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Opinion -
Keep your distance  (February2000)

Efficient and successful distance learning is essential if business is to survive. Ian Murphy takes a look at one way to combat the skills shortage.

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At the end of November last year, the fifth Educa-Berlin conference took place in the city whose name it bears. This is an interesting time to be around Berlin as it rises to the challenge of regaining its position as the capital of Germany. The vast amount of building work is testament to the belief of large corporations, particularly those in the hi-tech and entertainment worlds that Berlin is the place to be for the next decade.

This was therefore the setting for what is likely to be an issue that will dominate the lives of your children, your staff and even yourself over the next few years. Educa-Berlin is the European Distance Learning conference and this year, for the first time, experiences rather than theory and plans for trials dominated the conference. There was also a substantial amount of input from commercial companies who were prepared to share their real world experience of creating distance learning environments.

Perhaps the biggest issue for many, as far as technology is concerned, was over the use of synchronous or asynchronous delivery mechanisms. This is not just about the ability of technology to provide a reliable link with sufficient bandwidth but how do you make the best use of the technology. Ironically, this is an area where Microsoft is about to take a significant step forward with Windows 2000 and the next version of NetMeeting. Among the improvements in the networking stack of Windows 2000 is the ability to manage the bandwidth for individual users as well as maintaining the quality of service in terms of performance.

Video-conferencing


It was interesting to see how traditional education and business differed in their understanding and willingness to adopt different technologies. Most people in both arenas have experienced asynchronous education through the television. In the UK in particular, since the launch of the Open University 30 years ago, the BBC has devoted a reasonable part of its scheduling to educational programs for both adults and children. Yet when many educational establishments have tried to use a videoconferencing approach, they have been disappointed with the results. Part of this problem is their expectation that they can simply acquire the technology within the available budgets to simulate the existing success of television broadcasts. Unfortunately, the costs and skills required are extremely expensive and they have often failed.

Business, on the other hand, along with a number of higher educational institutions that offer business courses has learnt how to produce high quality synchronous broadcasts. One of the UK leaders in this field is De Montfort University which has used videoconferencing in its MBA courses for some time now. It spends a considerable amount of money both on the technology and on training its staff how to use the technology. The Open University Business School, which many of us might think would also embrace this technology, has learnt a different lesson from its experiences with the BBC. Whilst some overseas OU establishments have used desktop video conferencing, Dr Gilly Salmon, who earlier this year ran an experiment called the Business Café on BBC2, is aware of the problems of using this medium. The fine line between the requirements of educationalists and television people is very hard to manage both for content and the correct people to present.

Transferable skills


As we move towards a future described by a common phrase at Educa of "Life Long Learning", we need to persuade businesses to take their skills out to education. The universities in general already have access to business financing through research projects and MBA programs but junior and secondary education suffers badly from a lack of funds as does higher education, particularly evening and part-time courses. Many companies carp on about the problems of finding school leavers who they can begin to employ because they lack useful skills. The result is that many people are persuaded to take evening and part-time courses to make them more valuable to their employers.

Irrespective of the politics of the situation, perhaps now is a good time for business and education to see how they can best transfer skills between them. Large organisations could look to send their experienced training and technology staff into local schools to help develop distance training skills. Ultimately the pay back will be better relationships between businesses and the communities in which they are situated and good publicity at this level just cannot be bought. In fact, done properly the PR benefits are probably cheaper and more far-reaching than all those business lunches for commentators, analysts and journalists. For those who may now miss out, think what this is doing to help improve your waistline!