Superhighway no golden path

October 10, 1997

BILL GATES, chairman of Microsoft, has created a $200 million foundation to equip schools and libraries in the United States with computers and Internet connections. This week in the United Kingdom he continued his mission to do good for the computer industry by doing good for education. Having given his blessing to Prime Minister Tony Blair's plans to get schools online, he travelled to a city whose Downing Street is lined not with ministries but with world-famous laboratories.

Cambridge is getting a Microsoft laboratory (and Microsoft is borrowing some of Cambridge's best brains). Separately, the university's own computer laboratory will be rebuilt with a personal gift of Pounds 12 million from the world's richest man. Such largesse is welcome, but Cambridge should be careful that gratitude does not loosen its grasp on its intellectual property in areas such as networking and cryptology.

News that Mr Gates's wealth had surpassed that of the Sultan of Brunei coincided with last week's release of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, where the real story was not the advance in Web-browsing software but the formidable array of publishing and media groups that have chosen the Microsoft way of doing business on the Internet.

The information economy is taking shape before our eyes and there is a welcome in it for universities, libraries and other traditional stewards of knowledge, provided they show a businesslike attitude. Open University programmes will be available in Poland thanks to American cable television entrepreneur Glenn Jones. Electronic micropayment technology will allow libraries to exhibit their treasures in cyberspace at a penny a peep.

The power of cyberspace can be seen where it meets and moulds the physical world. Hertfordshire's new Pounds 16 million learning resources centre (Multimedia, page v) is what you get if you build a university library thoughtfully today. The complex building provides micro-environments for traditional modes of resource-based study as well as the new permutations of multimedia learning. A new and sophisticated pedagogical architecture is emerging: the Boots Library at Nottingham Trent (itself influenced by Estrella Mountain College in Arizona) will open next year.

At Hatfield, the campus centre of gravity shifted when the new library opened and the crowds poured in. A handsome building with a choice of study environments, a cafe and helpful staff offers something that can never be wholly replaced by a portable PC and a network socket in the study-bedroom.

Research programmes such as the Follett-inspired eLib (Electronic Libraries) in the UK, the European Union's Telematics Applications programme and the Digital Library Initiative in the US have made progress towards the futuristic vision of the all-digital global library where, as Natalia Grygierczyk of the University of Utrecht describes it, "it is all at your fingertips" (Multimedia, page i). The phrase echoes a former Bill Gates slogan, "information at your fingertips".

Even with knowledge at their fingertips the library has a long future, as the place where students can learn IT skills in classes of 30, collaborate in pairs on an assignment, polish their presentation skills or shut the door on the world and read silently as if Bill Gates had never been born.

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