Open / Distance learning

Trish Cashen

CD-ROM and the Internet as Delivery Mechanisms

In many ways the application of computers to art history presents an ideal opportunity for open and distance learning. The availability of high-quality digital images allows for more detailed study than even the best books and slides and this, combined with interactive teaching methods means that students could study works of art in depth from any location connected to the Internet, or via CD-ROM. In the UK a number of examples exist where materials for advanced study are delivered on CD-ROM. "The Virtual Teaching Collection" is a project funded under the TLTP programme which provides a database of images and records for student study where no university museum exists. It is customisable and lecturers can insert their own images and texts. The British Open University currently delivers project material for arts courses on CD-ROM. In this way students have access to a wealth of primary source material and can produce sophisticated projects even if they are unable to travel to archives etc.

The development of CD-ROM and the Internet has meant that it is now possible to deliver both text and images relatively cheaply to students who are unable to use centralised resources at a single site. Both media also contain the possibility for frequent and easy updating of materials, and with the advent of Java, JavaScript and plug-ins for Internet browsers, it is now possible to deliver highly interactive programs over the networks. While CD-ROM has the advantage of running in standalone mode, without the need for costly network connections, or indeed the necessity for a reliable network, there are advantages to both methods of presentation and possibly a combination of both is the ideal solution. CD-ROMs have the benefit of being accessible at any time and interactive programs will almost certainly run more satisfactorily than if using a network connection. They are also a static medium, which has certain advantages - students can have the assurance of knowing that they have covered all the material.

In many other respects the Internet may prove to be a superior delivery mechanism. The chief benefits are the access it provides to communicating with other students and teachers and the fact that it is platform-independent and constantly developing. In practice, however, a student with a low specification PC will experience a frustratingly low response time, although it is highly likely that interactive applications will improve significantly over the next few years. Perhaps the main benefit of the Internet is that it supports other forms of communication such as email discussions and electronic conferencing. The benefits of asynchronous communication have long been recognised, but are not without their drawbacks - student expectation tends to be very high and this puts a huge burden on the teaching staff. If the Internet is to be used to deliver course materials, the course designers will have to think very carefully about the type and level of support which may be provided by teaching staff.

An ideal situation would be where computers were used primarily for delivery and presentation of material, with teaching being supplemented by lecturers based locally. (This is not unlike the way in which the British Open University currently works - course materials are delivered as books, audio and video cassettes but learning support in the form of tutorials and assignment marking and feedback is carried out by associate lecturers who are responsible for a relatively small group of students. Such an approach is expensive, but in the long term reaps benefits as the drop-out rate on courses is low and a high proportion of students complete their degree.) ACO*HUM might be instrumental in developing a network for distributing teaching materials such as digitised images and texts (via the Internet or on CD-ROM) and in advising local academics on how these materials might be used in distance learning situations. The work group might best achieve this aim by supporting a pilot project - e.g. a course on background information e.g. Biblical, mythological and literary sources.