THE potential delights and possible dangers of cyberspace are attracting the attention of Australia's most senior academics.
Drawn by the prospect of using the Internet to teach courses more cheaply, but fearful of the looming competition from "virtual'' universities that recognise no national borders, the academics are challenging their colleagues to prepare for the next millennium.
Alan Gilbert, Melbourne University vice chancellor, has warned his staff an international virtual university offering high-quality programs will be established in the near future. He believes the new cyberspace institution will offer courses with high brand recognition and could be based on franchising via the Internet of one or more of the world's top universities.
If traditional universities are to survive in the new technological environment, Professor Gilbert says they will do so only by matching the multimedia sophistication and global education networking of the virtual institutions. In an operational plan for next year, Professor Gilbert says all departments must provide their students with Internet access to course and subject information, and at least two members from each department must have undertaken professional development in multimedia-based teaching and learning.
At the University of Queensland, vice chancellor John Hay wants to establish a virtual campus where the concepts of flexible delivery and open learning can be developed. The university is planning a new physical campus at Ipswich, west of Brisbane, and Professor Hay says this will be the base for a flexible delivery centre with responsibility for transforming teaching across all areas.
"Of the great tyrannies in teaching, the tyranny of the timetable is undoubtedly the worst,'' he says. "It is no longer appropriate that a person can receive course content only at a particular hour or in a set room or only by lecture. Students should be able to pace themselves and choose from among face-to-face teaching, print-based material, informal networking, interactive videos or online information technologies.'' Gavin Brown, Sydney University vice chancellor, believes the time students spend on campus will shrink and that universities such as his could become 20 per cent larger through the use of electronic course delivery. But he says it would be silly for every university to develop its own "electronic cottage industry''.
"We need to explore joint ventures - within the higher education sector and with new commercial operators,'' Professor Brown says. "We should use other people's material and re-evaluate our strategies for space usage and timetabling in order to accommodate a new kind of learning.'' Meanwhile, a team of researchers at the Queensland University of Technology has won a federal government grant to investigate the likelihood of competition from privately-owned education networks overseas and the implications for Australian universities.
Team leader Stuart Cunningham says researchers will travel around the world to study such operations as the Microsoft Online Institution and the Virtual University, as well as exploring opportunities open to Australia in the global, on-line education market.