The Information Superhighway has enabled about 30 experts in protein structure from around the world to contribute graphical and hyper-textual material for the course, as well as engaging the students in technical discussions via email. Students from as far apart as Colombia, China, Canada and Croatia have registered electronically for the course. These students, from a wide variety of backgrounds, all discovered this educational offering whilst cruising the Information Superhighway from the comfort of their computer screen.
This course is an experiment in edu-cational technology that puts Birkbeck at the forefront of developments exploiting the potential of multimedia technology; developments that attract many students and complement traditional teaching methods. The Principles of Protein Structure are of direct relevance to this department - renowned for its expertise in the experimental determination of the 3-dimensional structure of protein molecules using x-ray crystallography.
This initiative was made possible by a grant from the college Development Fund to the departmental chairman (Dr David Moss) under which I have been employed to explore the implications of developments in teaching technology and distance learning. Peter Murray-Rust (from Glaxo Research and Development), a visiting professor in the Department of Crystallography, has been a prime mover in planning and implementing the course.
Another unusual medium of communication to be employed on the course is the BioMOO. This 'virtual classroom' is a more serious application of the gamester's 'multi-user dungeon' where several participants (students and consultants) may be simultaneously logged on to the same remote computer and can effectively 'talk' to each other from their keyboards. The fact that the BioMOO is on a computer at the Weizmann Institute in Israel makes no difference to the student in Australia or the consultant in Los Alamos.
This is a world where high-quality images of rotating molecules can be accessed around the world in a matter of seconds.
Education is moving into a global context. Some institutions, especially in the USA, have been using World Wide Web technology to serve educational resources to their own students locally. Running such a course in a network-distributed manner has only been attempted before with the C++ computer programming course that last year won awards for the Globewide Network Academy.
The Principles of Protein Structure course is both more exciting and more ambitious, dealing with an area of relevance to genetic engineering and rational drug design - of interest to chemists, biologists, geneticists, nanotechnologists - and employing graphical multimedia computer applications to provide a unique and futuristic learning experience.
The benefits of the course are extensive with each course member gaining in different ways. Personally, I find that the main advantages of a virtual course over a conventional taught course are:
Of course, the nature of the Internet means that geographical separation is not a problem when it comes to communication with other course participants.
Secondly, there are several electronic mailing lists covering areas such as technical issues, course material and general discussion. Course members are encouraged to subscribe to some, or all, of the lists that deal with areas that they would like to discuss.
So far the PPS course has had one BioMoo party (an informal getting to know each other event) and the individual groups all have rooms for meetings, discussion and display of resources. The Moo adequately makes up for the lack of real-world person to person contact with other course members.
Overall, even though the course is in its early stages, I feel that I have learned a great deal already, and I have 'met' a lot of people with whom I intend to keep in contact. As an on-line learning resource, the course is unique - however something tells me it won't be this way for very long!
Professor Peter Murray-Rust
Tel 01 81 966 3075
Glenn Proctor, Protein Structure Research Group, Chemistry Department,
University of York, Heslington, York, YO1 5DD.
Tel 01 904 432 573
FAX 01 904 432 519
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org OR, on WWW: http://www.yorvic.york.ac.uk/~proctor/