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Friday, 31 March, 2000, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Open University's online graduation
Students around the world have taken part in the United Kingdom's first online graduation ceremony.
Twenty-six students in eight countries were presented for their masters degrees in an online graduation on Friday.
The Open University's vice-chancellor, Sir John Daniel, wearing his formal robes, was in front of an audience at the OU's base in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.
Most of the students were behind their computers in countries including the UK, the United States, Taiwan, Iceland, Finland, Switzerland, Greece and Hong Kong.
Speaking from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joked: "We are saving petrol and we are saving aircraft fuel, in doing this virtually - and it seems even to be working, which is great."
In a strange twist, though, the vice-chancellor congratulated the students and asked them questions as if he was talking to them live - but their responses had been pre-recorded during the week.
Afterwards the new graduates were encouraged to swap their thoughts online with their former classmates and class tutor, as part of a record of the ceremony which will be sent to them on CD-ROM.
Working together - apart
The award ceremony - appropriately, for students who had studied a masters course in distance education - is expected to be the first of a series as more and more courses are delivered through the internet.
Course director Professor Robin Mason said beforehand that a virtual graduation ceremony was "entirely appropriate for a programme in which students from all over the world have worked together online for three years and have never met face to face".
"Despite the technology, and yet because of the technology, many of the students have developed very close friendships with each other and with the tutors," she said.
In his acceptance speech, Tim Berners-Lee said the internet was still in its infancy.
"We have to determine where it will lead," he said. It was one more thing that the developed world owed to the developing world.
The spread of the web had been amazing because it had happened not by a management decision or United Nations decree, but "through the grass roots efforts of thousands of people of all different sorts, collaborating - across the internet - just because they shared that same twinkle in the eye," he said.
"The fact that it did work gives me huge hope, a faith that we can, when we realise what the next problem is ... by working together that we can solve it."
The streaming of the whole event on a private space on the web was done using technology developed by the university's Institute of Educational Technology.
Dr Fred Lockwood of the institute told BBC News Online that about a quarter of the 200,000 students were now doing all or part of their courses online.
"If you'd asked me 10 years ago I wouldn't have understood the question," he said. "Five years ago it would have been just a few.
"But the vice chancellor, Sir John Daniel, now says this is where the university is moving, so in two years it will be 60-70,000.
"The major use is through various 'electronic environments' to present information, photographs, images, charts, diagrams, illustrations... "
Much of the course material was still book-based, and "electronic page turning" was not what the net did best, he said.
"What it does do best is give you instant contact with others."
E-mails between a student and tutor were more personal than chat rooms or bulletin boards.
"A real power of the net is where we can direct them to other sources - so we don't have to produce masses of material."
Dr Lockwood is sceptical about the idea that video-conferencing is an ideal way to recreate in cyberspace a lecture room set-up.
"I'm not convinced it's using the technology to the best effect," he said. "Lectures can be inspirational, but in general video-conferencing isn't the best way forward."
He thinks the future lies in the ever-increasing power of information technology, especially mobile technology, to allow easier, quicker access to the OU's educational material.
In the United States, the internet has already been used to broadcast graduation ceremonies.
Tickets for graduations are often in great demand - and putting the ceremony on the internet has been a way of involving those unable to attend in person.
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