italy's 65-odd state universities, from the Alps to Sicily, a score were offering degree or postgraduate courses either exclusively online or with substantial use of internet and email.

For Italy, teaching via the internet does not call for a radical change. Most degree courses are purely exam-based and attending lectures is usually not compulsory. Many students work on set textbooks and go to their university only for exams. Often, personal contact between students and lecturers is reduced to the minimum.

Italian courses launched on the internet range from full degree programmes, such as Turin Polytechnic's three-year engineering degree and degree in communications, to courses that maintain some "live" contact between students and teachers. There are several degree courses offered via TV and computer by Rome's Tor Vergata University and 20 courses run by Milan's Catholic University.

Antonio Carrassi, who teaches dentistry at Milan University, said: "At each internet lecture, I present a particular clinical case. Then we hold a forum via the internet that I would never be able to manage in a lecture hall."

With rapidly increasing competition for students and funding, the internet has become a means of attracting "clients" from outside a university's geographical area. Students on Milan Polytechnic's engineering degree, for instance, are from all over Italy and need travel to Milan only two or three times a year to sit exams.

Francesco Antinucci, communications expert of the National Research Council and author of a guide to computers for young people, is cautious about the enthusiasm for internet study. "The basic point is quality. The fact that a course is on the internet does not, in itself, make it a good course.

"And it is by no means easy to design an internet course. There are two paths: using internet like an 'open university', or as support for what is basically a traditionally taught course.

"We are seeing both of these types in Italy, and we will have to learn to distinguish between genuine quality teaching and gimmickry.

"We must also bear in mind that with the reform of the university system, each student who enrols means extra money for the university.

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