This article by David Atkinson first appeared in the June '95 edition of National Student Extra published by NUS Services Ltd.


© Copyright David Atkinson 4/3/95
Virtual Reality Education

In the future, you will no longer go to lectures. You will attend cyberspace tutorials and hand in virtual essays. In the future, this article will not appear in a tangible magazine format but will be downloaded to your computer via the Internet, giving you the opportunity to contact me directly and comment upon it. "Mere science fiction", you may scoff but the concept of virtual reality education is an ongoing reality on campuses and in households around the UK right now. And it's leaving you behind rapidly.

In the last two weeks alone, numerous stories have appeared in the press about the galloping pace of Internet technology. The most notable of these was the tale of Tom Whitwell, a final year politics student at Leeds University who, during an Internet debate on political censorship, made certain references to MP Peter Lilly which the Social Security Secretary took rather great exception to. The resulting accusation of libel ensured the young Websurfer received a good talking to by the university authorities and led to them drawing up a code of practice for their 200 on-campus users.

Still, the Internet is more than just a virtual reality playground for on-line computer anorak hacks to frolic around in while surfing the information superhighway. The access to global information it provides has the potential to completely revolutionise our society. Furthermore, as access to its global hypermedia network is free of charge to students, the latent capacity of the Net to transform traditional methods of education as we know them is immense.

In the April issue of '.net', the Internet magazine, Matthew Bath, a student of Westminster University, writes, "The Net is the most impressive and downright exciting academic resource ever. Strangely enough, it's estimated that only one per cent of the student population actively cruise the Net looking for information to help them on their courses."

Naturally, the mind-blowing potential of the Net does tend to cripple those with techophobia into science-blinded submission. Before students dip their toes into the cyberwater, they need to get to grips with certain concepts. In 'Entering the World Wide web-A guide to Cyberspace' by Kevin Hughes, a Webmaster and one-time lecturer at Honolulu Community College, he explains the basic terminology. "The Internet is the catch-all word used to describe the massive world-wide network of computers, the network of networks," he writes. "The World Wide Web (WWB) is mostly used on the Internet and refers to an abstract body of information while the Internet refers to the physical side of the global network."

The WWB therefore transmits hypermedia - text documents with links to not only other items of text but also sound, video and images - between computer users around the world allowing them to share information and interact with each other simply by typing on-screen messages from their respective computer servers.

On campus, it is JANET (Joint Academic Network) which forms the mainstay of the Internet by linking together academic institutions across the country. Your university computer department will be able to set you up with a password and user name, after which you can settle down at a terminal and browse the Web, talk to e-mail students around the world and add your comments to global bulletin boards. All of this within minutes and totally free of charge.

So does this mean the end of the higher education system as we know it? Will the student of the future simply go on-line from home and key into geography lectures from his terminal, discuss French 18th Century Literature in a virtual tutorial and sit exams in a cyberspace examination hall? Richard Longhurst, editor of '.net' magazine, doubts that we've quite reached the George Orwell stage yet.

"We've already seen video conferencing and interacting with other people via e-mail," he explains. "The response is so fast you can send live video in real time so a lecturer could address virtual classroom and it would be interactive. However, I think physical interaction is still a very important part of education and although this is an extremely useful addition, I doubt it will replace institutions."

"I think a year from now people will start to sit down and appraise the actual practical benefits that can be derived from this," he continues. "At the moment everyone is a bit overawed by it all . But the future possibilities are immense. Let's face it, it's far easier to browse information via the superhighway than to traipse down to the university library."

London's Birkbeck College has become the UK's pioneering academic institution by offering the first virtual reality course. The Department of Crystallography is offering global multimedia tuition in the principles of protein structure in association with the Virtual School of Natural Sciences at the Globewide Network Academy.

Dr Alan Mills is now supervising the new intake of virtual students from his computer terminal at Birkbeck College. Having provided the basis of the curriculum, he fully expects course material to be modified with the input of the students enrolled in December and the tutorial-style contributions of several on-line experts from the The Brookhaven Protein Data Bank and the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge. The course scheme has two main strands, course material about principles of protein structure and a range of Web networking tools.

"There's quite a variety of people on the course," says Dr Mills, "from undergraduate to associate professor level, they come from a variety of disciplines. When we put up the student application form on the Web, we merely insisted they had access to a network computer with a Web browser and an e-mail address. Local network conditions sometimes mean it's rather slow to download material which can make Web access a bit difficult in far corners of the globe and some of the biologically minded people are struggling to get to grips with the technology involved. On the other hand, we've had an amazing response and a real community spirit is developing."

The course develops as traditional series of one week lectures fleshed out by student and academic tutorial contributions via e-mail and with homework 'handed in' for virtual reality marking. Even though there's not a red biro in sight, any shoddy essay research would soon attract harsh electronic correction. They even have a kind of virtual reality students' union coffee lounge, the Bio MOO. This software creation of the Weizmann Institute in Israel has been adopted by the current student intake as their cyber home base.

"It's a matter of mounting material on the Web for people to browse and absorb," explains Dr. Mills. "We then provide an opportunity for group discussion in a virtual reality environment. Most students are virtual students although some are combined into small physical groups like ones in Sweden, Finland and here in London. There are no fees on this course and ultimately no qualification, it's all being done for free as an experiment, but students have a learning contract to undertake projects they mount on the Web."

Although Dr. Mills is devoted to the principles of virtual education, he is concerned about the system being open to abuse, especially as information on the Net is available for anyone to read without restriction. "I don't want to see it employed as a means of providing education on the cheap," he warns. "It provides an additional aspect to traditional teaching techniques. We've still got books, still need face to face instruction but this is an additional way to teach. Teaching has been too boring for too long."

The fact that nobody controls the Net and the mockery it's global nature makes of national legislation are both increasing causes for concern about the need for cyber policing. Indeed, such are the concerns of government about the unrestricted use of the quasi-anarchic Internet, that in late February ministers from the G7 group of nations met in Brussels to discuss the side effects of this new found freedom of information in terms of copyright, libel and cyberporn.

While questions are asked in the Euro-house and students in Leeds have their knuckles sharply rapped, the virtual students of Birkbeck are busy pioneering the more positive aspects of Net technology. The only fear now is that just when the enormous benefits of the Net are being realised, the powers that be may intervene and throw a spanner in the cyber works. After all, in a supposedly free information society, how likely is it that world governing bodies will really continue to allow such free dissemination of information to go unrestricted? Even if it is in the worthy name of academic research.


Software that provides an interface to the
A structure in which programs use and provide distributed services between users
The default document WWB users see when first connected to a Web server
Hypertext that includes or links to other forms of media
The global collective of physical computer networks
The administrator responsible for the management and often design of a WWB site.
The initiative to create a universal, hypermedia based method access to information.

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This article was originally published in the June 1995 issue of National Student Extra magazine. NSE is available free, twice termly in students' unions around the country, keeping the nation's students up to date with the latest trends. For further info, contact: 01457 890900
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