In a few weeks, the class of '95 will graduate from Birkbeck College in London's first virtual university course. When term ends in late May, around 80 "graduates" will emerge from the online study rooms and libraries, clutching virtual diplomas in the Principles of Protein Structure.
The diplomas will not be officially recognised, for this year's students at least, but that does not detract from the importance of the PPS course. It is one of the first courses in the world to be tailored to, and taught via, the Internet.
Education has long been considered an area that can benefit from online systems - but activity, at least in the tertiary sector, is only now starting to pick up pace.
In the US, home of the Net, distance learning still relies on television technology. Only the Australians, who need to reach students in the outback, have an edge on Britain. At Monash University in Clayton, Victoria, all computer science courses can be taken via the Net. The university has been running online courses since 1980 and has seen hundreds of students graduate.
Last year Southampton University began allowing students in Information Engineering to receive course material by e-mail, while the Open University offers two computer courses via the Internet to non-European students.
Last summer, the OU ran its first virtual summer school, connecting 12 students who were unable to attend the regular summer school to a remote tutor via video-conferencing and e-mail links.
But the OU, which would seem to be the obvious institution to exploit the new technology, has yet to embrace it Whole-heartedly. Its students within Europe are still expected to use the phone, fax and local meetings.
Nevertheless, interest is growing rapidly worldwide, which is why a voluntary body, with its headquarters in Texas, has been established to help administer online courses and conduct research. As well as producing an online prospectus of its courses, the Globewide Network Academy provides expertise and resources to many of the new courses.
The GNA's Virtual School of Natural Science, is a co-sponsor of the course and one of its voluntary professors, Peter Murray-Rust, is also one of the principal architects. As a visiting professor to the Birkbeck crystallography department, he has been working on it with one of the College's fellows, Alan Mills. They have put the PPS course at the forefront of online education, with a course that makes the Net an integral part of every aspect of academic life from student registration to end-of-term party.
Registration for the course is by email, with students filling in an electronic form held on a World Wide Web page. Course material is provided on a series of Web pages, with "hypertext" links from those pages to other relevant resources on the Net. That means students can click on highlighted words and jump to linked pages.
To discuss the course, identify problems and keep in touch with other students, the PPS has a number of e-mail mailing lists. For "tutorials" or for socialising - at the end of term party for instance - students visit a specially designated multi-user dungeon called the BioMOO. There they can "chat" to other students and the course "lecturers", or consultants. Few of them are likely to meet face to face during the course.
"It was something who's time had come," says Prof Peter Murray-Rust. With around 30 million people able to access the Internet and cheap software available for browsing the Web, 1995 seemed like the perfect time to launch the course - free - to the world.
More than 250 students and consultants signed up from as far apart as China and Croatia. The list of consultants is a who's who of the protein world, bringing the top experts together from around the world to offer advice and expertise via the Net. The course has also been given access to some impressive resources, including specialist databases at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.
"The collaboration, in an international arena, is the thing that gives me the most satisfaction," says Murray-Rust. "It's one more thing that's shrinking the world."
The course is no soft option for students, who are expected to complete a series of assignments and projects. At the start of the course, Alan Mills split the 250 students and consultants into study groups. "We created 20 groups of 12 - 15 people and named them after the 20 natural amino acids," he says. "We then randomly allocated each of them one particular protein from the Protein Databank." The students were then told to find out what they could about their allocated proteins and publish the results on the PPS Web pages for other students to use.
With no formal classes, lectures or tutorials, the PPS has an air of anarchy. There is no obvious differences between students and consultants, who can both produce material and criticise work on the course. "The distinction between students and consultants has been blurred - deliberately," says Dr.Mills.
For the consultants, the electronic campus has also given them a certain instant academic recognition. They have a global audience and a place to publish their work which avoids the time-consuming process of submitting it to an academic journal. "With the Internet, you can publish something and have it there with no modification," says Glenn Proctor, a second year graduate student at York University and one of the course consultants.
Proctor is also making good contacts in his field : "I'm doing research in a small area of protein structure. I've met a lot of people I wouldn't have known about if I hadn't done the course."
More than a half of those on the course, however, are likely to drop out before the end. The course inevitably attracted a number of students intrigued by the idea of virtual study but with little commitment to a course that asked for real study but could not offer a real qualifaction.
Only a Certificate of Participation will be available for this year's graduates, but Dr.Mills and Professor Murray-Rust hope to have accreditation for the course in time for next year's intake. To gain that, they have to establish ways of verifying the identity of those on the course and of supervising exams. Someone will have to be assigned responsibility for ensuring the course material is kept up to standard and administration procedures will have to be put in place. And they will have to charge fees for the course, which is currently free.
The speed at which online courses, like the Birkbeck's are becoming established has begun to raise questions among both teachers' and students' bodies. The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the National Union of Teachers and the National Union of Students have put together a team to look at the potential dangers of an increasingly electronic education system.
"All of us have recognised there are a lot of opportunities and benefits to be gained," said an NUS spokesperson. "But we've got to make sure this isn't a method of increasing numbers in higher education on the cheap."
Dr.Mills says Birkbeck has been careful to keep the standard of its course material high. "This is not a Mickey Mouse course. Very few real life institutions have the resources to mirror ours."
The NUS is also worried that online learning will be of most benefit to those with the technical skills and the access to the technology, who tend to be young, male and relatively well-off. Dr.Mills admits women only account for around 15- 20 per cent of course participants, but says that a every effort is being made to help those who struggle with the technology.
Nina Krauzewitz, a post doctoral student studying viral oncogenes at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and a PPS student, says she was initially uncomfortable about using the technology : "I was terrified of the idea it was going to be done over the Internet." Instead she has found herself enjoying it. "What it's really done for me is to open up a whole new area for me to explore and get information from."
Online learning is now offering students the potential to pick and choose the course they want from almost anywhere in the world. Professor Murray-Rust believes the student of the future will chose the course he or she wants from the quality of resources and consultants it can bring together. "You'll see education as a market place," he says. "Reputation will dissuade people from taking up poor courses."
But will the virtual university ever replace the real thing? "We wouldn't want it to," says Dr.Mills. "The key thing is contact with teachers and mentors, and the sense of community."
"I certainly hope our children will go to a real life university," adds Professor Murray-Rust.
Birkbeck College PPS course:
Globewide Network Academy:
Southampton Institute MBA: