Two million years flash past in a few seconds. Wind and rain wear away a Rwandan mountain top and clothe the lower slopes with soil. Animated graphics give a rapid intuition of the processes at work. A spreadsheet keeps precise accounts of rock and soil.
This is the new way to learn geography, with computer models and simulations. One of the world's largest collections of geography courseware - computer learning materials - was unveiled last week in the Royal Geographical Society's Kensington centre, where the names of Victorian explorers adorn the wood panelling.
Seventy-five higher education institutions in the United Kingdom collaborated to create the 18 modules of the GeographyCal project, sharing a thinly-spread Pounds 500,000 of funding council money. Institutions paid their own overheads. They were led by Coventry University and the University of Leicester.
Geography bestrides the physical and social sciences, and attracts students from many backgrounds. The GeographyCal materials are described as introductory, but they could be used in the first or second year of an undergraduate course or by students revising for finals, according to project co-director Mick Healey of Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.
Enquiries established that institutions wanted self-contained modules rather than a systematic first-year course. The modules cover subjects ranging from meteorology to international inequalities, under the general headings of human geography, physical geography and geographical techniques. The techniques taught include map design, social survey design, the use of geographical information systems and data gathering on the World Wide Web.
Like other consortiums in the Pounds 43 million Teaching and Learning Technology Programme, the GeographyCal group must eventually become self-supporting if it wishes to continue its work. Under TLTP rules the courseware must be distributed at cost within the UK higher education sector. Any financial return must therefore come from sales abroad or to consumers, schools or industry in the UK.
Geoffrey Robinson of the University of Leicester, the project's other co- director, said the team would probably seek a partnership with a publisher.
"We might be able to generate enough revenue to keep the team together," he said.