Virtual centre of excellence will transform industry and academia

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Series Details Vol.7, No.39, 25.10.01, p16
Publication Date 25/10/2001
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Date: 25/10/01

By Simon Coss

THE EUROPEAN Commission wants EU studies students and their academic counterparts from other disciplines to reap the maximum benefit from the so-called IT, or information technology, revolution.

That's why the institution earlier this year unveiled what it calls the e-learning action plan.

According to Viviane Reding, the education commissioner, e-learning should revolutionise the way students in universities, schools and colleges across the Union carry out their studies.

For example, new technologies should allow students working on post-graduate courses to take greater advantage of distance learning.

This could allow EU studies students to strike a better balance between hours passed in university lecture theatres and time spent working in practical internships in businesses or in the European institutions.E-learning will also permit EU universities to interact more readily, which should allow them all to improve their overall standard of teaching by learning from each others' best practices.

Reding is convinced that e-learning will not just benefit the EU's academic institutions but will also play a key role in ensuring that the Union becomes one of the world's most advanced and competitive economies. "E-learning is an opportunity for Europe to utilise the power of technology for real social and educational change, bringing benefits to academia and to business," she told a conference held in La Hulpe, Belgium, earlier this year.

One of the key aims of Reding's new strategy is to set up what she calls a "virtual European centre of excellence," which would bring together leading new technology experts from both the academic world and industry. "Even if it will be difficult at European level to develop an agreed reference centre like the MIT Media Lab, I believe it is possible to build useful links between all of the people who are working on future technologies and teaching methods," the Commissioner said recently, referring to the famous research centre attached to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

But amid all of this talk of high-tech innovation and virtual learning, the Commission also insists that good old-fashioned teaching by human beings will always form the basis of the Union's educational system. It says e-learning is designed to look at how new technologies can best be put at the service of the Union's teachers, lecturers and professors and not the other way round.

The e-learning action plan itself states that it is designed as "a tool to help practical players and decision-makers". The vital importance of traditional teaching methods in any new approach to academic study is also stressed by one of the largest firms currently working in the field of e-learning, Cisco Systems.

US-based Cisco has developed an entire virtual curriculum that is being used in educational establishments all over the world. But at the recent e-learning summit Cisco's Mike Lawrie insisted that his company's products would be worthless without skilled teachers. "The practical classes in the test-lab occupy at least half of the students' time," he said, referring to his company's teaching programme. "We believe that practical training is a vital part of any curriculum," he added.

It seems, then, as though Europe's students will still have to get up in the morning to attend lectures for some time to come.

The European Commission wants EU studies students and their academic counterparts from other disciplines to reap the maximum benefit from the so-called IT, or information technology, revolution. Article forms part of a supplement on European studies.

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