There's no doubt that the Internet has been a huge catalyst for the development of distance education. And it's perhaps not surprising that scientific disciplines that rely on computing power should be at the forefront of the new courses exploiting its potential. Birkbeck's "Advanced Certificate in Principles of Protein Structure - using the Internet" (PPS) is a case in point. Part of the University of London, Birkbeck aims to cater specifically to mature students, teaching undergraduate and higher degrees part time, usually through evening lectures. But as David Moss, professor of biomolecular structure in the School of Crystallography, who oversees the PPS course, explains, the impetus for moving to a distance education model came from the desire to "teach topics closely related to the research going on in the department."

It was necessary to increase the course's catchment area beyond London to attract a viable number of students. Nonetheless, back in the early '90s when the idea for the course was first mooted, the crystallographers took their cue from colleagues in the department of organisational psychology who were already running distance education courses--in the traditional way. "Then someone showed me the Web," says Moss. Suddenly the course's potential catchment area became the whole world!

The course was launched in 1995. In the subsequent 5 years, the subject material of the course has changed, as would be expected in a fast-moving scientific discipline, but the Birkbeck academics are a little surprised to find that "the way we're teaching hasn't changed." Moss explains that the limiting factor is bandwidth. Though there is more available now than 5 years ago, more people are using it so "we haven't changed the way we deliver the course, but we would if there was a big increase in the actual bandwidth to students' desks," he suggests.

The 1-year course usually attracts between 30 and 40 students and is open to people with a B.Sc. in computing, maths, or a science subject. Who are these people? Larry Taylor is a staff scientist at the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. An organic chemist by training, he became the institute's self-taught molecular modelling expert. But he was looking for something beyond self-teaching. "I wanted interaction with professionals in the field," he explains, and he had come across the PPS course because "I browse a lot." Sarah Lee works part time as a research assistant on the malaria genome project at the University of Oxford. She's had a varied career, which has included spells as a lecturer in a further education college and doing research in industry, but she's always wanted to do a postgraduate qualification. However, with three children and a husband who works away from home a lot, taking a conventional evening or day release course would have required serious schedule juggling. For her, a major benefit of studying this way has been "being able to sit at home and do it when I wanted to."

The flexibility over when to study, which is so important to students on distance education courses, means that tutors also have to be flexible. Clare Sansom has tutored on the PPS course since its second year and now works half-time for Birkbeck, tutoring and developing new material and courses. Despite having a mish mash of teaching, writing, and consultancy jobs that take her all over the world, she tries to check e-mail at least once a day in order to respond to students' queries. And having students all over the world means that distance teaching is definitely not a 9 to 5 job. Sansom can frequently be found in her pyjamas at 11 p.m. logged into her home computer and running a tutorial--or MUD session as they're known.

MUD (multi-user domain) technology was developed for computer gaming, but it now gives students and tutors the opportunity to get together in real time, Sansom explains. She runs two MUDs for each of the 12 sections of the course--one mid afternoon and one at 11 p.m. Originally timed then for the benefit of North American students, the late night session has become increasingly popular among Europeans, Sansom has noticed, as more people get access to computers at home. Transcripts of all the MUD sessions are kept and posted on the Web for the benefit of those who simply can't make it. "You cannot do distance learning on a 'you absolutely have to be in this place at this time' basis," points out Sansom. In fact, the only thing about the course that is fixed is the exam--and even that is not compulsory. The course is popular with older scientists who simply want to refresh their memory or who are perhaps changing fields, she explains, and to them a qualification is not so essential.

Taylor is one of those in the happy situation of not needing another qualification, but admits that he felt that he would probably "get more out of the course if I force myself to take the exam." The decision to take the exam did throw up an interesting cultural difference for the American, however. "I had kind of assumed that the exam was going to be 200 multiple-guess questions," he says, rather than the essay style exam that is more usual for British courses. "That changes the way you study," he explains, and he was also unsure exactly how an exam of this type would be marked. Nonetheless, he was pleased with the level of support he received in preparing for the test. The other culture clash was being told that he had a fortnight to prepare his first assignment--he had to ask one of the British postdocs in his department to find out that meant 2 weeks!

For Lee, an unexpected spin-off has been his becoming far more computer literate as a result of studying using the Internet. She "could work Word documents," but that was about it. Now she's merrily preparing her final project, which has to be submitted in the form of Web pages. Even Web-fiend Taylor says he has been "forced to learn" html, something he "had been putting off." Lee feels that at times she's struggled because "my computer is really quite old." This means it takes a long time to download much of the information, and participating in the MUDs is quite slow. Nonetheless she has managed, and Moss confirms that "the equipment spec required is quite low." This is a deliberate policy to keep the course as accessible as possible, and they would like to attract more students from developing countries, although they have to charge a fee which "though modest is still too high" for many in Africa or India. Over 40 central European students have taken the course, however, thanks in large part to support by the Open Society Institute.

Lack of direct contact with other students is something that Lee has felt. Despite the MUDs and the opportunity to send letters to an e-mail list, she feels that sometimes there's just no substitute for speaking to other people. This isolation means that "you must have reasonable motivation to do it in the first place," she believes, otherwise it would be all too easy to drop out. Far from dropping out, though, she intends to carry on studying with Birkbeck and take a new course in "Techniques in Structural Molecular Biology," the development of which is currently occupying a significant proportion of Sansom's time, and which will be run for the first time in the 2001-02 academic year. Taken together, the two courses will fulfil Lee's long-standing ambition to get an M.Sc.--and she'll have done it entirely using the Internet.