Learning through the Internet
Wageningen is about to enter the age of cybernetic Distance Learning. In October, a pilot project offering courses through the Internet will begin. The intention is to offer part of the MSc in Food & Biotechnology in the form of Distance Learning from January 1st, 2000
According to enthusiastic Programme Director, Rommert van den Bos, the MSc will never completely depend on Distance Learning. The programme will be extended to two years, with students staying in their own countries to learn the theoretical aspects of a subject through the Internet, and then coming to Wageningen for the practical research period. When students have questions, they can e-mail lecturers. This should make the MSc cheaper, more accessible, and students can spend less time away from their families
Harry Gruppen and Lennard Muilwijk, from the Food Chemistry Chair have spent the last 13 months developing the pilot course in molecular plant biology which also includes an interactive case study. Muilwijk explains their decisions for the course: Most students in Food & Biotechnology have access to computer facilities and have at least some experience in using the Internet. There are many electronic learning methods available - from sending a text with questions, to projecting slides accompanied by a lecturer's recorded voice, to videos and interactive teleconferences
The team decided to start with a simple text version until they have developed more complicated images. Muilwijk is obviously excited by the possibilities: The project is only just beginning - this version is not so very different from a correspondence course yet, except that the words are now on a screen, but technology is developing at such an incredible rate, we don't know where it will go. He displays a screen with three-dimensional molecular figures on it: the molecule can be moved and stretched, and its form manipulated in order to see its characteristics clearly. At a later stage, we can introduce more of these kinds of figures, as well as multi-media images such as animation or video clips to liven up the course, and make it more interactive, he continues
This project is part of the Wageningen Advanced Learning Space (WALS) which is investigating the possibilities of computerised learning for the University. The pilot project aims to find the glitches that such a learning method would present. After an initial run through of the course by Dutch students in Wageningen, it will be sent on to Thai students at Bangkok's Asian Institute of Technology, and later to Lodz University in Poland. Reactions to and results of these trials should provide a good indication of how best to build a curriculum
Debates on the merits and drawbacks of Distance Learning and the different methods are going on everywhere. There seems to be general agreement that face-to-face contact is the best way to learn, but there are also many advantages to Distance Learning. The International Centre for Protected Landscapes in Wales has offered an MSc by correspondence course since 1994. Programme Director Liz Hughes explains that this method is particularly useful to students living in remote areas such as the Andean rainforest where no computer facilities exist. Hughes finds that Distance Learning has been able to target people who need training but who could not leave their work and families behind, or could not get funding to study abroad. She admits that studying in isolation demands a high level of commitment by students, but it also motivates them to put their training into everyday practical use
At the other end of the technological spectrum, the first on-line Master's degree started in September at Stanford University in the United States. Their MSc in Electrical Engineering offers 30 courses and is mostly offered on the Internet, using techniques such as teleconferencing to allow students to interact from different locations. According to the New Scientist of 26 September, students can score higher through teleconferences or tutored video sessions, than in a normal lecture situation. Completing the MSc is expected to take three or four times longer than the normal 1-year MSc, as students work at their own pace. However, Stanford's MSc presently relies on an external subsidy, and eventually this electronically advanced programme will become much more expensive than a normal course, not to mention that it is highly dependent on the workings of sophisticated technology
International Club turns 40
The International Club Association opened its doors for the first time in October 1958, when Wageningen had a very small international community. Wanting a place of their own to meet and support one another, the Club was set up by students from the former Dutch colonies of Surinam and Indonesia together with Hungarian refugees. A lot has changed since that time, and this month's anniversary provides time to reflect on the future as well as the past
Armand Elia, from Surinam, has been actively involved with the Club for the last twenty years, and now sits on its Advisory Board. Elia remarks that there are now more Dutch people involved in the Club, fewer students, and more longer-term internationals such as spouses of Dutch people. With over 200 members, the Club preserves its multi-cultural character through a policy that no single group of any nationality can dominate more than one third of the total membership
The Club's traditional link with the academic community is becoming less clear as a result of changes such as the formation of the Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR). Both the University and the IAC are included in its Advisory Board, and the IAC provides a subsidy. But student membership has been declining, especially since the establishment of ISOW (International Student Organisation of Wageningen) in 1996
According to Cristina Vasquez, from the Dominican Republic and head of the Activities Committee, this is a critical moment for the Club: We now have 29 volunteers who have been active for about five years. We need more new people to keep up our level of creativity. One of Vasquez's tasks is coordinating the popular Cultural Evenings, a feast of music, food and dance from a focus country. Vasquez encourages members to organise such activities themselves though sometimes a live band is also invited
Elia believes that the Club should rethink its mandate to grow with the changes that are occurring in Wageningen. Finances, for instance, are an on-going issue. The Committee is happy when it manages to break even on a Cultural Evening. Last year, the group also had to take out a loan in order to install a new ventilation system. One of Elia's ideas is to offer the house during the day to other groups, for instance for childcare or a space for international spouses to set up some activities: At the moment, the house is empty all week, and we can certainly find other ways to use it.
Vasquez still enjoys what the Club has to offer in spite of all these concerns: I still find it to be the best place to go out in Wageningen to dance and listen to music from around the world. It has a friendly atmosphere and I feel secure there - even if I go alone I know I will meet a friend or a new person from my region.