This article is reproduced from Open Learning Systems News Issue 52 (June 1995), published by GSSE Gilwern, (Tel:+44 (0)1873 830 872)
A UK first: Alan Mills, of Birkbeck College, describes their involvement with the cyberspace's virtual university.

An International WWW Course

World-wide participation from over 250 students and consultants in 27 countries has resulted in the development of a 15-week course on the Principles of Protein Structure using the World Wide Web (WWW). Birkbeck College, in association with the Globewide Network Academy (cyberspace's virtual university), has organised the first UK higher education course to use the World Wide Web as a teaching medium on an international scale.

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.

A Student's View

Glenn Proctor writes:
I'm a D Phil student in the Protein Structure Research Group at York University and I've been involved with the Principles of Protein Structure (PPS) course almost since its inception. I fall somewhere between the two main groups of course participants in that I already know enough about both protein structure and World Wide Web (WWW) technology to be able to provide a substantial amount of my own information in hyper-text form. However, my knowledge of certain areas of protein structure is not as comprehensive as I would like it to be so I jumped at the chance to take part in this course. I saw it as an opportunity to use the web to provide information and also to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the principles of protein structure.

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.

Keeping in touch

The course has three main methods of communication. The first is through World Wide Web pages - all the course material is presented this way, and many of the course participants, myself included, have produced web pages dealing with our 'personal' protein or area of interest.

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.


is the third method of communication employed by the users of the course and is something that may not be so familiar to OLS News readers. The BioMoo can best be described as a 'virtual meeting place for biologists'. Since the 1970s computer enthusiasts have been running MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) - computer games where participants at many remote sites all take part in the same game and interact with each others' characters. The BioMoo is a more recent adaptation of MUD technology and principles, with a more serious and productive intention. The Moo (which, incidentally, stands for Multi-user Object Oriented, a description of the way the 'world' is designed) is a collection of rooms. Users create characters who can wander around the Moo, browse reference material and (most importantly) communicate with each other. This communication can be in the form of a real-time dialogue with one or more other Moo characters, or by MooMail, which is more or less equivalent to electronic mail. Objects, such as reference books, maps, chalkboards and so on can be created and modified at will. Users can create rooms to be used as their personal offices, exhibition theatres, or meeting rooms. The analogy with a real-world building is deliberately kept strong, so that users who aren't very familiar with computers and the Internet will feel (literally) 'at home'.

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!

Contact Points for Contributors to this Review of the Virtual School of Natural Sciences Principles of Protein Structure Course are:

An URL at:
Or point your WWW browser at the URL
Dr Alan Mills, Room 214, Birkbeck College, Crystallography Department, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX
Tel 01 71 631 6810
FAX 01 71 631 6803

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: OR, on WWW: