Uncle Glenn needs you

February 14, 1997

The European launch of Knowledge TV (Multimedia, page 28) is a pre-emptive strike. American cable entrepreneur Glenn Jones wants to seize the educational niche in local cable companies' offerings before any potential rivals. But now the company needs to introduce local educational content fast, before Europe's intellectual immune system rejects the American transplant.

Those who think there is already too much American content on UK television will probably not welcome Knowledge TV. Most of its programmes are indeed American. But already the channel carries significant European content. The February schedule includes programmes from the Financial Times and (in German) from Deutsche Welle. Within a few months nearly a third of the channel's content could be of European origin.

This will create an opportunity for European academics as Jones Education prepares for its next step, to deliver accredited university and college courses from established institutions, using a combination of media including cable TV and the Internet. This is how Jones's Mind Extension University - actually a virtual front for several real universities - has operated for several years out of Denver, Colorado.

Jones Education knows that most European students would prefer to enrol for distance learning from a university or college in their own country, rather than one in the United States. The company's European boss Dennis Garrison will be looking for local academic partners during the coming months.

He is likely to get a mixed welcome. Some will be wary of working with the Americans. Many will wonder whether aggressive commercialism is compatible with quality. And as Mark Childs of Wolverhampton University observes (Multimedia, page 29), academic attitudes to electronic teaching range from a sophisticated enthusiasm to outright rejection.

But for those who go in with their eyes open, initiatives like Knowledge TV and Wolverhampton's Broadnet are creating unprecedented opportunities to become involved in multimedia education. Latecomers to electronic teaching may find they have missed the boat.

The field of human knowledge is so broad that the virtual university will need the expertise of a large community of academics, on both sides of the camera. The winner-takes-all scenario, where a handful of star professors do all the online teaching, seems implausible after a moment's study of any university course list. For those who are willing to communicate their specialist knowledge through new and perhaps unfamiliar media, opportunity knocks.

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