Already have your first degree, but still thirsty for knowledge? Working full-time but realise that there are fields within science you'd like to explore further? One way to meet your personal goals is to enroll in a distance education program at an open university. But the Internet age has led to another attractive option, especially for those who love computers: electronic, or E-learning. While the idea of distance education is long established, in Germany as well as in other countries, new multimedia tools have created new opportunities for those who wish to acquire further qualifications.
Recognizing this trend, the Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion ( BLK) launched Germany's first comprehensive Web site on E-learning opportunities in July 2000. This Web site, available in both German ( www.studieren-im-netz.de) and English ( http://www.e-studying-in-germany.de), offers an overview of all online courses and programs currently offered by Germany's institutions of higher education. Using a search engine, users can browse the 1500-plus courses and programs listed in the database.
So what can you study? Most choice is available for courses in computer engineering and mathematics. Natural sciences are second, followed closely by engineering. The offers range from online seminars and internet lectures to Net-based teaching and learning systems, tutorials and exercises in the virtual laboratory, right through to full multimedia courses of study, which you can complete and graduate from via the Internet. In the natural sciences, courses range from volcanology to 'physics for medical students'. To ensure that users always find the latest information, universities can continuously update their offers themselves and therefore have the responsibility for accuracy.
Besides serving interested scientists (or scientists-to-be), studieren-im-netz.de can also be regarded as a helpful tool for German universities and research institutions: "From now on, online offers from German universities are more easily accessible for an international audience", said German research minister Edelgard Bulmahn at the launch of the site. "German universities should use www.e-studying-in-germany.de as a marketing instrument in order to present their online offers to the international education market." Since users from roughly 50 different countries have visited the site frequently during its first year, it seems to be successful in meeting this goal.
Will E-learning lead to a revolution in higher education? It seems unlikely. So far only a handful of full programs have been established in Germany, and most courses offered can really only be regarded as supplementary to existing programs where students have to physically show up. Especially in the natural sciences, E-learning faces more complicated challenges than disciplines like social sciences: physical presence in a lab with on hands-experience can hardly be replaced by online courses with videoconferences from a remote laboratory. In a recent survey, students said that they also prefer personal contact with lecturers over studying at home.
Those in university administration who think that offering online programs will be a cheap alternative to regular programs have also been proved wrong. The Wissenschaftsrat, Germany's scientific advisory council, estimated the costs of linking all German universities to a single network at DM 1.5 billion to 3 billion. Other studies estimate the annual costs for a high-quality, fully online program at DM 3 million to 10 million. Also, students are highly critical about the quality of online seminars.
So E-learning may not be a panacea for over-stretched university finances, but it certainly has potential for adding value to more conventional study programs. The University of Tübingen is currently running a project called Bioinform@tik, the goal of which is to include multimedia elements in its new bioinformatics program, where they are technically feasible and can also guarantee a high level of quality in teaching. The project will last for 2 1/2 years and will be evaluated during its running time. Other universities have also started to establish joint virtual campuses with online offers.
Overall, studieren-im-netz.de provides a helpful tool for those who wish to extend their qualifications to other fields or disciplines, or those who would like to study alongside their full-time job. The full-time virtual student, on the other hand, still seems to be an idealised vision, rather than reality, for the time being.