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Prof. Dr. Gunter Schlageter

gunter.schlageter@FernUni-Hagen.de

FernUniversität in Hagen
Fak. MI
LG Datenbanken und Informationssysteme
Universitätstraße 1
58097 Hagen
Germany

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VU - Virtual University

The primary goal of the Virtual University [1] is to offer maximum flexibility, independence and individual service to the learner and at the same time to provide tutorial support and social contact thus avoiding the typical situation of distance teaching. First of all, this means that all functions of a university which are in any way relevant to students are offered via communication networks. The technical and organizational challenge is the development of a homogeneous systems which smoothly integrates all functions and provides an personalized view of the complex information space "university" to the user.

The Virtual University is based on hypermedia and communication technology. It is accessible via the internet at any time and from any location. The learning material is available as hypermedia documents including computer based training modules, videos, animations, simulations, experimentation environments, and text-based material. Naturally, the various modules are interrelated via hyperlinks, thus forming a learning space.

Different synchronous and asynchronous communication features are integral parts of the system. These features do not only support communication of students with the university: an issue of utmost importance is the support of communication between the students themselves (peer-learning), and the support of collaborative work. Instead of the various social and topic-oriented groupings that typically form on campuses, a diversity of groupings now form via the net. For this purpose, new communication features had to be developed. The personal computer becomes learning station, communication center and information terminal at the same time.

A first version of the Virtual University has been developed on the basis of the WWW, the system has been used within the standard curriculum since winter 1996. In the meantime a new version has been developed with extended administration features.
The Virtual University is organized along functions as seen from the students: Learning, Library, News, Cafeteria, Office, Research, Shop, and Information.

The Virtual University is not organized along the organizational structure of the university, as it is typically the case: Instead of this approach the VU tries to adopt the most natural access for students, who intend to register for a course (Office), want to take part in a course (Learning and News), want to find information relevant for their personal studies (Information), want to communicate with others (Cafeteria), or want to order products (Shop).
We gathered experience with all kinds of events: course delivery and tutoring, exercise groups, distributed practical trainings, and even seminars. Actually about 14000 students are using the Virtual University for teaching and learning, more than 100 courses are offered.

The experiences are positive throughout, the students accepted the Virtual University with great enthusiasm. It comes as no big surprise, that the major quality improvement is attributed to the multitude of communication and cooperation facilities in the system. The working environment of the students at home has changed dramatically. The contact to the tutors has become more active and lively, a lot of student working groups organized themselves over the net with the support of Virtual University's communication environment.

Relevant areas for future developments are aspects like data protection, workflow processes, new didactical approaches and extension of communication features.
The central design goal for the architecture of the system is openness towards technological, didactical, as well as functional change. It is based on the Internet and integrates database technologies. The student only needs his PC and the Internet. Therefore, the platform is easy and flexible to use in different settings (universities, schools, industrial trainings).

The Virtual University offers new perspectives for quality, individualisation, and for social networking in web based teaching.


[1] Sponsored by the federal state Northrhine-Westfalia, Sun Microsystem, Sybase and Oracle