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Express delivery for the just enough generation

Tony Durham reports on a new class of software specifically for education and training on the Web

The new products provide generic facilities that are likely to be useful on any course: content delivery, online discussions, assessment and student profiling. What they do not provide is course content. Educators have to add their own content, but that is generally where their expertise lies. Their media-services colleagues will probably need to select web-design tools from the rich choice available (see page iv) to create good-looking pages, eyecatching animations, and anything interactive beyond the level of a multiple-choice questionnaire.

But it would take a long time for any college or university department's programmers to match the education-specific features of a product like IBM's Lotus Learning Space. Based on the well-known LotusNotes software, it was launched as a "research product" in 1996. When version 2.5 shipped in March it was considered "a strategic product". By June it should be available in eight languages.

The universities of Gothenberg, Maryland and Tokyo are using LearningSpace to create a three-continent virtual university for oceanography. The Wisconsin state university system bought a licence for 170,000 users at a cost of less than $3 per student per year. Students can view their personal schedule of assignments and tests, browse a store of learning materials in the "media centre" and enter "course rooms" for discussions and messaging. Student profiles include the student's portfolio, assignments and grades.

Joe Holland, professor of hospitality and tourism at the University of Wisconsin, claims better results from his online students than for those taking the same course face to face. He claims that in addition to learning the content, students develop skills in teamwork, original thinking and technology. Links to the Internet keep his hospitality law students abreast of legal developments. "If something changes my students will find out 15 seconds after it is published," he says.

The Ford motor company was a pilot site for Solstra, a web-based learning system developed by Futuremedia and BT. Solstra can deliver text and multimedia learning material over the Internet or an intranet. "You can work with any multimedia producer provided they can produce products that run on Net protocols," says Futuremedia's managing director Mats Johansson.

Solstra allows students and tutors to engage in live chat and threaded news groups, and has facilities for assessment, records of progress and skills profiles. Johansson believes that besides testing the student's knowledge, assessment should probe learning styles and what the student wants to learn. "We are looking at not just just-in-time learning but just-enough," Johansson says.

An annual licence can cost from Pounds 15 down to around Pounds 1 per user, depending on numbers. First to buy was Ford, with a 500-user licence. "We also think this is a very appropriate product for the higher education market," Johansson says.

Wirral Metropolitan College developed its Learning Web software for its own students, but now offers it for sale following trials at three local companies and, just to show that distance is no object, in New Zealand. For the benefit of those who study from home or an outreach centre using a computer and a modem, Learning Web uses bandwidth sparingly. Large media files such as sound and video are distributed to students at the beginning of the course on CD-Rom, avoiding slow downloads. The product includes its own simple multimedia design tool, and allows students to join online conferences or exchange messages with their tutors. It costs Pounds 3,750 plus a Pounds 1,500 annual fee Corporate prices vary.

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